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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 the attraction.


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.

Visual Identity
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 thresholds.

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 maintenance costs.

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 as places.
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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