benches

Benches are made so that they can host relationships: between one human and another, between humans and their surroundings or other creatures – winged or four-legged. Some people open personal discussions while sitting on benches, others feed the pigeons or read a book or “simply” watch life unfolding in front of their eyes.

Benches exist in order to host the multiple relations of humans to this world. The concept of a bench for one is unthinkable (we would then call it a chair), but there are plenty of benches hosting one person at a time.

Benches belong to the shade of trees, especially in summer during the hottest hours of the day. This is how they bridge the built and the unbuilt world.

Benches connect public to private, inviting the political aspects of life to reveal themselves in a thousand possible ways. They are claimed equally by young and old, locals and foreigners, strangers and friends. Some are installed by the municipality or the community, others are self-improvised constructions, the living expressions of both neighbourhood demands and claims or wider – symbolic or not – networks of relationships.

Benches play a significant role in mental health prevention. According to the University of Sheffield, they support social interaction between users and especially in areas where the population may have limited access to financial resources and hence other public spaces (Bynon and Rishbeth, 2015). Benches allow for a sense of belonging to emerge, since their very own existence serves as an invitation to co-existence. They host random encounters, offer visibility, form practices of self-care (Rishbeth and Rogaly, 2017), transfer engraved messages through time from one generation to another, but also to people from different origins (especially when it comes to social class and ethnicity). They also represent democratic practices as they facilitate interactions between people and hence dialogue – with words, glances, movements or simply through the embodied presence within space (Bynon, 2016). If you live in Athens, you may still remember the benches of the “little parliament” (mikri vouli) in Zappeion.

Benches promote mental health merely through existence. In some cases they provide the space for self-reflection, in other cases they become the epicentre of psychosocial or mental health interventions. For instance:

In Scotland, the Breathing Space programme offers the possibility of informal counselling and support to anyone who may need it during afternoons and weekends. This programme (and its benches) operates as a complementary action to help-lines for psychological support. Counselling is being offered by social workers, psychotherapists and mental health counsellors that work for different organisations.

In Zimbabwe, the Friendship Benches programme or else known as chigaro chekupanamazano in Shona (“a bench to sit and discuss in order to exchange ideas”) has been implemented for the past 25 years, having trained women-members of the different communities in order to be able to offer counselling to persons who may suffer from light or moderate depression or who otherwise “think too much” (kufungisisa). The women’s training takes place in the context of the cognitive-behavioural methodology and is solution-based. It forms a collaborative therapeutic intervention (Abas et al, 2016), where individual sessions are complemented by peer-led groups, known as kubatana tose (holding hands together”).

Finally,Climate Listening Benches in Cambridge, having been inspired by the Friendship Benches of Zimbabwe, offer on a periodic basis the possibility of conversation with a focus on the anxiety caused by climate crisis. The action is supported by trained psychotherapists.

Benches host significant moments of our personal and collective lives. And at this point, perhaps it would make sense to remember a moment – difficult, beautiful or simply unexpected – that took place while sitting on a bench. Were there other people sitting next to you? Human or non-human? What was around the bench? What did you hear while sitting, what kind of smells did you “register”, what kind of colours? If you wrote a letter to this bench, regarding the role it played in your life, what would you write to it? Think about it for a while…

More information on benches to be found here:

Sources:

  • Abas, M., Bowers, T., Manda, E., Cooper, S., Machando, D., Verhey, R., Lamech, N., Araya, R. and Chibanda, D. (2016). ‘Opening up the mind’: problem solving therapy delivered by female lay health workers to improve access to evidence based care for depression and other common mental disorders through the Friendship Bench Project in Zimbabwe. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 10(39), pp 1-8.
  • Bynon, R. (2016). The democratic value of benches. The Bench Project Blog. Πηγή: http://the-bench-project.weebly.com/blog/the-democratic-value-of-benches – πρόσβαση στις 25/01/2024.
  • Bynon, R. and Rishbeth, C. (2015). Benches for everyone – solitude in public, sociability for free. The Young Foundation, Sheffield:UK.
  • Rishbeth, C. and Rogaly, B. (2017). Sitting outside: Conviviality, self-care and the design of benches in urban public space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 43(2), pp 284-298.

Please note: the photograph has been made by the Ukrainian photographers Eugene Kotenko. You will find more here: https://petapixel.com/2012/11/01/photographer-documents-four-years-in-the-life-of-a-park-bench/