The Practice of Benchwashing

Noun

The practice of placing benches without any intention of people sitting on them, in order to deflect attention from unfriendly elements in the environment.

Origin

From bench, on the pattern of whitewashing.

Examples

‘Look at the bench by the 6-lane road. Total benchwashing’.

‘Instead of giving the street a road diet, they just added some benches along it. Nobody sits there, that’s benchwashing!’.

The Allure of Benchwashing

Creating people-friendly spaces can be difficult at times: it requires political will and a thoughtful design process. On the other hand, benches are relatively cheap and don’t take too much space. By placing benches in unattractive locations, politicians, planners and architects merely fill public spaces with unusable objects, while claiming to provide people friendly places.

The power of benchwashing lies in the fact that benches by themselves are not bad. They are rarely controversial, and eventually someone would sit on them. Benchwashing is therefore not simply the presence of benches, but the attempt to use them in order to distract attention from the fact that the surrounding space is dull or unfriendly to people.

Benchwashing in Tel Aviv, Israel. Picture by Lior Steinberg.

How to Avoid Benchwashing

It is important to remember that benches are in most instances used by people that just want to get rest, and the struggle against benchwashing does not mean that benches in boring places should not be placed. We need to avoid the use of benches as a cover to bad planning. A good indicator to benchwashing is the presence of way too many empty benches in a place.

In the planning phase of a project, whether you are a professional reviewing a renovation plan, or a citizen invited to a public meeting, try to imagine if you would ever want to sit on the proposed benches: are they facing something you actually want to look at, or a completely unattractive view? To paraphrase Jon Stewart’s final rant: the best defense against benchwashing is vigilance. So if you smell something - say something.


Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter.