Insights Write Up: How do people sit outdoors?

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Brief intro to the concept area

Given the recent change in weather, Harvard outdoor spaces are filled with people trying to engage with the sunshine that they’ve missed for the past 6 months. As with most public outdoor spaces, pre-existing seating is limited (if it’s present at all), thus forcing people to sprawl out in the area with little to no support. If the outdoor space does contain seating (such as the benches that line the Charles River), it’s sparse and not the best use of space.

Thus, we’re interested in redesigning the outdoor public seating experience either through creating a portable outdoor seating support system that anyone can use (such as backpacks that turn into chairs) or through creating a new take on the public bench that allows for maximal flexibility of use (lean against it, sit on it, etc) in the most efficient use of space (allowing individuals and groups of people to share the bench without it being awkward).

How people currently sit outside

We observed four popular destinations for people to gather and sit outside during warm weather: Harvard Yard, Eliot Courtyard, the Charles River, and Harvard Square.

In Harvard Yard, people take advantage of the colorful chairs on offer. Because they are light, they can rearrange them to accommodate whether they are sitting alone or in a group. The chairs have a “normal” back angle though, and many people still sit on the ground where they can assume a more “lounge-like” position. In order to maximize the comfort of this position, sitters either roll up jackets or lean against backpacks. Some creative sitters actually pushed several chairs together into a line and lay down on the chairs. This mimics sprawling on the grass but with the advantage of not touching the ground. There are also numerous trees in the Yard that offer excellent shade and seating area. People nestle up by the tree and sit upright, rather than recline, using the trunk as back support.

Eliot Courtyard has a couple of seating options. The grass portion of the courtyard has no seating, so most people lie on the ground. Some lean against a tree for back support, though the roots can make this uncomfortable. The terrace part of the courtyard has mobile round tables and chairs. People will study here, and they are very popular during meal times. People will move the chairs and tables around to give themselves a footrest, or to seat larger groups. Finally, on the side of the courtyard, there are benches surrounding a table. This spot is often occupied by big groups. The problem is that, while Eliot Courtyard has multiple seating options, none serve the grass part of the courtyard, which is where people want to use. Most people need to use their laptop to work, and it is uncomfortable to lie and use a laptop on the ground.

By the Charles River, there are wooden benches every 50 feet which fit approximately 4 people comfortably. There are only 5 or so of these benches along the Harvard adjacent stretch of the river. We noticed that while all the benches were occupied, they weren’t all occupied by groups of 4. In fact, most benches only had 1 or 2 people. For the benches that only had 1 person, they were often sitting in the middle of the bench, thereby not allowing for a second person to share the same bench. The problem with this arrangement is that the benches are a little too intimate for strangers to share and they don’t facilitate group discussions because they force people to sit in a line, thereby blocking faces. Thus, it becomes optimal for only 1 or 2 people. Because designated seating is sparse in this area, the vast majority of people were sprawled out along the river. There are no trees close to the river, so most sat, unsupported, or lay down on the grass. Others reclined on the grass by using their backpack or rolled up jackets as back support or pillows.

Outside of Felipe’s in Harvard Square, there is some “concrete terracing” and concrete benches. A lot of people take advantage of this seating, though it is not necessarily a destination in itself. It’s a waiting spot outside the T, but also a place to sit a drink your Crema Coffee outside. Unlike the Charles River, where most people go to relax, the people congregate in Harvard Square for different reasons. The seating itself is useful both to groups and individuals. The presence of street-performers and the car traffic make the Square a bit noisy.


Strap chair:

Thread on sitting comfortably while backpacking: there is no consensus on how to sit comfortably

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