City remedies unwelcoming benches following online citizen complaint

The top photo shows what the benches at Breakwater Park were like after they’d been initially installed. The bottom photo shows the benches on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 after the City of Kingston removed some of the armrests following a complaint from a citizen on social media.

During her lunch hour, Kingstonian Kathryn Vilela was walking along the beautifully redesigned waterfront at Breakwater Park when something caught her attention.

It was Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2019, and Vilela, an employee with Queen’s University Alumni Relations, suddenly found her lunchtime walk interrupted by a realization – one that prompted her to take a photograph and make a post on social media immediately.

The benches beautifully positioned to allow the public to take in the waterfront view had a design flaw, in Vilela’s opinion.

Kathryn Vilela’s photo of the benches at Breakwater Park on Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2019.

“We design beautiful public benches with plenty of room for benefactors to dedicate a seat for a price, but no room for someone to lie down. God forbid a person who is homeless and exhausted might need somewhere to rest for a while,” Vilela wrote on Facebook alongside a photo of one of the benches with armrests between each of the ‘seats.’

Pointing out this uninviting design feature, Vilela immediately got response to her post from many people throughout the community who agreed with her position. But later in the day, the post caught the attention of one of the elected officials that sit around the horseshoe in Kingston City Council Chambers.

“Yikes! Is that at GDP?” Councillor Robert Kiley commented on the post, referring to Gord Edgar Downie Pier at Breakwater Park. Vilela responded, confirming that the bench in the photo was, indeed, at the Breakwater Park, and that all of the benches throughout the park are the same.

“Thanks for pointing that out. I’m going to see if I can have that changed,” Kiley responded.

Just days later, Kiley returned to the Facebook post with an update. In speaking with the City’s Parks and Recreation department about the issue, Kiley and the Parks Department were able to come to an agreement: the middle armrests on the benches would be removed during the week of August 5 to 9, 2019.

“For further context, some arm rests are needed for accessibility. So not all will be removed. But for good reason. All in all, thanks for pointing this out,” Kiley posted.

For Kiley, seeing that the benches were altered was a no-brainer – he hardly had to think about it, he explained.

“I was concerned because we need to design our city inclusively, for everyone, not just those with privilege,” Kiley said of why he chose to take action on the issue immediately.

“I was inspired back in 2007 by Mike Davis’ seminal work City of Quartz which pointed out geographies of exclusion in LA.”

While City of Quartz looks at what Davis sees as the issues plaguing equality in Los Angeles, it also speaks directly about ‘defensive urban design,’ or design implements created to keep people and/or animals off or out of public spaces or design features (such as installing metal orbs or spikes along the sides of water fountains so that people cannot sit on the edge and skateboarders/cyclists cannot perform tricks on them, either).

With that in mind, Kiley and City Staff worked quickly to ensure such was not the case with the benches and armrests at Breakwater Park… though Kiley was quick to express that it wasn’t all his doing.

“Well, I can’t take too much credit: this scenario shows that politicians are just part of finding solutions to our concerns. Engaged citizens and progressive City Staff are important, too!” Kiley said candidly.

Indeed, the City of Kingston had many of the armrests removed this week, resulting in benches that can be enjoyed by all for a variety of uses.

The benches in Breakwater Park after the City removed some of the armrests during the week of August 5 to 9, 2019.

“The multiple armrests were placed on the benches in error and we’re pleased to see this rectified,” said Neal Unsworth, manager of parks development for the City of Kingston.

For Vilela, the one week turnaround for a solution to the issue she raised to be implemented was a ray of sunshine in what could have been a dark scenario for anyone – homeless or otherwise – who just wants to lay down and relax on the benches at Breakwater Park.

“I am really glad about this. The big takeaway for me is that we can ALL contribute to improving our community. Look around with compassion, listen to each other’s concerns, and do what we can to change things, even little things, for the whole community,” Vilela said in a follow up post on Facebook updating those who shared her concerns. But she did feel the need to give credit to Kiley, regardless of his refusal to take credit for the solution.

“Having compassionate and responsive elected officials is a BIG help though, I’m not gonna lie,” Vilela wrote. “You rock, Robb!”

Editorial note: To be clear, Kathryn Vilela is married to one of the publishers of Kingstonist, Cris Vilela. However, we here at Kingstonist feel that, given the nature of this story, quoting Kathryn and attributing her social media posts to her fairly is in no way a conflict of interest.

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  1. Derek August 10, 2019
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