What to say and what to do about public benches? A brief guided reading…

In 1992, in Los Ángeles, a ‘revolt’ took place that ended up unleashing the ‘downtown fortress’ on urban space designers. Vázquez describes that

While windows were being broken throughout the old financial district, Bunker Hill lived up to its name…the security corps of the large banking towers were able to prevent any access to their expensive properties. Bulletproof access doors slid over the street-level entrances, automatic staircases/rollers stopped instantly and electronic locks blocked pedestrian passages. (2004, pp. 110-111)

Considering that the forces of law and order were not enough to guarantee security in the city, architects, urban planners and the police eventually gave in to the ‘ecology of fear’ (Davis, 1998) and tried to develop concerted strategies to prevent unwanted occupants. Among the various initiatives, we highlight the design of semi-cylindrical bus benches on which nobody could sleep.

Another example comes to us from Porto, when in April 2023 the local authority ordered the removal of the two existing public benches in Largo Alberto Pimentel, in the city centre. This measure triggered a debate about the importance of public benches as fundamental structures for exercising the right to the city (Lefebvre, 1968/2012), as opposed to the trend towards the privatization and commodification of spaces, particularly as a result of growing touristification (Correia Pinto, 2023). The Cities to Sit In project, a research project launched at the Laboratory of Planning and Public Policies (L3P) at the University of Aveiro, illustrates the increase in discussion and the relevance of developing research on this topic.

Based on these examples, we can ask: what to say and what to do with public benches?

Immediately, the articulation of saying and doing, in the same statement, allows us to think of the performativity of language, in the manner of Austin (1962), in other words, language in action. If saying is, in itself, an act, as long as the conditions that allow it to be successful are met, it is above all important to consider the effects of language, ultimately the perlocutionary effects, as put forward by the author. To this extent, urban design, understood as a practice of situated enunciation, is not exempt from a political vocation. It doesn’t just fulfil one function, in its most literal sense, through a given form and material. A public bench, to revisit the example we are interested in discussing here, is not just an object that aims, in different ways, to serve as a seat. It is, moreover, a material and semiotic resource, designed and used for a specific purpose, inhibiting or encouraging certain appropriation practices on the part of passers-by. Planted in the public space, it predisposes to a predictable reading, based on the history of the many benches that have already been seen, known or experienced. It also calls for the consideration of certain social codes that determine the rules of proxemics, the limits of desirable distancing between bodies, especially those of strangers, the recommended posture, as well as what to do while seated: contemplating the landscape, watching passers-by, waiting for the bus, chatting in the company of acquaintances or with those who share the same circumstance, feeding bread to the doves, waiting while children or grandchildren play in the neighbouring park, sunbathing… At the same time, there is a desire for some more or less subversive practices, such as sleeping (sitting or lying down, transforming the bench into an improvised bed), dating, snacking, doubling the bench as a seat and table, or even graffiti, taking the bench as a desirable open-air canvas, once it serves as a kind of common sheet of paper on which any anonymous person can write a message…

The theory of affordances, set out in The ecological approach to visual perception, by James J. Gibson (1979/1986), is at the origin of the concept of potential meaning that will be important to consider in this essay. In turn, this theory is articulated with the principles of gestalt psychology (Koffka, 1935): the meaning or value of things is perceived immediately, insofar as ‘things tell us what to do with them’ [and what they are] (for example, fruit tells us ‘eat me’, water tells us ‘drink me’, etc.). In a single expression, each object contains ‘a demand character’. So we could ask ourselves: what does the public bench say to us? ‘Sit here’, ‘Rest your body and your eyes’, ‘Take a break from your daily life’, ‘Aprpreciate the time passing by’… these are some of the possible interpretations.

Kurt Lewin (1936/1973) added the term valences (the characteristics of objects that invite or request a certain behaviour), referring to the ‘behavioural object’ which differs from the ‘geographical object’. In this sense, the value of a thing changes when the needs of the observer change. Unlike valence, however, affordance is invariant, it doesn’t change when the observer’s needs change; the observer may perceive or attend to the affordance or not, according to their needs, but the affordance remains in things, susceptible to being perceived. We may use a public bench to perform any acrobatic, but its potential meaning persists. It is also worth noting that perceiving an affordance doesn’t mean definitively classifying an object: for example, a stone can be used as a throwing weapon, a paperweight, a hammer, building material, raw material for a sculpture… Additionally, it is not necessary to classify and label things in order to perceive their affordance. What does social semiotics tell us about affordance?

