Started in the Netherlands a couple of years ago, the collective encourages people to put a public bench outside their home, and create a space for people to stop and meet. Many people don’t know their neighbours, and a bench encourages outdoor interactions in the street.
As Cathelijn de Reede says in the book, “I had been living in the same area for ten years and knew my immediate neighbours, but not others down the street. By putting out a bench, I got to know people with different incomes, religious backgrounds and cultures.” Benches can become welcoming spaces, “thinking of the pavement as a shared living room.”
To promote the idea, once a year the Benches Collective hosts ‘the largest open air cafe in the world’, when everyone ‘opens’ their bench on the same day. People serve drinks, run activities, and generally act as a host at their bench.
This isn’t an idea that has reached Britain properly yet. The map shows one in Alresford, one in Newcastle, and after that the next closest is across the channel. It’s not going to work everywhere, but perhaps you could be a new spot on that map? Or maybe your business or workplace could host one?
Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come – Britain is more divided today than any time I can remember. Politicians and the media play on those divisions, pushing us to extremes and straining democracy.
I’m not suggesting a bench can fix Brexit. But it might build relationships, trust, and a sense of belonging. It might reduce loneliness and isolation. It might change people’s views of their street and the people that live there, and kickstart a stronger sense of community. It certainly feels like it’s worth trying.