Urban design magazine

Public spaces

What is the future of street furniture?

Sketch of street furniture - Photograph by Marc Aurel
Photograph by Marc Aurel

Sociologists 1 and essay writers 2are in agreement. Society is moving at an ever accelerating rate.

This social, economic and technological excitement is becoming both a bad habit and a necessity3.This faster pace of life can generate discomfort and an increasing inability to understand where the world is heading. The only certitude is that an ecological time bomb is ticking that requires radical corrective action.

The desire to better anticipate changes in society and their impact on our living spaces encourages us to imagine future scenarios, particularly for cities that will house 80% of the world’s population in 2050. This is exactly the role of prospective design, to come up with imaginative new uses and innovative associations. There are two different approaches. The first involves using current trends to establish behaviour models whose implications are projected using prospective design (explorative approach). The second verifies the potential compatibility between the present situation and the desired future scenario (normative approach).

Design drives innovation4 by making these hypothesis into reality. It is also a fantastic strategic tool whose comprehensive approach and multi-disciplinary nature can effectively guide investigations5. Using the three main prospective fields – technology, society and the arts – we can reflect on evolution of urban planning.


In 1946, the inventive TRIZ 6 method for problem solving was created. By analysing more than 400,000 patents, the Russian scientist Genrikh Saulovich Altshuller showed that an invention needs to resolve a contradiction inspired by generic solutions from acquired experience. He also established several laws of technical system evolution, of which the most important was called ‘Increasing the Ideality Level’. The design tool and development law helped highlight technology’s progressive dematerialisation, which increased immediate access to the functions of any system designed to meet to user needs7.

The reduced costs and resources involved helped save money8, as well as making it easier to integrate new technologies into information management and intelligent interface production. In public spaces, some functions may seem impossible to simplify (such as protection from the weather). Yet, by taking in account the increasingly immaterial nature of objects, equipment’s informative, signage and even sensory elements can be obtained using ever more ‘transparent’ technology.

Another source of much intellectual speculation are new, so-called intelligent materials that adapt ever better to the demands of the environment. In the near future, programmable materials9 will open endless possibilities for geometric and spatial configuration with different parameters according to the context and user needs.

Today, street furniture is made to last. However, one way to explore temporality in public spaces would be to play with the ephemeral nature of objects and their installation. Everyone could have an impact on the spatial organisation of public spaces and equipment by changing, enhancing or adapting them directly. These numerous short interventions would make it possible to test new techniques, materials, practices and perceptions to demonstrate the value of making certain changes.


Although urban planners, architects and designers contribute their expertise and talent to help improve public spaces, they still depend on current political strategies. However, the methods they use are far more autonomous. This is why today many original public management initiatives are emerging inspired by design methodology. A whole range of tools and methods, from consultation to participative design, could be devised to ensure that public spaces are used by the whole community.

Thanks to their ability to listen, analyse user needs and mix pragmatism with sensitivity, creative professionals are privileged partners for public projects10. In the era of open source11, Do It Yourself12, RepRap13, and cloud computing14 (another form of dematerialisation), each of us should have a say about public landscapes and even contribute to their definition.

The presence of the private and domestic sphere is ever more dominant in public spaces. As the sociologist Dominique Wolton explains, ‘aside from the people and property, the city is a place where freedom of speech is born as a condition of public spaces. This is also where private spaces are created as part of a conquest for individual rights15.’ Why don’t we enhance these stages for daily life by imagining a place of ‘conquest’ where individuals can express themselves? Why don’t we create spaces where individuals feel involved and choose the appropriate street furniture? We should move beyond the Anglo-Saxon residential urban planning model, whose pseudo privatisation of public spaces aims to encourage inhabitants to feel at home and enhance social interactions.

The diverse urban elements that we take for granted constitute the personality of places and their users. They bring into play questions of identity, its representation and therefore its surveillance, not to mention how it is exhibited. We must consequently question the new power given to what Jean-Gabriel Ganascia refers to as ‘sousveillance16’.

At the very heart of public spaces lies the image of the self, which new powers and forms of exclusion aim to control. Whether or not as part of an urban planning strategy, this plays an increasingly important decorative role.

The arts

New conceptual tools, methods and technology have dramatically changed conventions and freed forms. The models and calculations associated with new production methods help create new fantasies and shake up aesthetic, functional and ethical values. Everything becomes possible and accessible. This requires us to find a balance (even an unstable one) as in Christian de Portzamparc’s ‘Third Age of the City17’ that combines coherence and heterogeneity.

