Monday, October 16, 2006

Coventry Benches at Last!

The waiting is finally over! At long last, someone has installed benches along Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights!

A little background, in case you're not familiar with the area: Coventry Road, between Mayfield and Euclid Hts Blvd, is a walkable retail district in Cleveland Heights. It is home to a variety of restaurants (Tommy's, Pacific East, Jimmy Johns, Hunan on Coventry, Inn on Coventry), a bunch of bars (Paninis, etc.), a few clothing shops (notably American Apparel, which just moved in), Big Fun (one hell of a good toy/novelty store), as well as Coventry Elementary school and the Coventry branch of Cleveland Heights library (both at the top of the hill). Coventry is a rarity in the Cleveland area: a shopping district that gets pretty decent foot traffic and isn't completely dominated by national chains. Once upon a time (oh, say, 30 years ago) Coventry was a meeting-ground for counter-culture types. Check out Nights Owls on Coventry, if you want a decent fictional re-creation of that world.

Nevertheless, Coventry is certainly in a state of flux. Independent retailers aren't doing so hot these days; they're rapidly being replaced by national chain stores. While this is good news for property owners who lease their buildings to these operators, it sadly portends the every-progressing death of independent retail. The situation is especially grim on the north-east end of the stretch, where a number of storefronts sit empty:

But I'm getting off-track with all this talk of unoccupied prime rental space (!). One of Coventry's big problems (in my humble opinion) has been its lack of benches. You remember benches, right? They're long, rectangular objects that pedestrians sit on to rest, eat, enjoy the scenery, have conversations, and so on. You might think that Coventry, being a "walkable" district would have tons of benches. Alas, it does not (until now). I'm not quite sure why. I suspect it has something to do with discouraging homeless people from setting up shop in what is otherwise a middle-class shopping district. (For more information on concealing / erasing homelessness, see my earlier posts).

But now someone has finally installed benches! Yay! Now I have somewhere to sit and eat my sandwich, right?

Well, sort of right, sort of wrong.

See, the problem is that you can't just put in any kind of bench and have it work properly. Take a look at the new benches:

There are some serious designs flaws with these benches, including:

Placement: The benches are placed curbside facing towards the building facades. This means that bench occupants will only be able to watch the building directly in front of them. This limitation of visual range defeats one of the essential components of walkable districts: people watching. Traditionally, benches in a public area are placed so as to maximize the visual range afforded to occupants. In this case, the benches should be placed against the building facade facing out towards the street. That way, occupants could watch sidewalk traffic on both sides of the street, as well as the street traffic itself. Also, the presence of moving traffic behind the bench occupants will create a feeling of unease, as people generally are nervous when there is a lot of physical activity behind them.

Material: The benches are hard metal, rather than wood. Metal gets colder than wood in winter. Cleveland gets moderately harsh winters. Therefore, these benches will be unpleasant to sit on in cold weather.

High backs: The benches have high backs, which forces one's posture into an inconvenient position. Ouch!

Availability: The benches were placed mostly outside business that are unlikely to necessitate benches (empty storefronts, for instance). For comparison's sake, consider the picture below, in which two people used the wrought-iron railing as a make-shift bench since none was available:

What's going on in this picture? The two people in question are waiting outside a restaurant (Mint Cafe, yum!) to get a table. There is no bench there, so they improvise and use the railing. What does this pedestrian improvisation tell us? It tells us that in designing urban spaces we should examine how people spontaneously craft their own space. Citizens' unconscious remaking of the space around them shows us (as urban planners) the most efficient and usable techniques we should employ. The very fact that these new benches were completely unoccupied on an otherwise sunny Sunday afternoon tells me that they are fundamentally poorly designed. I'm certainly pleased that the merchants of Coventry decided to tackle the issue, but am disappointed that they should miss the mark by such a great degree.


Anonymous Tara said...

The benches kinda look like bike racks... maybe the merchants are hoping that the benches will be multipurpose(?).

10:34 PM  
Anonymous tw said...

That brings back memories. As a teenager in the mid-eighties, Coventry was my daily hangout. Back before the cement and parking garages and token trees, there was real grass, and real trees.I would sit outside on summer nights, playing guitar with a rag-tag group of vagabond players, some of whom went on to larger venues, some not. Winters were spent hunkering down in the back room of Arabica (when there was an Arabica there, and before they opened the wall to the ice cream joint next door). It was a culture more than a counter-culture. Preppies, hippies, punks, gypsies, everyone was welcome and became part of the fabric that was Coventry.

It didn't last. The trees we would lean against grew little fences around them. The cement plaza, which bore souvenirs of cracks and pox marks, was repaved, then torn out completely. The trees and grass gave way to raised concrete and 'no skating' signs.

Even so, I lived there for a year or two after high school, a huge one-bedroom right off the main strip. It was more of a neighborhood than I have known before or since.
I found photos of it when I moved not too long ago, buried in a box that was itself buried in the basement. It looks much smaller now.

So, in short, goo for the benches. Maybe another generation will claim Coventry as their own and give it new life.

1:23 PM  
Anonymous twieder said...

I heard the news today that John Bassette passed away last week. John was a fixture on Coventry, and he will be missed.
Wall of Cats

5:11 PM  

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