In 2009, Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, bought 150 plastic lawn chairs at $15 apiece (NY Times). These were then placed in a small section in the middle of Times Square, which was then dominated by an army of cars, taxies, and buses. Within minutes, the chairs were filled up. More chairs were instantly in demand. Soon the chair count was expanded to 400, and after two weeks, 25 were broken, 15 were stolen, and 2 were run over by a fire truck.
The appeal of the lawn chair is that it is moveable, and can create a customizable space in a busy area. Over time the street furniture expanded, taking over new parts of Times Square. Likewise, the types of furniture started to move away from cheap lawn chairs, and into moveable metal tables and chairs that were harder to steal. And as the metal chairs claimed their territory, Times Square slowly changed into a pedestrian environment. Traffic was diverted away from the area, and the roadway evolved from being painted, to being landscaped.
Now, Times Square is rated as one of the finest public spaces in the world, even though it was a dangerous roadway just years ago. The appeal of the space is that it is customizable. Chairs are movable, and so people have the freedom to arrange seating spaces as they wished. John Levy cites in Contemporary Urban Planning a systematic study by William Whyte in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, in which Whyte writes that “some form of movable seating and the opportunity to purchase food and drink are key elements”. The take-away point is that people like choices. They like the ability to choose, not only what to eat and drink, but they like creating their own options on where to sit. This past summer, I helped implement movable metal seating in the town center of my own hometown, New Haven. What I found was that people tended to bring the chairs under trees, away from the sunlight. People would even drag the chairs fifty feet away into a canopy of shade. Giving the general public the option to choose their own seating arrangements encourages more use of public spaces. In order to create successful urban spaces, there needs to be some level of dynamism in an interactive environment. That way, people will not just use the spaces, but own the spaces.