Frankly … social Flower pots and benches

The pandemic rules are easing up and the city’s coming back to life. When urban planners come up with the brainwave of putting in a few new benches to lure shoppers back to the city centre, how do people actually use them?

By Maximilian Buddenbohm

Planting boxes with trees stand on the middle lane of the Jungfernstieg in Hamburg since the street has been traffic-calmed and closed to individual traffic. Wooden planter boxes containing saplings and bushes – well-meant urban greening, but the kind you can pack up and haul off in no time if need be | Photo (detail): Markus Scholz; © picture alliance/dpa
It's Friday, late afternoon, and I'm standing in one of the main shopping streets in Hamburg's city centre. The city’s packed because the shops have reopened and people can now catch up on their shopping at long last. So they’re strolling around, gazing at the shop windows and at all the other people around them: society is coming back to life. Most of the shoppers have come for new shoes and clothes, as you can tell from the queues outside those particular stores: only a limited number of people are allowed in at any given time so they have to wait their turn for a long time to get in. They’re presumably buying what they couldn't or wouldn’t purchase online, perhaps because they prefer to try on shoes and clothes before paying for them. Some spots in the city’s pedestrian zones could even be described as “mobbed”. The last time it was this crowded here was about six months ago. Most of the shoppers are wearing face masks, which are still mandatory. Tomorrow’s newspapers are bound to report how happy people were about this day and this week. The retail association will say the same thing, as will the restaurateurs and urban planners. Consumers will be praised for their shopping behaviour. No doubt about it: the city centre is alive again, at least during the day.

New benches are part of a plan

There are some brand new benches in this shopping street. They don't quite fit in, don't seem to belong here. How come? Because they’re spanking new. Which is why they look as though they’d been dropped here by accident and might be gone again tomorrow. But they’re right where they should be and they’re important because they’re part of a plan. A plan to permanently boost the city centre’s appeal so it’ll be this jam-packed more often – and stay that way. Hence the benches. For years there were no benches because folks weren’t supposed to sit, they were supposed to shop. So public seating was considered wrong. And homeless people might sit on the benches, which was considered an undesirable outcome. The city centre was supposed to be diverse, to be sure, but not that diverse. So the new approach now, the new benches, is an experiment. Which is why I’m standing here taking notes, looking to see who sits down and what goes on here.
A woman sits down on one of the new benches and feeds the pigeons crumbs from her bread roll, but that’s all wrong: feeding the pigeons is prohibited because pigeons make a mess. Maybe the lady doesn't know that, maybe she doesn't care. In any case, the pigeons are thrilled; as far as they’re concerned, the city centre is a whole lot better already. The lady on the bench might feel the same way. She might be coming here more often from now on.

Pasta salad or pizza box?

Now – and this is really too much – there’s a guy sitting here, eating what looks like pasta salad in a plastic bowl. He has even brought along his own fork as if he were having a cosy little picnic in the park. Instead of leaving his money in any of the many eateries in this street, he simply makes himself a salad at home and then sits here lunching on the bench in full view of the local restaurants. This is almost a provocation.
And now another guy is sitting smack in the middle of a bench with his legs spread wide, stretching and yawning luxuriantly and grinning: he seems to feel that everything is fine and dandy right now. Sitting next to his bulging shopping bags, he’s holding a take-away beverage in his hand and there’s even an empty pizza box lying on the bench beside him. I suppose this is what the benches are for: “amenity value” and consumption. It’s not hard to guess which of the two rates higher around here.

Save the city somehow

Two streets away I see some large wooden planter boxes containing saplings and bushes. It’s a pop-up garden, explains a small explanatory sign. Well-meant urban greening, to be sure, but the kind you can pack up and haul off in no time if need be. Like a stage set easily removed to make way for the next show a few weeks later.
Plenty of people feel the city centre needs a radical overhaul to retain its appeal. Especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, during which everyone did virtually all their shopping online. Now everybody’s talking about concepts and plans and ideas, now the political parties, the authorities, the interest groups, you name it – everyone wants to save the city somehow. This column is not about concepts, it’s about what you can see. And what I can see is that the city is now apparently going to be improved, revitalized and saved now the same way my balcony is every spring: with a couple freshly planted flower pots and a little bench – that’s enough to make it look inviting again and to make me hang out there a little more often and for a little longer.
It hadn’t occurred to me that this sort of thing might be a pioneering concept. But what do I know about urban planning.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm, Aya Jaff, Dominic Otiang’a and Margarita Tsomou. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.