‘Bench men’ in the square

While much urban research focuses on encounters with difference in public space – characterised by Neal et al (2013) as ‘the convivial, everyday turn’ – an under-explored element of this is a consideration of how different kinds of encounters are made possible or shut down by processes of urban re/development and the construction of new spaces. This is one of the reasons I am looking forward to Ben Rogaly and Clare Rishbeth’s conference paper on the social life of a newly developed square in Woolwich. Their paper explores how such places, which may look inhospitable, can be adapted and used in ways by other publics than the imaginary figures who pepper architectural designs. In a blog from ‘The Bench Project‘ Ben writes:

1446738844.png‘It was the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, a warm July day. The big screen in the middle of Woolwich’s General Gordon Square broadcast live coverage of the memorial service at St Paul’s. Immediately to the north of the square a developer’s billboards proclaimed the ‘luxury of choice’ for new residents with the imminent arrival of Crossrail: a fourteen minute journey into Central London or working from home. Yet people lingering, loitering and passing through the square spoke to Samprada and I of their enjoyment of this part of the newly gentrifying space in very different terms, as a space of social connection, of hope, and of respite’ Ben Rogaly ‘The Luxury of Choice’

The people Ben encounters in this square include a mother and her disabled daughter, school children and the self proclaimed ‘bench men’ who drink and socialise in the square. While the square provides ‘mutual regard, recognition and acknowledgement’ Ben and Clare’s paper also poses questions about the future of these kinds of spaces, given the  whitening and gentrification of the wider area.

The paper is based on a bigger project on the social life of benches and I’d recommend a look at a clip from one the films from the project, available here.

Clare Rishbeth and Ben Rogaly will be presenting their paper with Jasber Singh from the Greenwich Inclusion Project  ‘A space of hope, here and now: temporary respite and sociality sitting outside in a Woolwich square’ in the panel Multiculture in public spaces and neighbourhood in PSH316 at 10.30-11.45.


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