Seats in the street: How LA's outdoor furniture creates a more livable city

There’s a battle of attrition being waged every day in our cities, and you can watch it all go down on the nearest street corner. Permanence wins over prettiness when it comes to street furniture, and the design of choice for cash-strapped cities is no longer the iconic green park bench at the center of our romanticized visions of public life. It’s the monolithic cement chess table—cut from chunky utilitarian lines, impervious to all sorts of indignities. It does the job, and it perseveres. But it doesn’t welcome us.

Which is a shame. Street furniture can be a transformative part of an urban experience. When done right, the seating and shade structures found on sidewalks and public spaces can show how much a city takes care of its users. Unfortunately, in recent decades, street furniture has become less about providing comfort and more about encouraging its users to move along. And the quest for budget-friendly, data-driven solutions has resulted in cities opting for uninspired, off-the-shelf solutions that end up making a street corner feel even more cold and impersonal.

Luckily, thanks to some smart approaches to the way our streets are being redesigned, cities are slowly moving beyond the "have a seat, but not for too long" mentality. Today’s innovative street furniture has a chance to step up and provide dignity for all.

 Big Blue Bus shelters use a kit-of-parts based on a series of circles  Photo by Lawrence Anderson

Big Blue Bus shelters use a kit-of-parts based on a series of circles

Photo by Lawrence Anderson

Seven years ago, Los Angeles architect Lorcan O’Herlihy was looking at proposal from the city of Santa Monica, California for its Big Blue Bus transit system. It requested a design for custom shading and seating elements at 36 of its highest-volume bus stops—but ignored roughly 300 other stops.

This troubled O’Herlihy. So, working with designer Bruce Mau on the branding, the team extrapolated the budget for 36 sites to 320. "We realized if we spread the wealth democratically, we could shade all the sites," says O’Herlihy. The team’s revolutionary approach is an innovative new way for cities to think about street furniture.

Realizing that a one-shelter-fits-all solution was not economically viable—or logistically possible for the city’s often-narrow sidewalks—the designers proposed a kit of parts that could be customized into clusters. Stops that didn’t need as much shade or seating as others based on tree cover or ridership volume could have fewer elements.

This brought per-stop costs down overall, but more importantly, the light footprint of the kit addressed several concerns from Santa Monica’s business owners, who felt that clunky benches and shelters could become a nuisance or block their tiny storefronts. (Although the original stools in the kit were thematically on-point, new chairs with armrests and back support are better for the elderly.)

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