Rarely is street furniture in the public realm purely decorative. It holds a multitude of significant values. For example, in city, town and village centres, bespoke street furniture is the ideal way to give people a sense of “place”, particularly in areas where stores are national chains and there’s potential for the shopping area to look the same as any other location.
Adding planters, signage and bins into your street furniture represents a substantial return on investment. It covers many of the priorities that planners have when making communal areas more appealing and visitor-friendly. Seating can also be integrated into structures that protect trees in urban landscapes for example.
Seating in streetscapes - and in public parks and waterfronts for instance – can also be more than “just” a place to sit, due to individualised design. There is an intrinsic message when a local authority or urban landscape designer creates attractive rest and waiting areas.
It suggests a warmth of welcome and an understanding of need. It encourages people to stay awhile, to check their phones, snack or watch the world go by. This adds to the principle that visiting high streets and other communal areas should now be an enjoyable “experience” rather than merely a task.
Having enough street furniture also promotes equality of opportunity, as it provides rest places for the elderly and people with mobility issues. Parents of small children can use it in public spaces and amenities, to keep a watchful eye on their youngsters, making accessibility and use more assured.
Carefully placed clusters of benches and seating in public places offer opportunities to be sociable and enjoy the outdoors. This is the value that has become even more precious, as people respond to modern challenges by returning to simpler, more traditional activities.
Properly commissioned and placed street furniture can draw people to the location and give them reasons to stay. Large groups of friends will use it, or it can even stimulate greater social interaction between strangers.
The right street furniture can also help to “soften” some of the more stark additions to contemporary streetscapes. For example, you may have to erect blockers, bollards and barriers to prevent hostile vehicle mitigation. However, attractive, carefully placed street furniture in the same area creates a more visitor-friendly ambience.
To make street furniture relevant and justifiable, specifiers and planners are increasingly keen to work with ethically sound companies, who offer a quality product and responsible sourcing. For example, street furniture made from recycled plastic, or wood sourced from FSC certified forests.
Also, there's a need for greater resilience against “modern perils”, to extend the life and usefulness of street furniture. This includes vandal-proof or vandal-resistant features, including protection from skateboarders.
This shows that it’s important to commission street furniture, but it has to be the right street furniture.