Street furniture and a sense of place
Sam Gullam, product design
How a piece of street furniture sits in the landscape, urban or rural, can have
a dramatic effect on our experience and enjoyment of a place. If its something
we want to use, for instance a bin, bench, telephone or bus stop, then its availability
and function being obvious enhances our experience. Should we not have the immediate
need for these things then they can easily become seen as obstacles, clutter
or ‘spoiling the view’ and detract from our experience of a place.
Creating a balance can help. For example a signage system needs to be obvious
and legible if it is to be of any use, but at the same time, without apologising
for its existence by trying to disguise it, the physical product should start
to reflect the environment. A signage system is a facility and an enabler, not
In recent years the move has been towards coordinated ranges of street furniture,
again here a balance needs to be sought, coordination should mean being considered
together and ‘working’ together this does not necessarily have to
translate into uniformity. Unifying all items of street furniture stylistically
across all neighbourhoods within a city can detract from the sense of place
within a particular area. Imposing a density of heritage style bin, bench, lamp
column and bollard in a contemporary space for the sake of consistency can have
a hugely negative effect on our experience and interpretation of that place.
In the same way literally taking a paintbrush and colouring everything that
hits the ground a single colour whether it be black, purple or orange can result
in a bland environment at one extreme or a visual mess and distraction at the
other. Not everything has to be the same.
Conveying a system
However when communicating that something is part of a system then uniformity
is crucial. In conveying information to guide or assist people’s movement
in or around an environment consistency and continuity is hugely important.
It can act as the glue across a city describing and connecting places physically
and mentally. This consistency relates not only to graphics, nomenclature and
product positioning but also to the canvas on which the information is displayed.
Uniformity in the product design communicates at a very base and immediate cognitive
level that the information is part of a system; and if you trust the system,
then that information is valid and is going to help you.
The positive side of this uniformity, beyond economies of scale and ease of
maintenance, is that if the design is unique and application is considered then
this sort of system can create a strong visual identity for a place as a whole
whilst allowing the individuality of discrete areas within it.
Referencing the character and context of a place can help in creating a balance
within the design of the products and this visual identity. Yet over literal
or very specific references can result in an unintended pastiche or parody that
is unrepresentative of the area as a whole; and whilst sitting comfortably within
one context seems displaced in another. A nautical reference of a fish may work
near a dock or seafront, but less well in a financial or business district that
has no connection to a fishing industry.
When designing and shaping the identity of the components within the Bristol
Legible City range of products the intent was not to take a singular reference
but a more general view in reflecting the City’s pioneering, engineering
and robust character. Paying homage to the past from the shipping merchants,
Brunel, Marconi and the aviation industry through to the more contemporary Sustrans.
Recognizing that the City’s rich heritage is a result of activity that
at the time was cutting edge and leading the way.
This is not to say that conservation and preservation through faithful recreation
and considered response does not have its place, but arguably only at certain
Quality and maintenance
Street furniture on the whole is less permanent that architecture but it is
rarely a temporary exhibit and does require a degree of longevity. Unfortunately
what seems like a good idea can quickly appear tired and a mistake if the design,
materials and engineering are substandard or ill conceived, whether the style
is contemporary or heritage.
Enduring quality is important if products are to give a positive reflection
of context. Materials that are robust and stand the test of time contribute
to a product appearing in a good state of repair for a much greater percentage
of its life. High quality materials, although necessitating higher capital expenditure,
can also deliver value through much longer replacement cycles and lower day-to-day
The perceived quality, maintenance and newness of a piece of street furniture
as well as making an area look appealing also affects its functionality. A dirty
broken bench invites you to sit on it no more than an overflowing battered bin
encourages you to use it.
This has a special relevance with signage. If you are to believe that the information
being communicated is relevant then you have to first decide that it is current.
A badly maintained sign that appears to be neglected can never instil this confidence.
Quality of materials and design alone are not enough, maintenance and ownership
is important too. A piece of street furniture that has apparent ownership and
is visibly maintained on a regular basis is no direct deterrent to vandalism
and abuse, but it is less of an invitation. This is especially relevant to tagging
(graffiti). If removed on a regular basis, choice of quality materials can assist
with the ease of this, then the object becomes less of a target. After all the
point of tagging is to be seen by others.
Contributing to a sense of place
Street furniture products that fulfil function, are well maintained and reinforce
the identity of a place can over time become a part of the place and eventually
start to represent it in some way.
But however well designed a product is it can only have the potential to become
an icon in this way if it is built to last. Whether longevity of service in
itself is enough, and how much we need to like the aesthetic as well is debateable.
However it is undeniable that products like George Gilbert Scott’s red
telephone box and the London Underground Roundel, through longevity of service
and familiarity, have become icons that represent Britain and London respectively
This is not to say that all well designed products that reflect the character
of a place and can provide longevity of service will take on icon status, only
time can give that answer. But designing street furniture in this way provides
the possibility that we might add to the history and future heritage of a city
or region and in doing so contribute to that environment’s sense of place.
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