Benches, stairs, sidewalks and the politics of urban comfort

Fernando Domínguez Rubio
Postdoctoral Marie-Curie Fellow, Dept. of Sociology, NYU & Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC)

“How would you improve comfort in the city?” This is one of the provocative questions posed by the BMW Guggenheim Lab. In its own words, the lab is:

“The BMW Guggenheim Lab is a mobile laboratory traveling to nine major cities worldwide over six years. Led by international, interdisciplinary teams of emerging talents in the areas of urbanism, architecture, art, design, science, technology, education, and sustainability, the Lab addresses issues of contemporary urban life through programs and public discourse. Its goal is the exploration of new ideas, experimentation, and ultimately the creation of forward-thinking solutions for city life”

For the first of these cycles, which began in New York back last August, the lab has been designed by the Japanese firm Atelier Bow-Bow, which transformed a derelict stretch of land between two old townhouses in the Bowery into a beautiful instance of what they call an urban ‘micro-public space’.

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The lab installed at Houston & 2nd Av.

Over the last three months, the lab has organized different talks, workshops, walks as well as other events around the theme of Confronting Comfort in urban life. The theme is particularly timely,as it captures a growing preoccupation among city planners, architects and social scientists about the need to rethink the material conditions of contemporary urban life after decades of intense and uncontrolled growth, increasingly precarious conditions of living, dwindling public spaces, and a spiralling environmental crisis.

The insufficiency of inherited modern models to deal with this contemporary urban crisis has revealed the urgent need to develop new vocabularies that re-imagine the way in which we think about we live in cities. The idea of ‘comfort’ seems to be strangely pertinent. I say ‘strangely’ since comfort, has usually been thought of as a rather innocuous concept, typically associated with the design of domestic material cultures and technologies, rather than to the planning of large urban environments. Yet, as the different projects developed in the Guggenheim lab have demonstrated comfort may also provide a useful way to think about cities, and more generally, about the ‘ergonomics of public and political life’. That is, about the various ways in which our bodies ‘fit’ in the material environments that we inhabit and about how this ‘fitting’ shapes the quality of public and political life.

The ergonomic dimension of public and political life is nowhere as evident as in contemporary urban environments. Although often in subtle and largely imperceptible ways, the urban fabric is constantly affecting our material and physical well-being as well as the ways in which we relate to each other.Take any random street near you, and you will find a myriad of mundane devices that, day in and out, are silently, but effectively, informing, constraining or allowing the ways in which you move, inhabit and relate in the city and its citizens. One just needs to think about the different types of public benches and the different kinds of being un/comfortably together (or alone) that they afford.

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Left: One example ‘Anti-sleep’ bench, increasingly popular to prevent homeless from sleeping in public spaces. Right: Another instance of an anti-sleep bunch, in this case “successfully” redesigned for sleep purposes.
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Left: Benches of the Highline Park in New York, designed as cocooned spaces. Right: Meeting bowlsin Times Square.

We can also think about sidewalks, and specifically about how their presence or absence, as well as their state and size can have deep effects in the quality of the public life of urban communities. Take, for example, the following two cases taken from letters to the editor section of the NYT:

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Some recent studies even claim that the size of sidewalks can ultimately be linked to what they call ‘intermittent explosive disorders’, a condition that you must surely experienced while walking on the swarming streets of your city in Christmas time, and which is typically expressed in the form of an uncontrollable anger towards that guy in front of you blocking your way with his/her irritating slow pace. But sidewalks not only affect our individual physical and psychological well-being, they also have effects on the the political life of the community, for example, by shaping the ways in which publics can be drawn together or separated:

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Above: Occupy Wall Street march in Times Square, where protesterswere forced to stay on sidewalk.

Or we can also think about stairs, and the insidious effects they have in shaping how we access, participate and circulate in the city.

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Above: A picture from this blog, where a NY mum talks about the hostility of the subway system. (I must say that I specially relate to this one, after developing a terrible backache only two months after we moved to NYC. Needless to say, we have now learned to use the subway sparingly and wisely, only going to the few stations equipped with and elevator, which has created a rather particular cartography of the city, one that does not have any negative effects on my back.

As the images above illustrate, benches, sidewalks or stairs are much more than just urban furniture; they are powerful political elements configuring a peculiar ergonomics of the city, one that enables different ways of being together or alone and which involves different forms of inclusion and exclusion. It is in this sense that talking about ‘urban comfort’ offers a way to talking about the quality of our public and political life. However, this has hardly been the case. Comfort has usually been considered a purely technical question, not a political one. The ultimate goal of ergonomics has been to comfort users, not citizens. Comfort, in other words, has been about coupling bodies with things to increase fit while preserving functionality, aesthetics and efficiency, rather than about how to couple bodies with environments to increase the quality of public and political life. The Guggengeim lab is, in this sense, a much-welcomed attempt to open up the discussion of ergonomics in urban life and about the need to see comfort, and the processes involved in generating or constraining it, as genuine political questions.

**The lab closed here in New York in Oct 16, but it will reopen in Berlin in the spring of 2012. From there, it will travel to Mumbai, where it will complete the first cycle of the project, which will culminate in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 2013. If you cannot make it to any of these locations, you can always follow their blog here

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