Food for thought: age-friendly benches, from Boston to Barcelona

by Sophia Ashebir

A few weekends ago, a couple friends and I took the MBTA’s Red Line down to Ashmont to ride the Mattapan High Speed Rail (As you may have noticed through my previous blog posts, I’m a big fan of public transportation). While exploring Mattapan, we stumbled across a bench outside the Mattapan library that had been designated as “Age-Friendly.” It wasn’t clear to us, though, what exactly made this particular bench an Age-Friendly bench. Some guesses were that the dimensions of the bench were scientifically proven to be more accessible for people of all ages. Or maybe it had to do with the bench being located in an area that was potentially dense with older adults. We eventually concluded that the mere existence of the bench made it age-friendly.

After further research into this initiative, I learned that we were all sort of right in some way. The City of Boston’s website explains the program and answers the question of “What makes a bench age-friendly?” In short, they specify the benefits of raised armrests and backs for easy support as well as being temperature resistant. All the benches meet ADA requirements and are prioritized in certain locations that are walkable and close to public transit.

Benches not only increase the walkability of a city but can also create a sense of belonging and community. Their presence or absence can communicate the values and cares of a community—in both good and bad ways (on the bad side, Boston’s benches are often critiqued as promoting anti-homelessness architecture due to the bar in the middle of the seat).

This past summer, three AgeLab researchers and I traveled to Barcelona and Madrid to meet with collaborators and conduct research. We saw many interesting things on our trip—including, you guessed it, many benches. During the trip, we noticed the extent to which these Spanish cities were built to be community-focused, especially Barcelona: the streets are cut in diagonals to create greater open space for outdoor dining; neighborhoods have intimate courtyards where people gather at night to lounge together. These design choices signal the goals and importance of social gathering and togetherness.

As for the benches: In Barcelona, they were often grouped together and facing inwards, giving people the space and permission to talk and be with one another, whether they were longtime friends or strangers. On the other hand, in the U.S., you’ll see benches spaced out and lined up in a row all facing one direction.

What we do with our benches raises bigger questions for me about our infrastructure, our values, and our future. Here are three that came to mind:

1. What do we want? Though I personally am a fan of Barcelona’s benches, who is to say they would work in a different cultural context? Perhaps Americans prefer to do their bench-sitting in solitude. However, the sentiment of togetherness is a theme that seems worthy of propagating. Investigating how communitarian design choices might best work in our own communities is a question that deserves further pondering.

2. Shifting what already exists. If changes were made to our communal open spaces, thinking about how to adapt these spaces into ones that meet our long-term goals in the most sustainable way is vital. Gone are the days of ripping up land and wasting materials. How can we repurpose existing infrastructure and involve community members in the future of our shared spaces?

3. Dreaming BIGger. We can create communal spaces where the possibilities end at our imagination: spaces that are not only age-friendly and community focused, but also intergenerational, eco-friendly, suitable for people with disabilities, and more.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law, it provides a good time to reflect on what we prioritize in our infrastructure—what values are important to us, and whose needs matter to us.

Just some food for thought whenever you’re sitting on a public bench.

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About the Author

Photo of Sophia Ashebir
Sophia Ashebir

Sophia Ashebir is a Technical Associate at the MIT AgeLab. Her research interests include accessibility of public transportation for older adults, avenues to support marginalized communities, and the impacts of outdoor spaces and communities on the well-being of older adults. She earned her BA degree from Wellesley College, where she studied Economics and Comparative Race and Ethnicity.

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