Happy to Chat benches in Dartmouth encourage strangers to start talking

·3 min read
Monique Mullins-Roberts, left, and Becky Kent sit on a 'Happy to Chat' bench at Birches Park.  (Will McLernon/CBC News - image credit)
Monique Mullins-Roberts, left, and Becky Kent sit on a 'Happy to Chat' bench at Birches Park. (Will McLernon/CBC News - image credit)

There are 20 benches across Dartmouth, N.S., sporting a special new sign that encourages people to stop to say hello.

The Happy to Chat bench project is a Dartmouth Community Health Board initiative that was brought to the Halifax Regional Municipality council's attention in 2019 to encourage conversation among community members.

The project was recently revived to reconnect people after a long pandemic. The first signs were installed in Dartmouth and Eastern Passage in June.

"We want the signs to be an invitation to start a conversation with someone," said Monique Mullins-Roberts, a coordinator with the Dartmouth Community Health Board.

"We think the signs should offer that sense that it's OK to connect with a stranger, it's OK to connect with the community."

Dylan Jones/CBC
Dylan Jones/CBC

The Dartmouth Community Health Board hopes the project can help combat loneliness.

"Loneliness can have a tremendous impact on your health," Mullins-Roberts said.

Inspiration from across the pond

The Happy to Chat benches originated in Cardiff, U.K.

Allison Owens-Jones came up with the idea for the Happy to Chat signs when her dog approached an elderly man sitting alone on a park bench. His face lit up. After seeing his excitement, she walked over to start a conversation, but worried it might be awkward.

She wondered if he wanted company or if he just wanted some privacy in the park.

"I thought wouldn't it be nice if there was a sign on the bench saying yes somebody was happy to talk to there," Owens-Jones said from her home in Wales.

Zoom
Zoom

Owens-Jones immediately went home and printed out the first Happy to Chat signs. She laminated them and hung them at benches in all the parks in her hometown in Wales.

The signs quickly went viral. Within weeks, Happy to Chat benches started popping up across the United Kingdom. Now you can find these benches worldwide in places like New Zealand, Poland and as close as Riverside, New Brunswick.

"Benches are everywhere. If they were normal in every town, it would be a cheap and easy step to get people together," Owens-Jones said.

Her idea inspired some people to try it in Nova Scotia.

More signs on the way

Becky Kent is one of three HRM councillors who put Happy to Chat signs on benches in her district. She says more signs are on the way.

"There will definitely be more benches in my district and I hope we'll see more of these benches in other parts of the municipality, '' Kent said.

"You never know what story you might hear, you never know what experience might be shared, and I think we can grow from things like that."

Wayne Clark lives in Lower Sackville. He came across a Happy to Chat bench in Birches Park in Dartmouth while going for a walk with his granddaughters.

"It's a great idea," Clark said. "We need some of these benches where I live. They get people conversing with each other."

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