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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

Perspectives March 2015: Let’s Talk About Benches

Sara Merz, Director

Sara Merz, Director

We had two fantastic events earlier this month, both featuring Jay Walljasper, a writer and speaker from Minneapolis, and benches caught the attention of our elected officials and other community leaders, as well as and Dig In attendees.

A few highlights from Jay’s talks with common-sense keys to building community include:

  • give people a place to hang out
  • give people a comfortable place to walk
  • give people a place to sit
  • give people something to do

There were about a dozen key recommendations, and these were the ones he emphasized most.

One take-away was benches. The idea of installing benches to build community clearly struck both of our groups as one very tangible thing they could do.

benchHere is a picture I took, maybe 5 years ago, of a St. Paul, MN, street where a homeowner on Summit Ave. put a bench in front of their house, with a cardboard sign saying “This bench lives here. We bought it for neighbors and friends and fellow walkers and runners to relax on.” Summit Ave. is a beautiful east-west boulevard, and people use it for running and walking. It was one of the first “bike boulevards” St. Paul tried in the early 2000s, and it was the route I sometimes biked to work. Using the “gateway” into public spaces as a positive, rather than seeing it as a negative, is an interesting thought. Rather than worry that people linger, let’s shape the environment to increase the odds of positive social behaviors.

Jay also said “give people something to look at.” Something to look at is good for pedestrians because it’s interesting, and makes a space enjoyable and fun. It’s good for drivers because it slows them down and gets them out of autopilot – so it improves safety. I learned something new, too. David Engwich is an Australian who uses this idea to promote safe streets for all users (kids and anyone who is walking or biking, as well as people in cars). He uses “spectacle” to get peoples’ attention and get them to think differently, and will often set up a big colorful throne in a street.

He was talking about Complete Streets before Complete Streets was a thing. I heard him speak and was struck by how good he is at framing an issue so I thought about it differently. What I learned from Jay is that David Engwich is the originator of the walking school bus, which is now a common, mainstream recommendation and practice in Safe Routes to School best practices. We have a new school under construction in Wake County (Scotts Ridge Elementary), which has been designed as a walking school.  While it has not opened yet, there are already plans for walking school buses. It is fascinating to me that someone with such a bold and not mainstream way of making points is also the person who defined a really mainstream practice like the walking school bus, which is being used all over the country.

Thanks to Jay for coming and giving us great ideas and inspiration, and thanks to the 275 people who came to our events!

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