How street furniture is being transformed
Photo: Teledisko. A disused phone booth in Berlin has been transformed into a mini disco
Newspaper racks are being used to collect compost, payphones are becoming Wi-Fi hotspots and toilets are turning into cafes as street furniture that has seen its usefulness fade gets reinvented. But do these quirky designs always work?
It was the softest of soft launches on a Tuesday in January, for the biggest urban public Wi-Fi system ever commissioned. As the first four LinkNYC kiosks – advance party of an eventual citywide army of 7,000 – went live on Manhattan’s Third Avenue, most walkers hurried past the devices, despite the efforts of project ambassadors handing out leaflets.
The kiosks are striking: 10-ft tall, made of aluminium, marked with the universalWi-Fi symbol, they have large flat panels showing digital advertising, and a thin side panel with USB charging slots, a headphone jack, a keypad for phone calls, an emergency button, and a space for a future tablet-sized screen that will run Android apps to navigate the city.
Around New York, orange plywood cones cover holes where Links kiosks will sprout. Each was, until recently, the site of that near-obsolete entity, the payphone. Some 11,000 payphones are set to disappear. Titan, the city’s main payphone operator, is a partner in Intersection, the venture deploying LinkNYC; other investors include Control Group and Sidewalk Labs – a Google-backed startup headed by a former deputy mayor, Dan Doctoroff.
Photo: CityBridge. One of the LinkNYC kiosks in New York
Offering ultra-fast, gigabit Wi-Fi with a 400-ft range, the Links promise connectivity across broad swathes of the city, with potential to make home or coffee shop internet unnecessary for people located close enough to the kiosks.
But if passers by seemed oblivious, it may have been because the Links were just another item amid the street clutter. Close by stood lamp posts, traffic control boxes, tree planting guards, rubbish bins, fire hydrants, bike racks, post boxes, parking meters, newspaper stands, bus shelters and vendor stalls.
Known as street furniture, these items span a range of needs and relevance to urban life. Some are crucial for safety; others are convenient; others have seen their purpose change or fade. Their types and design vary by city. But all face rethinking by planners imagining the city of the future, or by enterprising individuals with creative ideas.
The result is a wave of “repurposing” in which public toilets are turned into cafes, newsstands are made into food kiosks, parking meters take charity donations, and phone booths become party spaces. At the pavement’s edge, parking spots are being reclaimed and turned into “parklets” (mini parks). Buildings have long been re-purposed (warehouses into lofts, churches into condos), and so has large infrastructure, such as New York’s High Line. But change at pavement level is more recent.
Expensive and large scale, LinkNYC sits at one end of the spectrum of street furniture reuse. It is not the payphones proper that are repurposed (rather, they are uprooted) but the holes that lead to them. “One of the most expensive parts of a network project is the last 10 feet, getting from the manhole to the sidewalk,” says Colin O’Donnell, Intersection’s chief innovation officer. “This way we can reuse the conduit.”
Photo: New York Compost Box Project. Old newspaper boxes on New York’s streets are being used as food waste compost boxes.
At the other end are the one-off, the temporary, the unauthorised, the playful. Debbie Ullman, a former tabloid newspaper designer in New York aware of the decline of print media at the hands of the web, turned three “dormant” newspaper vending boxes into compost boxes for food waste, raising awareness of the eco-friendly process of urban composting. In Berlin, two phone booths are now brand new coin-operated micro dance clubs with electronic jukeboxes that can take video selfies. A growing business in Britain rents out iconic red phone boxes to use as cafes.
Somewhere in between, in terms of permanence and scale, is the boom in repurposed public toilets – especially the larger facilities in Europe, some of which were quite ornate in their prime. These were progressively shut down over the decades, partly to discourage unseemly activity, but also thanks to the spread of home plumbing.
