A Guide for Selecting a Park Bench


This research paper discusses orientation and organisation of public space that is based upon an economic landscape strategy. The paper is in the form of a guide since this format allows the author to speak directly to the reader and to focus upon the three most relevant spaces: the psychic realm, the space of direct experience and the space of the landscape. The guide relates to a park as it provides the reader with an imagined space to apply the ideas. The psychic realm is included since personal orientation has its origin in childhood and the basic human need for security. This orientation has been developed through the organisation of the space around us, that, in turn, has developed from the ‘absolute space’ of nature toward an urban, or abstract, space. The paper discusses not only how we orientate and organise space but also how it orientates and organises us.

1  Introduction

1.1  Welcome to this guide for selecting a park bench that aims to heighten your awareness of the issues that surround this relatively simple task. This guide will assist in achieving a greater understanding and, hence, a fuller appreciation in your selection of bench and its location by relating to you the space it occupies and the spaces beyond. Once you sit comfortably you will be able to relate the panoramic to the personal and vice versa as you enjoy your view from the bench.

1.2  The guidance provided is topographical in structure. Each space; psychic, local and landscape, has been approached as being enclosed in an unbroken boundary line. Structuring the overall narrative in this way makes this guide simpler to comprehend, although with this structure I have separated spaces that are inseparably connected. A topological structure, discussing how the spaces are interlinked, is used in the concluding remarks.

1.3  This guide can be applied at its best if your park is located in an urban context with the bench located on higher ground. This guide does not apply to benches positioned in the high street, in large buildings, or public transport interchanges since there is not the scope to directly discuss the related political and securitisation issues concerned.1

1.4  In accordance with the Equality and Diversity Act 2010 this guide applies to persons of differing age, disability and impairment, race, gender and sexuality.2 Therefore, you should apply it according to your individual circumstances. Note that individual circumstances also cause variations in human perception.

2  Your Psychic Realm

2.1  ‘Man is the world and only in the world does he know himself’, Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception.3 So let’s start with you. All that you think extends from your lived experience of inhabiting your body that contains your entire personal history. This lived experience will affect your psychogeographic reading of your chosen park and contributes to your unique perspective of the present environment. 4 This perspective can be referred to as your orientation.

2.2  Your orientation will be toward certain objects, places, landmarks and other familiar signs that you will recognise, or think that you recognise, and will also be distorted by how you are presently feeling. If you are visiting a park for the first time it may be likely that you find your way to a suitable bench using your familiarity with the social norms involved in the arrangement and organisation of public spaces. Note that your orientation and apprehension toward objects will also be dependent on your basic human need for personal place and security. Therefore, it is normal that you may find yourself returning to the same park and park bench in order to feel at home and in command. Your orientation at this point will be facing two directions; a direction toward a space that has been experienced and toward a place that has not been experienced.5

2.3  You can also orientate yourself using the park map, usually located at the park’s entrance.

3  Your Locale

3.1  From Absolute Space to Abstract Space

3.11  When you have chosen your park and are choosing a particular bench it is advisable that you select one that is not occupied by another individual in order to pay full attention to both your immediate environment, the site of experience, and the view afforded. With reference to your immediate environment you may wish to consider the flâneur’s 6 basic experience of the ‘colportage phenomenon of space’.7

According to Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who was interested in the act of uncovering layers of meaning in the city, this phenomenon accords that everything that has taken place in a single environment is perceived simultaneously. ‘The space winks at the flâneur, “what do you think may have gone on here”?’8

3.12  To answer the question you may wish to consider the development from absolute to abstract space. As discussed by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space, absolute space existed as fragments of nature in a time when people were intimately bound up with that space. It has been appropriated by the operations that ‘orientate it, situate it, temporalise it and make it function […]’,9 and has resulted in a space where people have become abstracted from their relationship with nature.10 According to Doreen Massey, ‘Space itself is the ‘product of interrelations, as constituted through interactions, from the global to the intimate’.11

3.13  Yi-Fu Tuan regards one of the fundamental principles, of this spatial appropriation of absolute space to the abstract, as the ‘relations, whether close or distant, between human beings […] Man, out of his intimate experience with his body and with other people, organises space so that it conforms with and caters to his biological needs and social relations’.12 Lefebvre proposes that this organisation of absolute space is ‘through displacement outwards from the centre, the body of the thinking and acting subject’, and ‘replaced by a ‘social object’ such as the chief’s hut, a pole and later, a temple or church’.13 These social objects have since evolved to encompass banks and public institutions as well as those smaller objects that displace the activity of human action such as rubbish bins, lampposts and signage.

