Field Notes: Conversation Landscape

Isaac Kremer/ April 13, 2023/ Civic, Field Notes/ 0 comments

We first became acquainted with the concept of a conversation landscape from the work by the urban designer Jan Gehl. The following quote from the book Life Between Buildings captured the concept well.

Cover of Life Between Buildings by Jan Gehl.

“Chairs placed close together around a table, such as in sidewalk cafes, help conversations start. Good conversation landscapes can be found in traditional European train compartments. In contrast, seating arrangements in airplanes and new trains and buses discourage conversations. Here the passengers sit behind one another and see only the backs of the heads of their fellow passengers… Curved benches or benches placed at an angle to one another often will permit a valuable choice of action. When sitting at an angle to one another it is a bit easier to start a conversation if there is mutual interest in doing so, and if conversation is not wanted, it is also easier to free oneself from an undesired situation. Such conversation landscapes have been a guiding principle for architect Ralph Erskine, who has used them widely in his residential building projects. Almost all benches in his public spaces are arranged two and two, placed at right angles around a table, which gives additional possibilities for taking work and refreshments out into the public spaces. Thus the sitting area facilitates a number of functions beyond merely sitting.” – Jan Gehl

And an illustration of an earlier conversation landscape showed the power of the conversation landscape to bring people together, and facilitate conversation as well as civic connection.

With this in mind in 2022, Metuchen, New Jersey secured a grant from AARP Livable Communities to build a conversation landscape in Metuchen. The site was the unassuming corner of a surface parking lot adjacent to multi-family housing and next door to the Metuchen Senior Center. It was proposed to place a table with a mosaic, benches, and planters here.

Rendering from the time of application to AARP showing substantial planters and proper orientation of benches at right angle to facilitate conversation and maximize view opportunities.

Iteration #1, February 2023-March 2023

February 24, 2023
March 9, 2023
April 8, 2023
Photo from this angle showing the superior view of Woodmont while the bench was on the opposite side with a back to the parking lot traffic lane. Borough officials modified this original position and made the bench face the parking lot out of safety concerns, April 8, 2023.

Iteration #2, March 2023 – present

Some time after the initial installation one of the benches was moved with it’s back against the traffic lane and facing towards the Woodmont building, rather than facing towards the parking lot across the street. This was a much better view.

There is some discussion among Borough officials to change the orientation of the benches. Will be interesting to see if a change is made to the earlier configuration or if adequate separation is made with planters and plantings between the lane of parking lot driving lane and the bench.

April 8, 2023
April 8, 2023

In 12 days since the last visit we noticed no recognizable change. We did find out, however, that staff from Woodmont frequently have lunch here. Nice to know that someone is finding value. The head on arrangement of the two benches is less conversational for the same reason you never want to sit across the table from someone you’re trying to get agreement with. Better to sit by their side instead of glowering head on. Will see if the powers that be change anything.

Final update on Metuchen is they could not get it right. Benches were placed head on – the most confrontational and uncomfortable arrangement. When public officials make design decisions like this it tells something about how they think about people as being more an obstacle to overcome rather than collaborators in a co-creation process.

Coda: Greenwood Gardens outside of Millburn, New Jersey, got the conversation landscape concept mostly right. All that is missing is the knee height table in front of the benches. A corner placement is the most comfortable with the hedge providing protection and greenery that makes the space more comfortable to sit in.

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About Isaac Kremer

A nationally recognized downtown revitalization leader, downtowns Isaac managed achieved $350 million of investment, 1,300 jobs created, and were 2X Great American Main Street Award Semifinalist and a 1X GAMSA winner in 2023. His work has been featured in Newsday, NJBIZ, ROI-NJ, TapInto, and USA Today. Isaac is a Main Street America Revitalization Professional (MSARP) with additional certifications from the National Parks Service, Project for Public Spaces, and the National Development Council.

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