The Friendly Bench™ started in 2018 as one parklet in Leicestershire aiming to offer a community space where people could connect and speak to one another and tackle loneliness. The idea stemmed from The Friendly Bench™ founder Lyndsey’s own experiences of loneliness working as a freelancer, but has now grown into a national social enterprise bringing Friendly Bench spaces to local communities.
Of course, there are plenty of benches and friendly neighbourhoods where you can hope to bump into someone or strike up a conversation with a friendly face, but The Friendly Bench™ differs from this as a social enterprise that rallies the community to take part in organised activities as well as informal socialising. The team’s goal is to recognise and tackle local problems by using the space and harnessing the community. With the local Friendly Bench team at hand, communities and local groups can influence the activities held at The Friendly Bench™. Every site hosts a minimum of 12 community-led events a year including skill-share sessions, workshops and activities that involve local creatives and makers.
As Lyndsey says herself, The Friendly Bench™ offers a “community space with every barrier removed”. The outdoor benched parklets are specifically designed to be completely accessible with sensory plants for the visually-impaired and adhering to DDA guidelines. Furthermore, The Friendly Bench™ does not have any membership fees or costs associated with using their spaces to connect and socialise with your community allowing everyone to take part.
People might wish to use The Friendly Bench™ space in their own time or on their own terms to socialise and chat to their neighbours or even just to sit in a nice parklet outside, but as the name suggests, The Friendly Bench™ as a local community space gives permission for passers-by or neighbours to come out and join or start a conversation which you might not expect or want sitting on a regular park bench.
Despite the UK lockdown and social distancing regulations, The Friendly Bench™ hasn’t stopped work in its local communities. Instead, they have put their communities, spaces and resources to use delivering food bank parcels and prescriptions or necessities for those who are shielding. They also arranged a socially distant picnic where everyone got a picnic delivery to their homes so they could get together having a picnic while apart in the safety of their homes (or gardens!). And they have of course embraced the virtual aspect during lockdown with virtual afternoon teas, including one with Diana Barran, Lords Minister and Minister for Loneliness.
The Friendly Bench™ has recently installed its fourth parklet, with another 22 in sight in the next two years. In order to join The Friendly Bench Network™, communities nominate their neighbourhood as a site for The Friendly Bench™ and the local group is then supported to run their community space, acquire funding, and organise and provide regular events and activities. While parklets have been popping up as temporary or small-scale public places around the world, The Friendly Bench™ shows an exciting trend towards using these small, but powerful spaces to create real communities that work together to address their own issues and ensure that everyone feels welcomed and supported.