3.14  It is advisable to consider how each social object in your locale has contributed to the abstraction of space and its role on behalf of the individual. Do these social objects function on a scale that is human, local or are the connected to a space beyond the park? What are the operations, activities and resultant boundaries associated to their functions? Michel de Certeau recognises the relation of boundary and space when he writes, ‘There is no spatiality that is not organised by the determination of its frontiers. This organisation of space applies to all spaces whether natural or manmade’.14

3.15  Once you have navigated your surroundings you should be able to determine how each social object contributes to the abstraction and the functioning of the space it contains and contains it.

3.2  As Evidenced from Trace

3.21  To gain a fuller appreciation of the bench and its connection to the park and beyond will involve looking into the temporal aspects of that space. Therefore, you will need to take a closer look at those traces left behind as a substitute for the social objects or the functions they performed. Alternatively, you can look for traces that have an effect of making invisible the activity that made it possible.15 Walking, for example, can be traced by desire lines; lines of footfall worn into the ground that have become tracks of use.16 These are also traces of our organisation and orientation of public space, from the absolute to the abstract. Benjamin defines a trace as ‘the appearance of a nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be […]17 By interpreting traces you may be able to determine the historical trajectory of the locale. Looking closer to the object as hand, what traces reveal and relate to the bench? Has it been used, for example, as a place to sleep, to lunch, or has it been appropriated for more unusual uses?

3.22  Paul Shepherd comments that the ‘appearance of a nearness’ is revealed when ‘archaeology is in process of digging down to expose past in the present […] there is no past or future, only the present […] It all exists with us, in the present, now.’18 This appearance of ‘a nearness’ as an image existing with us in the present is poetically explained by Benjamin when he describes the past casting its life on the present as ‘[…] what has been come together in a flash with the now to form a constellation’.19

3.23  After you have considered the above you should approach a bench where you can appreciate a fuller understanding of your immediate environment in terms of its temporality. Please note that as you approach your selected bench it may evoke in you an awareness of your body. This may be due to the bench possessing the presence of another person; a presence most likely generated by those human traces it reveals, its material individuality, design, age and the way its functions. This bodily evocation is likely to be at its strongest if the bench is endowed with a memorial plaque.

3.24  When you have entered each other’s boundaries and mutual occupation is confirmed (i.e. you have sat down) note that although the bench may occupy, conquer or incorporate its surrounding space it is you that commands the bench’s space through intention.

4 Your View

4.1  Now you are sitting comfortably you will be able to enjoy the wider view. Your view, and by indication this refers to the urban landscape located within a wider natural landscape, will most likely demonstrate a strategy of economic exploitation culminating from a nineteenth-century landscape strategy of industrial exploitation.20 The buildings before you, although public and private in ownership and function, operate as the modern version of the chief’s hut and have been organised to carry out the current strategy. As Lefebrve says:

Thus social space emerged from the earth and evolved […] until an abstract space was constructed, a geometric, visual and phallic space that went beyond spatiality […] the medium of the state, of power and its strategies.21

4.2  Whereas the strategy is the motivation, there is the need for tactics and the positioning of parts for its implementation. In fact, the organisation of this strategy is the prerequisite of all architectural action and it is within these buildings that its operations are carried out.22 Please note that these operations exist not only in the view ahead but that you, your bench and the park all operate within this strategy.

4.3  In the organisation of our environment one of its operations is to remove all evidence and trace of societal failure. Historically, these social objects would include asylums and work mills and more recently, landfills. Those facets that are eventually preserved are integrated into the present and pretend to be authentic.

4.4  The sense of relaxation that you may be experiencing at present may be related to your view of your town or city set within its framework of the traditional experience of nature; 23 the framework of absolute space.

5  Concluding Remarks

5.1 The organisation of space is relative to scale.24 Originally its organisation catered to our biological and social needs on a human scale and has since evolved to be orientated toward a global scale based on an economic strategy. Therefore, the existence of everything around you is connected to this economic strategy including any place that remains, or appears to remain, untouched. Each space and its associated scale is organised to fit together as a coherent whole to form an overall pattern or network.