In social semiotics, semiotic resources are signs, observable actions and objects that have been produced in the domain of communication and that have a semiotic potential [affordance] that consists of all past uses and all their potential uses, and the current semiotic potential consists of those past uses that are known and considered relevant by users based on their specific needs and interests. These uses take place in a social context, and this context may have rules or good practices that regulate how specific semiotic resources may be used, or leave users relatively free in their use of the resource (Van Leeuwen 2005, p. 4).

The concept of affordance is actually based on Halliday’s ‘potential meaning’: the difference is that the term ‘potential meaning’ focuses on meanings that have already been introduced into society, whether explicitly recognised or not, while ‘affordances’ also contain meanings that have not yet been recognised, which remain latent in the object, waiting to be discovered. It is also important to consider that semiotic affordances change over time, determining principles of regulation, but also opening up space for unexpected uses and creative freedom.

What are the meanings of public benches that have already been introduced and recognized (explicitly or not) by society? What are their latent meanings, those that are waiting to be discovered and may even change over time?

With the itinerary that follows, we will try to look at the many possibilities of meaning that public benches potentiate and actualize. However, we are certain that different experiences, uses and contexts will lead to other interpretations…

We therefore invite you to take the following tour, stimulated by the call Reading the signs of the city:


The perspective plays with the bench’s continuous slats. These allow air to circulate between outside and inside. But is there inside? Nature says yes, that the air infiltrates, settles in and makes the void its place of occupation.

(February 2023)

Vila do Conde Memory Centre Garden

de Santo Amaro 372, 4480-754, Vila do Conde


If they could move, we would bring in the vertical fence to make up the long piece. Or the other way round? Such mobility remains in the imagination – and in the composition! Benches with backrests? Some yes, others maybe not…

(April, 2023)

Rodovia Sports Park, 4715-318, Braga


The sense of smell is missing?! But the emptiness and uncertainty find other sensory supports! The sea, right next to the Lido Gardens, may be the inspiration for this and other benches-canvases.

(February, 2023)

Lido Gardens in Funchal

do Gorgulho 11, 9000-107, Funchal


Walking through the upper part of Tarragona – Catalonia – is like immersing yourself in the Roman Empire. And we don’t even imagine that on these steps there are companies and designers dedicated to creating comfort for walkers, bringing them creations added to this atmosphere/semiosphere. The brand is inserted into the scene, ‘benito’, and the piece is also baptised, Alea, setting the tone for the city.

(May, 2012)



Autumn has added an extra touch of charm to these pieces that become supports for posthumous messages. Who might Kathy be? The fixings, which hold the bench to the ground, what else are they fixing apart from that wooden structure?

(November, 2016)

Richmond Park, London


The two profiled benches gain pairs in the upper and lower rows and are overshadowed by the Victorian composition imposed on them. Their sides, which support the arms of the passers-by who use them, take on an extra glow when combined with the lampposts, even though they are unlit by daylight.

(November, 2016)

Richmond Park, London


The Galician tone was displayed here, grey in the sky, the water and the pavement. The urban lamp, an object as provocative as the benches, won the turn by imposing a warm colour on the scene. The bench has been extinguished, but the imagination can paint it red, referring to the various pieces that bear this colour in Porto’s city parks.

(October, 2019)



By increasing the 90 degree angle of our posture when we sit down, horizons expand to other infinities. The free span created in this composition and supported by three feet evokes the memory of a daring architect when he designed an immense free span without pilasters.

(April, 2022)

City Park, Guimarães


The weather elements, such as snow, can hide secrets from the original materials of the benches, giving them new layers, offering prints that are captured by the cameras and then fall apart.

(January, 2010)

Groningen, Netherlands


There is another side to everything, including perfect places, in parties and youth. The bench seems to be mute, but here it tries to express (or hide?) another view to be explored, other than the frontal one.

(August, 2023)

Reikjavik, Iceland

Helena Pires & Cynthia Luderer

(photos by Cynthia Luderer)

May 2024



Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford University Press.

Correia Pinto, M. (2023, 18 de maio). Dos bancos às soleiras das portas: a importância de nos sentarmos nas cidades. Público.

Davis, M. (1998). Ecology of fear. Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster. Metropolitan Books Henry Holt and Co.

Gibson, J. J. (1979/1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. LEA.

Koffka K. (1935). Principles of gestalt psychology. Harcourt, Brace.

Lefebvre, H. (1968/2012). O direito à cidade. Letra Livre.

Levin. K. (1936/1973). Princípios de psicologia topológica. Cultrix e Editora da Universidade de São Paulo.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2005). Introducing social semiotics. Routledge.

Vázquez C. G. (2004). Ciudad hojaldre. Visiones urbanas del siglo XXI. Gustavo Gili.



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