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Benches in Boston: Creating Outdoor Spaces for People of All Ages

The following article is written by Chloe-Rose Crouch, AARP MA intern.

When Mayor Marty Walsh was elected in the spring of 2014, one of his first initiatives was for the City of Boston to join the Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities and help make Boston a great place to live for people of all ages. As part of this initiative, the City of Boston is placing more public benches throughout the city, making outdoor travel for older adults and differently-abled people more accessible. This project targets the Outdoor Spaces and Buildings Domain of Livability, and sets an example of how creating a place to sit and rest can make public spaces more livable for everyone.

Why does improving cities’ outdoor spaces make communities great? “Being outside is critical to people’s health and wellbeing,” says Andrea Burns, Director of Age-Friendly Boston, “and making outdoor spaces more accessible encourages people of all ages to leave the house and participate in community life.” 

Burns and her colleagues conducted a thorough needs-assessment of the city’s neighborhoods before deciding that benches were the most effective way to improve the city’s outdoor spaces. They heard from over 4,000 Boston residents through surveys in six languages. “We received consistent feedback that there aren't enough places to sit for those who need to rest when they’re walking around the city,” says Burns, “and strategically-placed benches would make their travel from point A to point B significantly easier.” A thorough needs-assessment is essential to making communities great for all ages because it ensures time and energy is spent on the most beneficial projects for one’s community.

After conducting a needs assessment and obtaining funding from AARP and the city of Boston, Burns and her team were ready to move forward with the project’s implementation. The Age-Friendly team partnered with an Urban Mechanics Fellow of City Hall, Brian Ho, to conduct a study on where to best place the benches. From there, Burns’ team worked with the Select Board, the City Council, and Public Works to install 89 benches in the areas of greatest need.  Nearly 30 more benches are to be installed in the near future.

Implementing a project of this size was not without its challenges. “A surprising amount of people are resistant to benches because they fear it will facilitate loitering and other unwelcomed behavior,” says Burns. “In fact, when we wrote up the plan we had to use the phrase “places to rest” instead of ‘benches’ to avoid controversy.”

Yet Burns and her team didn’t let this stop them from making Boston’s outdoor spaces better for everyone. They focused on counteracting these ideas with positive messaging on why benches make Boston more age-friendly. “Data shows that having accommodating outdoor spaces, like benches, increases activity,” Burns explains. “Increased activity actually makes neighborhoods safer.” According to Burns, benches also have a positive impact on surrounding businesses, since they draw people near. Presenting communities with the benefits of more accessible spaces allowed the project to move forward. It also increased awareness of the Age-Friendly initiative, and how it is beneficial for people of all ages.

Burns looks forward to the future of this project as it expands and grows. “As this program becomes more well-known, we hope to empower communities to make needs-assessments themselves and then come to us for benches. This is preferable to our current model, where we reach out, conduct a needs-assessment, and then advocate for the benches to be placed,” says Burns. “We want people to see the value of outdoor spaces themselves, and ask important questions like, ‘is there enough space around this location for differently-abled people? Can a wheelchair get through?’’ Once again, Burns is not only doing critical work in the Outdoor Spaces and Buildings domain, she’s also empowering community members to become age-friendly themselves. It’s projects like this that are making Boston great for people of all ages.

By creating accessible outdoor spaces, Burns and others at Age-Friendly Boston are working hard to make Massachusetts more livable for everyone. “It’s great to see the immediate impact we’re having for Boston residents,” says Burns, “and I look forward to continuing this work as Boston starts its next chapter of the Age-Friendly Initiative.”

To learn more about Boston’s Livable Communities Initiative, click here.

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