5.2  Massey writes, ‘It is a sense of place, an understanding of its character, which can only be constructed by linking that place to places beyond’.25 These places extend in two directions, a direction toward the body and the psychic realm and a direction toward an increasing scales of the urban, the national and the global. All of these are linked as not individual entities but as a network or a continuum to which you belong. A greater understanding of your environment is created when linking objects to their spaces in this continuum in both directions. If you would like to achieve a fuller appreciation of the place where you are sat, it is advised that you relate the bench to the area outside your park and to the landscape beyond, perhaps it is related in terms of its manufacture or to the origin of its materials. Again, these spaces and their functions can relate back in decreasing scale to the bench and to you.

5.3  If you have understood this guide you will have achieved an understanding that your orientation is a product of your personal history and your relation to those social objects that situate it, temporalise it and make it function. This, and your personal organisation of space, is orientated to an environment beyond that orientates and organises us.

5.4 Please enjoy the view.

6  End Notes

1 Tom McDonough (ed.),The Situationists and the City (London: Verso, 2009), p. 75.

2 Stuart Reid, TRL Limited Pedestrian Environments: A Systematic Review Process, http://www.walk21.com/papers/Reid.pdf (accessed 18 December 2012), p. 1.

3 Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by Colin Smith (Paris: Gallimard, 945; repr 2002), p. xii.

4 Steve Pile. The Body and the City; Psychoanalysis; Space and Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 1996), p.11.

5 Sara Ahmed. Queer Phenomenolgy; Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), pp. 1 – 10.

6 Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project, ed. By Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 2002), pp. 416 – 465.

7 Walter Benjamin, p. 418.

8 Walter Benjamin, p. 419.

9 Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life (California: University of California Press, 1988), p. 117.

10 Henri Lefebvre. The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1991), pp. 48 – 49, 169 – 172.

11 Doreen Massey. For Space (London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2005), p. 9.

12 Yi-Fu Tuan. Space and Place; the Perspective of Experience. 7th edn. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 2011), p. 34.

13 Henri Lefebvre, p. 194.

14 Michael de Certeau, p. 123.

15 Michael de Certeau, p. 97.

16 Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. Edgelands; Jouneys into Englands True Wildernesses (London: Vintage, 2012), p. 23.

17 Walter Benjamin, p. 447.

18 Paul Shepherd. The Cultivated Wilderness; Or What is Landscape?(Cambridge MA: MIT Press 1997), p.31.

19 Walter Benjamin, p. 462.

20 Paul Shepherd. The Cultivated Wilderness; Or What is Landscape? (Cambridge MA: MIT Press 1997), p. 9.

21 Henri Lefebvre, p. 377.

22 Paul Shepherd. What is Architecture? An Essay on Landscapes, Buildings and Machines (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1994), p. 114.

23 Walter Benjamin, p. 447.

24 Andrew Herod. Scale (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), p.252.

25 Doreen Massey. ‘A Global Sense of Place’ (1991), ed. by Claire Doherty, [excerpt] in Situation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press & London: Whitechapel, 2009), p. 182.

7  Bibliography

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenolgy; Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, ed. By Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin, McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 2002)

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life (California: University of California Press, 1988)

Doherty, Claire. ed., Situation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press & London: Whitechapel, 2009)

Farley, Paul, and Symmons Roberts, Michael. Edgelands; Jouneys into Englands True Wildernesses (London: Vintage, 2012)

Herod, Andrew. Scale (Oxon: Routledge, 2011)

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, trans by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1991)

Massey, D. For Space (London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2005)

McDonough, Tom, ed. The Situationists and the City (London: Verso, 2009)

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by Colin Smith (Paris: Gallimard, 945; repr 2002)

Pile, Steve. The Body and the City; Psychoanalysis; Space and Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 1996)

Reid, Stuart. TRL Limited Pedestrian Environments: A Systematic Review Process – Paper, http://www.walk21.com/papers/Reid.pdf (accessed 18 December 2012)

Shepherd, Paul. The Cultivated Wilderness; Or What is Landscape? (Cambridge MA: MIT Press 1997)

——. What is Architecture? An Essay on Landscapes, Buildings and Machines (Cambridge MA: MIT Press,1994)

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place; the Perspective of Experience. 7th edn. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 2011)