SEVEN benches in Leicester’s parks and open spaces are being designated as places where a chat with a friendly stranger is welcome.
The city council’s Happy to Chat initiative aims to tackle social isolation and promote community cohesion by encouraging people to interact with others in a safe, public space.
By sitting on a designated bench – which will be clearly labelled with a colourful Happy to Chat plaque – people can look forward to a quick chat, or even a long conversation, with a friendly passer-by.
While the idea is commonplace in countries around the world, and has also been adopted by local authorities across the UK, it’s the first time that the initiative has been trialled in Leicester.
Naomi Cohen, who lost her partner to motor neurone disease in 2020, approached the city council to ask if the scheme could be introduced in Leicester.
“My partner, Rhys Evans, was good at talking to people and would talk to anyone without judging them,” she said.
“He coordinated a local mental health peer support group – Strides! – so he knew how important it was for people to talk.
“When Rhys died, I wanted to use some of the money raised in his memory to support the introduction of a Happy to Chat scheme in Leicester, so I’m delighted that we were able to donate the £490 needed to get the scheme up and running.”
Deputy city mayor for health, Cllr Sarah Russell, said: “We know that many people in Leicester often feel lonely or isolated – and that has a huge impact on their mental health.
“Exchanging a few words with a passer-by or – better still – having a good chat with someone is really beneficial and helps people feel less alone and much more connected to their community.
“We’re very grateful to Naomi for supporting this scheme and funding these first Happy to Chat bench plaques. If the trial goes well, we’ll look at expanding the scheme to other sites around the city.”
Deputy city mayor Cllr Elly Cutkelvin said: “At this time of year, our parks provide a welcome green haven away from the heat of the city.
“Many people enjoy a stroll in the park on their own, but for those who would like a bit of company, this scheme could help overcome the barriers to starting up a conversation.
“A simply chat about the birds, plants and flowers in the park, or a shared love for the natural environment, could even lead to a new friendship.”
The seven Happy to Chat benches are located in popular areas with high footfall, including Castle Gardens, New Walk and outside Evington Library.
They can also be found in Abbey Park, Knighton Park, Spinney Hill Park and Victoria Park.
Feedback on the scheme – which will be reviewed at the end of the summer – is welcome. Comments can be sent to email@example.com
Picture caption: Rhys Evans’ son, Hugh, joins deputy city mayor Cllr Elly Cutkelvin for a chat on the bench on Victoria Park, Leicester.