As reflections of society, public spaces should represent the different facets of reality from kinesthetic to immaterial experience, as well as the neutrality towards decorative function advocated by Marc Aurel. ‘In creating my street furniture collections, I want to free myself from manufacturers so as to no longer be restricted by their economic concerns. I want to develop my own forms, objects and ideas about staging at my own pace by playing with the different objects and their arrangement rather than the idea of a product range. I want to experiment with new materials that aren’t necessarily recommended in an industry striving for profitability, materials offering added sensory value. Because, for me, sensations, visual effects and texture are very important. I defend the quality of cities and their atmosphere. We must stop lining objects up as if we were clumsily planting trees. The coherence of public spaces can’t be created by juxtaposing different uses, but rather through thoughtful and harmonious compositions. If functions are dematerialised, and this will happen, I’ll the first to exploit its potential. But, at the same time, I’ll always want to create objects with a strong physical presence to provide a human and enriching experience.’

Brought to life by encounters, innovation and memories, public spaces constantly evolve according to their different uses and users. These lived and shared spaces where the uncontrolled and the controlled coexist help structure a city by a creating a changing and intangible identity. The excessive development of generic cities18, chaotic and dense megalopolis structured around the idea of networks, has stopped us from creating a new kind of urbanity. Today there is, however, a powerful desire to associate public spaces and well-being.

Since the early 1990’s, many local authorities have started to understand the strategic importance of these spaces. They are now committed to rehabilitating their territory by protecting the environmental and improving quality of life by managing transport, energy and vegetation. This generates a new relationship with landscapes that produces new objects and spaces that need to be developed.

By establishing a harmonious relationship with nature, maximizing interrelations and encouraging users to appropriate public spaces, urban design creates the conditions for a symbiotic relationship between individuals and their environment, while taking into account the important economic dimension.

Making designs that are social, lasting, appealing and profitable is a difficult yet stimulating challenge in order to create the city of the future.


1/ Hartmut Rosa,(Acceleration. A social critique of time, Discovery), Paris, 2010.


2/ Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber, Trop vite ! (Too Fast!), Albin Michel, Paris, 2010.


3/ ‘The rhythm, sequence, duration and speed of social time, as well as the corresponding temporal perspectives and horizons, are completely controlled by the individual. They have, without doubt, a strong normalising effect in coordinating and regulating actions. Trangressing temporal norms is heavily sanctioned by modern society.’Hartmut Rosa, op. cit.


4/ Document published by the European Comission ‘Design as a Driver of User-Centred Innovation’.


5/ ‘The designer invents scenarios and strategies. The project must therefore draw on the imagination creating new stories and accounts that will add weight to reality.’ Andrea Branzi, La Casa calda, Éditions de l’Équerre, Paris, 1985.


6/ In Russian, ‘Teorija Reshenija Izobretateliskih Zadatch’ (TRIZ); in English, ‘Theory of Inventive Problem Solving’ (TIPS).


7/ For example, listening to music uses increasingly less materials or objects to become a ever more evanescent action.


8/ Thierry Kazazian, Il y aura l’âge des choses légères (There’ll be a Time for Light Things), Victoires Éditions.


9/ Concept of clayelectronics developped by Seth Goldstein and Todd Mowry, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.


10/ Design des politiques publiques (Design and Public Policies). La 27e région, La Documentation française, 2010.


11/ License-free software whose code can be accessed and redistributed by the general public.


12/ ‘Do It Yourself’: any kind of ‘home improvement’ activity, often expressing a desire for independence.


13/ Self-replicating manufacturing machine. http://reprap.org/wiki/RepRap.


14/ IT concept with the aim of delocalising information and computing power to remote servers (often known as cloud computing).


15/ Dominique Wolton, conference 8 November 2007 as part of the ‘Vivre et imaginer la ville’ (Living and imagining the city) cycle organised by Paris’ École normale supérieure.


16/ Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, Voir et pouvoir : qui nous surveille ? (Seeing and power. Who is watching us?), Le Pommier, 2009.


17/ Christian de Portzamparc, ‘La Ville, Âge III’, cycle of conferences on 24 November 1993 ‘Paris d’architectes’ (Architects’ Paris), Pavillon de l’Arsenal 1997.


18/ ‘A generic city is free from the dominance of the city centre, stripped of straightjacket of identity. The generic city breaks free from a destructive cycle of dependence. It reflects immediate needs and capacities. It is a city without history.’ Rem Koolhaas, ‘La Ville générique’ (The Generic City), 1994.


Extract from ‘Domestiquer l’espace public’ (Domesticating Public Spaces) – Archibooks

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