Not long ago, Calgarians noticed homemade benches popping up in their neighbourhoods—random, beautiful benches made by anonymous people to make our city that much better. The Bench Project (@BenchProjectYYC) is an amazing example of how a little idea can capture the imagination of thousands of people. In recent days, the project by a mysterious trio has been profiled in the media and even CBC Calgary is adopting it as a Do Crew project (you can volunteer with them to make a bunch of benches).
This is a great example of 3 Things for Calgary and a project that can inspire us all to do something to make our community better. We contacted the anonymous bench-builders to ask some more questions about their project, what it means for Calgary, and what’s next.
Q: What inspired you to create The Bench Project? And when did you decide to just do it (and make it more than just a good idea)?
We have been inspired by many projects and organizations including a movement in New York, documented by streetseats.org, where individuals and businesses have independently (and spontaneously!) added benches and chairs to the streets to provide more public seating. We love this sort of “tactical urbanism” – people taking it upon themselves to act and feel empowered to transform their public space; graciously providing a need for others without receiving anything in return. We wished that this was happening in Calgary and figured the best way to see it was to start it ourselves.
Our passion about cities and public space also inspired this project. We believe a quality urban realm that provides space for people to linger and connect with each other and their surroundings is integral to a healthy and happy city. Instead of petitioning our councillor or the City to provide this space, we saw bench bombing as a quick and easy way to get more seats on the streets.
We decided to take action while we were working on a separate public space project through more traditional means. This project required many connections, approvals and time, but we were so driven and excited to add to the urban realm that one day we just headed to the hardware store!
Q: The Bench Project has struck a chord with Calgarians (and people further afield). Why do you think that is?
The anonymity of the project was one reason why the public and media have reacted so favorably to The Bench Project. We decided to go this route because it de-emphasizes who is doing it, and places the focus squarely on what it is – an intervention by everyday citizens to improve the urban experience and hopefully increase social connectivity within our neighbourhoods. We appreciate the incredible response from Calgary and beyond, but the point is we want to show that good deeds still feel good (so good!) even when you don’t directly receive any thanks.
The idea is simple, and that can inspire Calgarians to conduct projects of their own. There is no need for specific skills; it just requires thinking about how action can brighten the day of a stranger. This makes it universal, and we hope that others can find their own personal and unique ways of doing the same. For a couple dollars a business can leave a pitcher of lemonade outside the store for passers-by, citizens can be ‘snow angels’ and shovel their neighbours walk: you don’t have to spend much money (or any!) to make our city a better place.
Lastly, cities can be big and disconnected places. Calgary has a small town mentality, and we wanted to highlight this. The Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative maintains that “our neighbours strength is my strength”, and we believe that a sense of pride is contagious.
Q: In the interests of inspiring others to take action in support of making Calgary even better:
What was/is easy about your project?
Doing it! We had a fun time creating the benches, and the act itself was an exercise in community building – so many friends chipped in during the design, construction, and bombing phases. We are not woodworking experts by any means and ultimately learned much of what it took to finish the project simply through doing it. Anyone and everyone can do the same.
What was/is challenging?
The builds take a number of steps (cutting, two coats of paint, stencilling, and top coating), and without a garage, we found ourselves taking up the front lawn for extended periods of time.
The placement required some thought: we focused on busy streets that do not have a lot of public space so we could help create a more inviting and accessible environment. We also wanted to tip our hats to some neat local businesses, while finding spaces that would be natural points for rest without disrupting pedestrian flow. Our favourite results so far have been in front of Kalamata Grocery, where the owner regularly his morning coffee on the bench while reading the paper. The Hemporium is another great spot, as it is on the north side of 17th (more sun) and protected from the rain and snow by an awning.
If you had to start again at the beginning of your project, would you do anything differently?
Given the anonymous nature of the project, we were initially unconcerned with actively promoting the project. It is nice to see things grow organically, but there is always opportunity to create the conditions for that growth. For our next project we may connect with stakeholders to ensure greater buy in, and hope that this increased ownership would result in connecting with a broader audience more quickly.
Q: What’s your advice for people who might want to do a similar project for Calgary? (kinda the same question but maybe not)
DO IT. It doesn’t matter if your idea is perfect, just start, and tweak it as you go. A completed C+ project is better than an A that never sees the light of day. There is a lot of value in learning from your mistakes, so get started, fail small, and go bigger once you know what works. If you still need encouragement to just get started, watch Jason Roberts’ talk on how to build a better block.
Q: Have you had enough of benches yet? What’s next?
The benches are one path to creating a more meaningful and inviting public realm – though we are not done with benches, we are constantly thinking of other ways to create site-specific interventions to improve our urban experience. We have been fascinated by the concept of “urban acupuncture” whereby small-scale interventions performed in carefully chosen spaces can influence a much larger context, or the urban fabric as a whole.
We are in the conceptual phase of converting an underutilized piece of land on a very busy street into a pocket park. There are many lost spaces in any city; the trick is to identify these gaps, find ways that they could be better used, and get to work. Don’t be scared by an idea that may not last forever – ContainR in Sunnyside is a great example of this. If enough people are working to fill the gaps that emerge from temporarily vacant land and commercial space, we will build a city with moments of delight where dead space once was.
Most importantly, “what’s next” is up to us all as citizens. We hope that The Bench Project has encouraged other Calgarians to collectively view public space as our extended living room, and to treat it with the appreciation and affection that leads to a more vibrant and connected city… a place to call home.