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A Piece of Civic Infrastructure That Works

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How communities choose to shape their built environment and neighborhoods can powerfully impact a place’s sense of connectedness and how local relationships develop. However, in our time of digital distractions and social distrust, so many projects designed to promote social capital fail to meaningfully bring people together. Although numerous cities and communities have tried to improve social connections in recent years, many urban dwellers regularly report higher levels of loneliness and isolation compared to their suburban counterparts. Regrettably, politicos and planners continue to struggle with how to build connections amid our nationwide loneliness epidemic.

Because our built environment is so critical for community health and growth and there are so many failures to make improvements, I am always interested in new ways for people to connect and I recently came across something exciting in New York City.

What I found was a new installation of seats within the expansive plazas surrounding the World Trade Center. I first saw these seats a few days ago when my son and I were walking in lower Manhattan. While the area is not a heavily residential neighborhood, it houses the 9.11 memorial, a large transit center designed by noted architect Santiago Calatrava, a new performing arts center, and a significant number of offices, plus a plethora of boutiques and restaurants. My son and I have visited the area regularly over the years because of its rich density of festivals and markets—it’s also a great place to roam around.

For all the activity around the Trade Center complex, there are few places to sit, so we were thrilled to see the new seating. But there was a twist; these seats had been purposefully installed to promote conversation. The new seats were cubes that were painted white and had smiley faces on them with the statement “Happy to Chat.” One set of cubes was in an L-shape and the other in an oval shape,  

If one opted to sit on a block, one had to be ready to talk. Of course, this cannot be enforced formally, but the city notes that sitting in these spots opens the person up to the possibility of a new human interaction. In a world where far too many people are cocooned in their devices, unable to have or carry a conversation with a stranger, these seats are a welcome sight. And these seats encourage social connections; sitting on the cubes does not “…necessarily mean you will talk to every person that walks past you. Instead, it signals that you are simply open to a comment, a compliment, or a conversation. “

In a world of so much social anomie and isolation from others, even simple and brief interactions can make a real difference in one’s health and happiness. It was a thrilling to watch strangers sit down on these cubes to chat, even briefly. People sitting on the cubes weren’t looking down at their phones, they were smiling and laughing in real space. And while these “chats” may not be the start of deep or repeated friendships, brief conversations like these can change a person’s day for the better. Repeated interactions, however large or small, can have a profound impact on someone’s day. 

On our trip down to the Trade Center, my son wanted to sit down on one of these cubes. I told him that he was welcome to sit down, but he would have to talk if someone sat next to him. Sure enough, as we sat down on two cubes, a man sat down and my son immediately introduced himself and the man happened to be wearing a chef’s jacket. My son immediately asked about the chef’s jacket, and the two proceeded to have a lovely conversation. After talking about what they both like to cook, the chef invited us to walk over and tour his restaurant so that my son could see the kitchen. The meeting was invigorating and unanticipated. My son has already told me that he wants to visit his “chef friend” again. From the brief interaction, I already feel more closely connected to the space and we now have a “friend” in the area.

The new “Happy to Chat” seats in the Trade Center Plaza had an impact on me. My son and I saw how they helped change the behavior of others, as well. While there are plenty of people who will ignore the nudges prompted by the seating, the seats are fun, whimsical, and fairly inexpensive pieces of civic infrastructure. The Happy to Chat seats could make public spaces feel more fun and allow people to foster social connections where they simply do not exist. It may be worth trying versions of these seats out in more public places and see if they can change the environment for the better. 

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