This past spring I set out on a walk to observe all the churches in my neighborhood. I knew there were quite a few, but wow! There are over 30 places of worship within a 1-mile radius of my house. Turns out, religious institutions might constitute the majority of landowners in my neighborhood. My goal was to explore if and how churches were inviting any kind of public seating on their properties. I was pleased to discover many of them did have some form of sit-able space, though the quality varied greatly. For reference, I live in a very walkable neighborhood. Nearly all of the churches pictured here are located along a major pedestrian and bicycle route, which means there is plenty of opportunity for making some engaging public spaces.
In a nutshell, here is what I found:
The Not-So-Good (& Non-Existent) Seats
- This park bench is placed in the side alley, not particularly visible or inviting to the general public. Maybe that’s the point? Also, it is situated in a very shaded area, which is a true hindrance to sitting for any length of time in a climate like Minnesota.
- One look at this bench and Eric Carmen’s 1975 power ballad All By Myself begins playing in my head. If only they had put in more than one! I think there’s definitely enough space for a few more. The victim of budget cuts?
- Here we have a lonely bench next to the waste bin on the far end of the parking lot. What more is there to say?
- This hurts my heart the most. A vast expanse of lawn with so much unrealized opportunity. The mostly blank front façade of the building only exacerbates my pain.
The Better Seats
- This church property has an interesting architectural threshold set right at the sidewalk that houses a couple of benches facing each other.
- A bricked path with numerous benches along it, plus a fountain and circular sit-wall provide ample options for seating outside this church. This continuum of sit-able spaces nicely follows Christopher Alexander’s (A Pattern Language) gradient of intimacy by enabling people to choose from varying degrees of privacy.
- The low sit-wall running the side length of this church provides seating while also delineating private and public space, which can be important for making the passerby feel free to sit and not worry about “trespassing.” Christopher Alexander asserts that this type of feature functions as a seam to make a positive connection between two places.
- This church is definitely employing some PPS Power of Ten ideas by including a garden (not quite sprung…this was March in Minnesota!), a Little Free Library, and some seating on the arc of the garden path.
Many folks have already argued the value of good, sit-able places in our communities (Chuck Wolfe, Gracen Johnson, etc.), so I won’t spend time making that case here. However, I will assert three reasons that I believe churches in particular have a calling to be good seat developers.
First, the culmination of the creation story in the bible is rest, exemplifying that part of God’s character and call to take a break from work, enjoy the fruits of our labors, and enjoy others. In short, rest is good for us, individually and communally, and a good seat is critical to rest. In our on-the-go society, churches have the opportunity to fight the trend of busyness and invite people to experience rest and relationships by simply creating space on their properties for this.
Second, a place to sit provides an opportunity for meeting our neighbors and the stranger. This is a vital component to actually loving our neighbors. When Zechariah prophesies to the Jews returning to Jerusalem, he notes that their restoration and redemption will involve sitting with neighbors. He writes, “In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” (3:10) How can churches invite neighbors to sit under fig trees? What if instead of mingling in the church foyer over coffee and cookies, folks mingled outside on benches in gardens? When was the last time you held your church potluck on the front lawn and invited the neighborhood to join? I do not doubt that this activity would bring some relational life to the neighborhood, but you need some thoughtfully-designed sitting space to encourage it.
Third, sitting is shown as a place of dignity in the Bible. For example, in the book of Proverbs, we find wisdom sitting at the city gates. Here she is given a place of honor and very publicly encountered by all who pass by, whether or not they choose to heed her. Likewise, when Zechariah prophesies about the rebuilding of Jerusalem, he writes, “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” (8:4-5) This is a glorious picture. As respected members of society, the elderly are given a place to sit in the streets. Dare we let our elderly sit in the streets today? Likely not, but there is opportunity to change the tide and bring back the dignity of sitting outside. Simply make space for it and start doing it.
Putting in some seating is not a panacea for making better communities, but it is a step in the right direction. It is a way to invite others to rest, to participation, to value neighbors and strangers. And it all can start with something as simple as a bench. Come spring when you begin your outdoor seating installation (as I am hoping you will do), here are some key things to consider:
- Make the space highly visible and easily accessible
- Provide flexible seating choices – moveable chairs, a mix of group and individual seating options
- Place sitting areas where there is exposure to sun in cooler climates or under the shelter of trees in warmer climates
- Where possible, locate seating areas facing pedestrian activity; people like to observe other people.
- Give people multiple reasons to stop and occupy the space – include art, gardens, interactive games, a drinking fountain, etc.
- SIT IN THE SPACE
(All images by the author unless otherwise indicated)