I was in Langport in Somerset the other day and there in a wonderful open space alongside the River Parrett were some nice wooden benches. So what, I can hear you say. Well, at least one of these benches was curved, forming a U shape, intending (I guess) to make it easier for people – friends or strangers – to have a conversation. And that is just how that bench was being used on the lovely sunny day I walked past. I didn’t think much about it at the time but on reflection I thought – what a simple way of encouraging connections between people and (perhaps) in a very small way helping to reducing isolation and loneliness. I also recall parents wanting picnic tables installed as part of plans for a renewed village playground for some of the same reasons. And some cafes encourage customers to display simple little cards saying they are ‘open to conversation’.
“These seem like classic examples of “nudging” people’s behaviour to help achieve a better outcome. Seemingly small, nuanced changes can potentially have a big impact. And perhaps the message from the park benches example is how can we design our open spaces to help improve our mental health and wellbeing. Simply “providing” accessible open space is only part of the answer.”