April 02 2014

The Couch as Unlikely Street Furniture: In Paris, France and Beyond

A bench in Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône, France

For this article we are bringing up an idea that is not exactly new, but still has potential for the comfort of our streets (and for the well-being of our rear-ends, which are ill-served by reinforced concrete benches). Let’s introduce the sofa into public spaces.

Sitting Down in Our Cities: Why So Much Hate?

Although creating seating in public spaces is a good thing, such pieces of furniture are often sorely lacking both comfort and conviviality. The search for materials resistant to bad weather, or the implementation of anti-homeless designs, often results in uncomfortable and unwelcoming furniture, even if the designs are highly elaborate. The welcoming character of the bench, where several people can sit down to rest and talk, is sometimes abandoned in favor of depressing and secluded street furniture.

The irrational fear of homeless individuals possibly squatting around seating areas is so great that public officials and planning authorities seem to forget one important thing: a city with public spaces void of rest spots is a city that is unwelcoming and distressing for all of its inhabitants, with no exceptions. Public spaces are not simply spaces for movement. They are also places where individuals stop, wait, rest, wander, reflect, talk, and meet. Restrictive street furniture will have no effect on these activities as long as people have the ingenuity to get around the difficulties. So, rather than unsuccessfully attempting to limit seating options, why not dare to do the opposite and make street furniture as abundant as it is comfortable?

The Street Sofa

The idea of placing sofas on streets won me over while I was at a neighborhood party where couches were placed on a street closed to traffic for the occasion. In addition to the couches being stormed by the crowd of lounging residents, a pregnant woman confided to me that she loved the idea of being able to sit down without exacerbating the back pain already caused by her pregnancy. Indeed, nothing matches the comfort of a sofa when compared to the hardness of a classic bench. Being able to sprawl out at one’s leisure as if you were in your own living room after a rough day is a true pleasure. The chance to enjoy the comfort of a couch while taking in the sights of our streets is an absolute luxury.

A couch at a bus stop in Paris, France

The sofa is a comfort must. Ikea demonstrated this with their surprise investments in bus stops here in Paris at the end of 2010. In this well-constructed marketing operation (a photo contest was organized around the short-lived promotion), Ikea was able to demonstrate that this simple piece of furniture carried with it a cozier and more welcoming atmosphere than any sophisticated lighting could offer.

Some bad-tempered critics will be tempted to retort that a sofa in the street has an overall negative effect, and that interior furniture has nothing to do with public space, at risk of making such areas resemble open landfills. However, it is this unusual juxtaposition that makes a street sofa charming – without taking into account that some seem to be capable of integrating themselves exceptionally well into their new environments. And moreover, you give a second life to your couch: environmentalists and onlookers, everyone is happy.

Let us end with a bit of do-it-yourself urbanism. Do you also want to relax in public space, but do not have the means to buy from Ikea? Two old mattresses, a bit of elbow grease, and the job is done. Gone are benches that kill your back, and hello to comfort and luxury.

Can traditional street furniture be comfortable, attractive, and practical, or can only experimental ideas satisfy demands for comfort?

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Marcus Khoury

Marcus Khoury is a recent graduate of the University of California Los Angeles, where he obtained a B.A. in French & Francophone Studies. Aside from his native Michigan, Marcus has lived in several states, in addition to France and Chile. Owing to his experiences with a variety of cultures, languages, and environments, he has always been keenly interested in how the exchange of ideas between different cities, regions, and countries helps to shape both physical and cultural landscapes. His linguistic background, in addition to his interest in the diversity of international urban environments and experiences, has led Marcus to fill the position of French Language Translator at The Grid, where he will be translating and presenting French language material involving environmental design.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 at 9:26 am and is filed under Community/Economic Development, Landscape Architecture, Marcus Khoury, Social/Demographics, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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