There’s a battle of attrition being waged every day in our cities, and you can watch it all go down on the nearest street corner. Permanence wins over prettiness when it comes to street furniture, and the design of choice for cash-strapped cities is no longer the iconic green park bench at the center of our romanticized visions of public life. It’s the monolithic cement chess table—cut from chunky utilitarian lines, impervious to all sorts of indignities. It does the job, and it perseveres. But it doesn’t welcome us.
Which is a shame. Street furniture can be a transformative part of an urban experience. When done right, the seating and shade structures found on sidewalks and public spaces can show how much a city takes care of its users. Unfortunately, in recent decades, street furniture has become less about providing comfort and more about encouraging its users to move along. And the quest for budget-friendly, data-driven solutions has resulted in cities opting for uninspired, off-the-shelf solutions that end up making a street corner feel even more cold and impersonal.
Luckily, thanks to some smart approaches to the way our streets are being redesigned, cities are slowly moving beyond the "have a seat, but not for too long" mentality. Today’s innovative street furniture has a chance to step up and provide dignity for all.
Seven years ago, Los Angeles architect Lorcan O’Herlihy was looking at proposal from the city of Santa Monica, California for its Big Blue Bus transit system. It requested a design for custom shading and seating elements at 36 of its highest-volume bus stops—but ignored roughly 300 other stops.
This troubled O’Herlihy. So, working with designer Bruce Mau on the branding, the team extrapolated the budget for 36 sites to 320. "We realized if we spread the wealth democratically, we could shade all the sites," says O’Herlihy. The team’s revolutionary approach is an innovative new way for cities to think about street furniture.
Realizing that a one-shelter-fits-all solution was not economically viable—or logistically possible for the city’s often-narrow sidewalks—the designers proposed a kit of parts that could be customized into clusters. Stops that didn’t need as much shade or seating as others based on tree cover or ridership volume could have fewer elements.
This brought per-stop costs down overall, but more importantly, the light footprint of the kit addressed several concerns from Santa Monica’s business owners, who felt that clunky benches and shelters could become a nuisance or block their tiny storefronts. (Although the original stools in the kit were thematically on-point, new chairs with armrests and back support are better for the elderly.)
Testing out Santa Monica's bus stops for a story on street furniture. Does your city take good care of its riders? pic.twitter.com/eiLXyLHh08— Alissa Walker (@awalkerinLA) July 15, 2016
When waiting for the Big Blue Bus the other day, I felt like I was sitting up so straight I might have been in some kind of sidewalk detention; I definitely wasn’t planning to loiter any longer than necessary. But it was an adequately shady and, dare I say, pleasant bus-waiting experience.
Plus, as I moved from stop to stop, the landmark quality of the shelters was tough to beat. A blur of blue was easy to spot from several blocks away, the canopies turning corners into whimsical gnome-like forests populated by smartphone-entranced riders. The Big Blue Bus has not only provided a dignified place to wait for the bus, it has succeeded in branding the entire city.
Great street furniture can now do more than just provide a place to sit. The darling of urban designers at the moment is something called the Soofa, a solar-powered, phone-charging "smartbench" that’s popped up in 18 US cities.
Now, instead of simply providing a comfortable place to recline—and yes, those are tasteful wood slat seats—the bench adds USB ports (bring your own cable) and sensors to collect environmental data (an add-on kiosk includes a touchscreen for local information). It’s all powered by a squat photovoltaic panel that’s painted bright red; a kind of George Nelson bench meets a friendly barbecue grill vibe.
When I sat on a Soofa on a LA street I was surprised at how comfortable those wood planks were compared to the butt-crimping metal benches I was used to. I connected my iPhone and began slurping up solar power.
But after a few minutes of sitting there, I realized there was a tradeoff: A solar panel needs sun, and the sun was hot. Which meant I’d have to leave my quickly warming seat to seek shade. Until there’s a version with a solar panel on a canopy, this isn’t the best choice for sunny cities.
Still, Soofa feels like the thoughtful, well-crafted seating solution that we’ve been waiting for. It looks innovative but also classic, lending some design sense to the streetscape.
But it’s pricier than your standard bench, and that’s an investment which which doesn’t always pay off. As a Los Angeles neighborhood discovered when a bench was ripped clean off its bolts less than a year after installation, not even the Soofa is safe from determined thieves.
Interestingly, the concept of plopping a bench on the sidewalk for all eternity—or seven months, whichever comes first—is falling out of favor. Streets are changing rapidly to accommodate the new wave of bike and pedestrian improvements, and forever furniture isn’t ideal for testing incremental changes. That’s why the street furniture you’re more likely to see populating cities now isn’t as much "street furniture" as it is furniture on the street.
The parklets and plazas that are starting to pop up on urban streets are often pilot projects—tiny street corners carved out with temporary decking materials or, in some cases, just a different color of paint.
This means a whole new way of thinking about how people can enjoy these spaces. Goodbye to bolted, cement-slathered seating; hello to lightweight benches, moveable planters, beach umbrellas, and cheap cafe tables and chairs—all of which can be repositioned by users.
The key component to this approach is partnerships with local businesses and neighborhood groups that require them to take ownership of the furniture. In some cases, these partners purchase the furniture outright.
The temporary, low-cost model also addresses equity concerns, says Brian Oh, a transportation planning associate for LADOT’s People St program. "This is an opportunity to do this kind of outreach citywide in areas that traditionally might not have those kind of improvements."
A more nimble street furniture strategy also allows for necessary adjustments. "We like to collect data to learn from the projects and actually tweak them to evolve them," says Valerie Watson, LADOT’s assistant pedestrian coordinator.
After a car crashed into a downtown LA parklet last year, designers rethought the furniture completely, opting for even more simple, flexible furnishings based on LADOT’s studies of how people had been using the space.
Now if a table goes missing, it’s not the end of the world. "Chairs always walk away," says Watson. "You have to set up the process so you can recover quickly when those things happen."
As I eased into a bare-bones cafe chair at the redesigned parklet the other afternoon, I marveled at how little it had taken, design-wise, to make this little strip of an LA street feel downright pleasant. It’s more than just plopping a bench on a corner, it’s about creating a little urban living room—and there’s no reason we can’t have more of these.
Of all the spots I paused to rest my weary rear during my tour de street furniture, this was the only place that I felt truly comfortable, and it was clear that those around me, nibbling on lunch or noodling on their phones, felt the same. A chair that couldn’t have cost more than $25 was finally making me feel at home in my city.