I am beginning to believe this is one of the most important and valued things we have created in our neighbourhood. Before you start thinking is there something in this photo cleverly hidden or something you are not seeing. No, it is just a bench! And it’s not even a flashy fancy bench. I’ve sat on nicer, bigger, comfier benches with artwork and integrated flower beds. But it doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to be there!
About 3 years ago a few of us had a vision that the space outside the hub building could be our village green. A space for us to gather as a community and crucially a space that we contribute to making our own. A few months later the youth social action team and some eager adults set about building some raised beds and 2 benches. I don’t think we fully understood how important this space was going to become, and in particular the different roles that one bench directly outside the hub would begin to take.
There is something important about the bench being slightly away from the hub and outside in the open. It can provide a sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of the hub, without feeling disconnected. It feels private without being behind a closed door or feeling like you’ve gone off for a private chat! It’s a seat I believe some people feel more comfortable in and therefore are more honest than perhaps they might be in the hub. It can be a place where a slightly different conversation can happen, a bit more relaxed and open. Flo, who works at the hub, recently was telling me how valuable it is to sit on the bench and chat with people. She said its such an important space for ‘real’ conversations. She asks how the kids are with a parent she knows is really struggling. She asks a young person how they are getting on with their parents, a young parent how there are finding being a mom. I think these conversations and this space is crucial for their wellbeing, it’s where they are heard, they are valued, where they can be vulnerable and share their fears, and a place people can be real.
The bench has become a place to have a breather! Someone said to me recently ‘If you are encouraging bumping places, sometimes people will get knocked over!’ he was describing how sometimes this community building can become intense, people can struggle with each, argue, disagree, fall out, get hurt, trigger negative thoughts and emotions, or just annoy each other! The bench has provided a space for a ‘time-out’, for a conversation that helps someone calm down, a place to offload frustration and be heard, a place to perhaps be helped to see another perspective, to reflect and then re-engage. This time is so crucial as we do this community building together. The bench is also a place people can go to recover from an incident.
It has become a place people will stop a take the weight of their feet for a while. They sit and watch the world go by, just enjoying being still in the neighbourhood. One of the local shop keepers regularly sits out there with a drink instead of being stuck behind his counter. He doesn’t say much but he nods and says hello. I think he just values being outside during his long shifts. I believe this community building isn’t just about people connecting with each other, it’s about people feeling a connection with a place, being comfortable, feeling able to just stop and be!
It is a place where people naturally gather. A few people cramming on it and everyone else gathering around. It could be to hear a story someone wants to share, to share a joke, to talk about last nights episode of game of thrones, simply it’s a place to hang-out! It’s been used to have a de-brief in the sunshine or a break-out space during some training. It’s a great place for a conversation! Being out in the open can bring a different insight or provoke a different conversation, one that unearths something new, finds a new piece of inspiration or a new perspective.
One of the fears was that the benches would attract people getting drunk which could cause some anti-social behaviour and a feel of unease and fear. You know what, yes it has become a space people use to have a drink (well it is outside an off license!). Yes some people have a few too many and collapse, we’ve had to clean up sick a couple of times, and had a couple of occasions where people have got a bit leary! But what happens is the community steps in to provide support and care. People are helped home if they’ve had a few too many, they are asked to come in for the Real Junk Food Kitchen or community lunch where the team make sure they have a decent meal, ask how life is, hear their story, and notice if things seem extra difficult that week. We have also found out some of the guys who have a drink are also some of the most natural community builders and connectors, who look out for each other and show real care.
Lastly it is crucial that this space belongs to the community and we built it for ourselves. It’s not inside the building of an organisation (no matter how good that organisation is at community building or support), it’s not in the domain of an institution (therefore it’s not measured or regulated), it’s not a clinical or prescribed place (socially prescribed or medically prescribed), it’s not in the market-place (so if you don’t buy something you will not be asked to move on or you will be seen as a consumer to be monetized). We just hang-out there because it’s our place!
So where are the these benches in your community?
Where are the places people naturally hang-out, laugh, joke, share, and have meaningful conversation?
Where do people feel comfortable enough to open up, be vulnerable, be listened to?
Where do people go to let of steam, vent, get a breather to enable them to re-engage?
Where do people feel able to just be and feel a connection with the community as a place?
Where are the places that people who are pushed to the edges and fringes of your neighbourhood are able to hang out and be welcomed into community?
Where are the places that are truly community owned and community led?
How can you encourage these crucial connecting spaces in your community without taking them over?