Britain has generated enough hip coffee, booze, or food spots in ex-loos to warrant “best of” lists in magazines. They have clever names, like Ladies & Gents or WC – Wine & Charcuterie. Last year, Auckland council, New Zealand, requested proposals to rent and reuse five of the city’s “heritage toilets”. In US cities, with fewer surviving public toilets, this repurposing is more rare. One ex-toilet structure in Chicago’s Logan Square became a volunteer-run art space called Comfort Station in 2010.
Street furniture repurposing isn’t automatically a winner. A wave of conversions has seen parking meters in downtown areas turned into units in which passers by drop coins for charity. Versions exist in cities large and small, from Denver to Lawrence, Kansas, or Fredericton, New Brunswick. But the take can be anaemic. St Petersburg, Florida, which launched its Power of Change homeless initiative in 2014, reusing parking meters as donation boxes, recently reported a total of $2,582.44 in donations. Advocates for the homeless worry that such programmes give cover to aggressive anti-panhandling enforcement while delivering trivial assistance in exchange.
Photo: St Petersburg City Council. The Power of Change homeless initiative in St Petersburg, Florida, repurposed parking meters as ‘donation stations’ to help the homeless.
Parklets – conversions of parking spaces into miniature areas in which to sit, play, or enjoy greenery – have had varied results as well. Some critics fear they are too dependent on businesses that shoulder part of the costs in exchange for priority access. Adelaide, Australia, is removing a set of parklets that became “a haven for drunks and yobbos”. Still, parklets have enjoyed widespread adoption since they were pioneered in San Francisco in 2010, and best-practice design guides are available.
Other efforts have failed outright. A Chicago entrepreneur launched four “healthy food kiosks” in old newsstands in August 2014, with chef-imagined menus and locally sourced ingredients; by the following March, they had shut, business felled by the Chicago winter. And while a temporary project turned a bus shelter into an urban living room in Minneapolis, a call for proposals to repurpose six big, old fashioned bus shelters for the long term in Rochester, New York, received no replies at all, just “informal proposals” from vendors who could not afford water and electricity hook ups. The shelters were then dismantled.
Photo: Alamy. A bus shelter in Minneapolis is transformed into a ‘Living Room Station’ as part of a larger initiative by the Downtown Improvement District (DID)
Street furniture repurposing faces special constraints. One is the number of entities that operate or regulate pavement objects. These include transportation, sanitation, fire, planning, parks agencies, private parties, business improvement districts, contractors that run bus shelters or bike share schemes, and so on.
“The city itself controls these things less and less,” says Justin Garrett Moore, a senior urban designer at New York City’s Department of City Planning and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Reliance on advertising for funding can limit design options to ones that make room for LED displays or other ad opportunities; and design arguments often favour removing street furniture to reduce clutter, rather than put it to fresh use.
The next wave of street furniture will come from both hi-tech futurism and local improvisation. A payphone of the future design competition that preceded LinkNYC produced a welter of edgy ideas, including concepts for sentient sidewalks or climate monitors. “There’s a lot of work around communication systems embedded into street furniture, the internet of things, a sentient city,” Moore says.
Starfish, a wireless network that can link street devices such as parking meters, was adopted last month by San Jose, California – although the city does not yet know which uses it wants to enable. Closer to the pedestrian experience, a Copenhagen design centre came up with a quirky prototype of parking metersthat generate bird noises and project images on nearby walls, to stimulate the Danish concept of hygge, or cosiness.
But don’t discount the hipster coffee concepts, either – not, for instance, the Grand Newsstand in San Francisco that artist Courtney Riddle adapted into a shop for indie magazines and self-published texts. Moore says one-off street furniture repurposing follows the rich tradition of activism and environmental justice that produced community gardens, bicycle advocacy, and anti-pollution projects in underprivileged neighbourhoods.
A bar in a toilet or compost in a newspaper box might seem small right now, but could be the precursor to something necessary and liberating. What used to be guerrilla strategies, Moore says, are now “part of the toolkit in the place-making regime”.
So, what do you think? Would the UK benefit from some inner city transformation of street furniture?