why the “sit-able city” is the next big idea

At TEDCity2.0 in New York City the week before last, urban redefinition, reinvention, and reimagination ruled. Among the presentations:  that urbanist stand-by, the most walkable cities in the world.

Mind you, I don’t want to upset the gurus and nabobs of urbanism.  But I’m just back from southern France and Corsica, with contrasting images galore and a new point of view.

Simply stated. walkable is good, but sit-able is better.  And it’s time for the next big focal point and idea, The Sit-able City.

Sit-ableCity_ChuckWolfe 001

Why would this shift lead to an enhanced understanding of place?

The sit-able realm is a place of human universals, broader than the walking that transports us there or passes through. And the sit-able is about far more than street furniture and sidewalk dining, pop-up urbanism, and Parking Day.

Rather, sit-able places are key, interdisciplinary focal points where the delight of “placemaking” and cultural traditions of “watching the world go by” merge with the sometimes conflicting domains of law and politics, economic development, public safety, gentrification and the homeless.

Frequently, the public dialogue debates who sits where and why.

In my city, the Seattle Mayoral race has focused on perceptions of center city safety and approaches to enhance public confidence downtown.  And across Washington State, the Spokane City Council has joined cities wrestling with the Constitutional aspects (in the United States, at least) of “sit and lie” ordinances and associated government efforts to enforce civility in the public realm.

Sit-ableCity_ChuckWolfe 003

I know.  A new focus on the “sit-able” spaces in the public realm sounds more like cultivating couch potatoes than great cities.

But consider the purposeful, contemporary images shown here.  Sitting to rest, converse, beg and sell is what people have always done, and it captures a significant part of urban life.  Sitting with style, grace, safety, and reflection is a major element of “place capital”—an increasing buzzword for urban success.

In summary, a greater focus on the sit-able invites rich discussion and ready illustration based on human tradition.  The sit-able is where those walking home meet the homeless.  It embraces parks and park users, places to read, and those benches where we offer a place to rest to someone who has a better reason to sit down than you or me.

A focus on “sit-abilty” could be a game-changer and encourage a richer conversation about why, ironically, we sometimes have second thoughts about a rest stop in the reinvented, walkable cities of today.

Sit-ableCity_ChuckWolfe 005

Images composed by the author in 2011 and 2013 in France (Bargemon, Provence and Bastia, Corsica) and Italy (Florence, Tuscany, and Gallipoli, Puglia). Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2013 myurbanistAll Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effortan e-book from Island Press.

19 thoughts on “why the “sit-able city” is the next big idea

  1. Joe Sandmann

    Great article – I recently returned from the south of France, and the sit-ability is perhaps what I most enjoyed. It is expected to be able to take a seat whenever you want and enjoy a beer or coffee while watching the rest of the world walk about. But isn’t this also part of the problem in the US? I think it is a mindset thing – people are always in such a hurry, and sitting down to people watch for two hours is “a waste of time.”

    I will always agree that innovative, interactive public seating and place-making will remain a huge asset to the urban environment. I hope that the general mind set on sit-ability will change, just as we saw walkability reclaim the limelight.

    I think that initiatives such as Mr. Phelps’s project will guide us in the right direction.

  2. Skyler Yost

    More than walkability, bikeability, or semi-private outdoor space, sitability is the heart of Jan Gehl arguments for urbanism that respects how people actually use public space. I highly recommend any of the legendary Dane’s books for more in depth discussion of the importance of quality seating (much of which might be as a secondary use).

  3. Of course. Mr. Gehl, Mr. Whyte, the observers such as Hiss and Stilgoe–many many more. There is nothing new in my thoughts above or in my book, Urbanism Without Effort. And that is the very point.

  4. Arthur Acheson

    Sitting is great and I now bring a folding table and two chairs with me on town and city centre visits – maybe also a few books to set on the table and browse from time to time. This is all very cheap and light to carry. I also bring a set of French Boules because it may be a little cool to just sit – some mild exercise warms me up. It is amazing how these change the state of the place and how they are conversation starters. These and thirty plus other techniques, inluding ringing a handbell for civic announcements, will be discussed in Belfast at a small Symposium on Civic Stewardship in Belfast on 21 November.

  5. Seattle and Portland, sibling rival at its best, are two cities in constant pursuit of bragging rights for who’s first, best and most livable. When it comes to public spaces and places to sit and enjoy, I’d have to begrudgingly acquiesce to Portland. Seattle builders seem to be working their darndest to eat every possible inch of sidewalk around a building. If that’s not enough they build structural bays and overhangs to co-op air space as well. Vancouver BC, is a great example of great city breathing space and places to sit.

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