An easy definition of urban furniture would be all the furniture items you find in the outdoors. But it goes further than that. It means things like park benches and litter bins, in all our public spaces – both indoor and out – streets, parks, shopping centres, etc. They are pieces for everybody, that we all share. Also called street furniture, these elements are usually fixed in place and have a specific purpose. They can be for sitting on, or for throwing your rubbish into, for example.
But urban furniture is much more than just benches and bins. It’s what people need, in the places where they need it. It can refer to a whole range of items: bike racks, bus stops, bollards, planters, seats, picnic tables, water fountains, streetlights, parasols and much more. It can also change over time. For example, phone boxes – once a common piece of urban furniture – are no longer needed today.
Street furniture adds comfort and character to our public spaces, helping people to enjoy a better experience outdoors. It’s often something you don’t really notice until it’s not there – just imagine a park with nowhere to sit. It’s all too common to see rubbish blowing around because there isn’t a designated place for people to throw it away.
We can divide urban furniture into categories according to function: Rest, Illumination, Waste disposal, Shelter, etc. How are people going to use the area and what should we provide for them to make their experience better? Let’s look closer at some of the furniture items in each category.
In the ‘Rest’ category, we find all kinds of seating: benches, seats, picnic tables, loungers, etc. Their specific function is to provide a space for rest, reflection, and contemplation outdoors. When choosing seating it’s a good idea to think about why it’s being provided. Will people need to eat there? Is it for them to sit on their own, or with others? Is it a place to sit for a while, or just a short stop? All these questions can help determine which type of seating will work best in the space.
The main function of urban illumination is to give light to an open space at night. Streetlights provide greater security to people in public spaces after dark. They can also be used to highlight certain areas within a space. For example, a path lined with illuminated bollards can provide a clear, safe way for a pedestrian or cyclist at night. This category includes all kinds of streetlights, lamps, bollards with lights, and low-level lighting in the public space. The brightness is measured in lumens and can range from around 200 lumens for a landscape element, to 5000+ for streetlights. Many streetlights nowadays have energy saving LED bulbs, and many are solar powered.
Furniture for waste disposal includes many kinds of litter bins. There are a huge range of options: small or large; swinging or fixed; with or without lid; for separation of recyclables; for pet waste, etc. Just as with benches, when choosing bins it’s a good idea to consider how the space will be used. How many people use it? Is it near to a picnic area and easy to get to? How will the rubbish be collected and how often? We’ve seen so many projects with overflowing bins in one area and empty ones elsewhere – the key is to provide enough waste disposal and in the right places.
Elements in the shelter category offer shade and/or protection from rain and wind. They include public transport stops, cycle hubs and parasols. They are often installed alongside other pieces of urban furniture: for example, a bus stop may include a bench, or a parasol may be fixed to a picnic table. The exact shelter required will depend on the climate – is a parasol needed to protect from the sun or the rain?
Urban furniture is a huge field, and this is just a short introduction to a few of the options available. Apart from furniture the term can even include things like bike racks and playground equipment. If you’re choosing urban furniture for a project, a good place to start is to think about how people will use the space and to ask questions about it. This will help you to decide which elements will work best, as well as how many are needed and where to place them.
Every project is unique, and each will work best with a different combination of pieces. At Neko, one thing we love about working in this field is the way that thoughtfully designed street furniture can really be the cherry on the cake of a beautiful urban project. A well thought out urban furniture project will attract visitors who really use and enjoy the space as intended.
Since 2005 we work with architects, urban designers and governments designing the perfect solutions to complement their projects. Take a look at our industrial design consultancy, or contact us to discover how we can help you with design for your urban projects.
Interested in reading more? Here’s another article about how to choose urban furniture for a park.