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How street furniture shapes aesthetics of urban life

Jun 17, 2024 06:28 AM IST

Street furniture enhances urban spaces by improving their aesthetics, functionality, and sociability.

Dusty, tarred roads. Uneven sidewalks with broken benches. Zebra crossings with paint peeling off. Rusty traffic signals. Streets in Indian cities often appear dull and devoid of life, and experts largely attribute this to uninspiring street furniture.

The revamped footpath at Moti Bagh. (Vipin Kumar/HT Photo)
The revamped footpath at Moti Bagh. (Vipin Kumar/HT Photo)

Street furniture— benches, trash cans, streetlamps, signposts, bus stops, public toilets, kiosks, and bicycle racks —enhances urban spaces by improving their aesthetics, functionality, and sociability. These fixtures do more than just decorate, they provide places for rest, ensure safety, and contribute to a city’s unique identity and history: think of Britain’s iconic red telephone boxes or the enchanting street lamps of Paris.

In India, while cities such as New Delhi, Coimbatore, and Bengaluru have seen sporadic instances of thoughtfully designed street furniture, the broader importance of such elements in urban design has been largely overlooked. As a result, most streets fail to function as inviting public spaces.

“Streets should serve as outdoor rooms for cities, as social spaces where people can come, sit, and meet others. Street furniture is an essential part of the social infrastructure of a city. An outdoor space allows you to see and be seen. When a city designs a street, the focus must be on people, not vehicles,” said Delhi-based urban designer Aakash Hingorani, who has redesigned streets in many cities, including Delhi, Coimbatore, and Srinagar.

Design vs durability

Historically, street furniture in Indian cities has evolved from simple, utilitarian structures to more diverse and aesthetically pleasing elements. During the colonial era, urban planning introduced basic amenities such as benches, streetlamps, and public drinking fountains, often influenced by British design principles. Post-independence, rapid urbanisation and population growth shifted the focus to functionality and cost-efficiency, often at the expense of aesthetics and durability.

Experts highlight several challenges that Indian cities face when it comes to street furniture. Vandalism is a pervasive issue, with benches, bus shelters, and other fixtures frequently stolen, damaged, or defaced. Additionally, the placement of street furniture is often haphazard and uneven, resulting in cluttered or neglected areas that fail to serve the community effectively.

Another significant problem is the poor design of many street furniture pieces. Often lacking ergonomic consideration and durability, they fail to complement the aesthetics of their surroundings. Instead of enhancing the beauty and functionality of streets, these inadequacies contribute to a chaotic urban environment.

In 2022, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) announced plans to redevelop 250 kiosks under the Smart City Mission. As a prototype, NDMC built a 6x6 feet concrete kiosk with terrazzo flooring near the Constitution Club at Rafi Marg. However, many criticised the design as rudimentary and lacking in aesthetics.

“It was designed by our in-house architect, keeping durability in mind. The work on the project is on hold right now but will start soon. We are relooking at various aspects of the kiosks, including design. We want to create kiosks that are durable, functional, and have an attractive design that complements the surrounding environment,” said NDMC vice chairman Satish Upadhyay.

Last year, Mumbai residents expressed strong opposition to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) decision to install street furniture—seating and lighting—designed in a Victorian Gothic style at the Marine Drive Promenade. Residents wrote to the corporation, urging a reconsideration of the design, emphasising that the Art Deco style — which characterises buildings on this iconic stretch — should guide any new street furniture designs to ensure aesthetic harmony and respect for the historical context.

“The Marine Drive promenade already has a lot of seating areas. It is not to say that no new furniture should be added, but there should not be any compromise with the integrity and historic significance of the precinct. You simply cannot install colonial Victorian Gothic style furniture in an Art Deco heritage precinct. Civic officials told us that the project was implemented on a pilot basis,” Atul Kumar, president of the Nariman Point Churchgate Residents Association, said.

Local context matters

Architects state that street furniture should be designed in harmony with its surroundings and coordinated with other elements.

“There are three important aspects to street furniture: location, function, and aesthetics. Furniture must be placed in the right location and should add to the charm and character of the street. Unfortunately, in our cities, the conversation surrounding street furniture focuses primarily on the need for it to be vandal-proof. This leads to compromises in design, so you see concrete furniture everywhere—benches and bollards—that is often not aesthetically appealing,” said Goonmeet Singh Chauhan, co-founder of Design Forum International (DFI), a Delhi-based architectural firm.

“Citizens experience cities through shared urban spaces. While there are occasional examples of good street design, overall, the design vocabulary falls short. The civic bodies’ tendering system prioritises the lowest bidder for public works, including design services. This lack of investment in design skills contributes to the poor design sense seen in Indian cities,” Chauhan added.

Pune-based architect Prassana Desai said the location of street furniture must be carefully chosen. “There is no need to create seating on every street; it has to have pedestrian traffic. Its primary function is practical, not aesthetic,” said Desai.

Success stories

While Mumbai’s Victorian Gothic-style furniture at the Marine Drive promenade faced criticism, a new modern bus stop in Worli has garnered praise. Redeveloped by BEST last year, the bus stop features a library, multiple USB charging points, a post box, QR codes, and shaded seating areas.

The new, modern bus stand at Worli, Mumbai. (HT Photo)
The new, modern bus stand at Worli, Mumbai. (HT Photo)

BEST plans to refurbish 600 of its 3,000 bus stops with similar facilities.

Similarly, the furniture at the redesigned Race Course Road in Coimbatore has been instrumental in transforming the 2.5 km stretch into a vibrant public space. As part of the Smart Cities Mission, the street underwent a remarkable overhaul, featuring a diverse array of meticulously designed furniture strategically placed along its length. “From bus shelters and benches to swings, play equipment, open gym facilities, bookshelves, LED display boards, drinking water facilities, column lights, and fountains, every element was carefully considered to ensure functionality, aesthetics, and alignment with the local context. Today, Red Course Road is one of the city’s most bustling public spaces, attracting thousands of visitors daily,” said Baskar Srinivasan, General Manager of Coimbatore Smart City.

Some architects emphasise the importance of sustainable and environmentally friendly furniture in Indian cities, prioritising material and designs that minimise environmental impact.

In 2018, the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC) organised the Vadodara Street Furniture Camp, inviting local architects to design innovative street furniture using scrap materials from its yard. “The idea was to utilise the city’s scrap to develop sustainable street furniture. 30 artists participated, crafting a range of furniture, including benches, light poles, dustbins, and safety boxes,” said Pryank Shah, a Vadadora-based architect and founder of Meraki Design Studio, which curated the camp.

“Such furniture ensures sustainability, customization, and gives a distinct character to the city. Off-the-shelf furniture often looks the same in every city, but every city has a different character and climate, requiring suitable design and materials,” Shah said.

Enhancing walkability

Aswathy Dilip, Managing Director of ITDP India, highlighted the role of street furniture in enhancing walkability in cities by promoting safety and comfort for pedestrians.

“As street furniture enhances walkability in cities, it should be situated within the multi-utility zone of the footpath to prevent obstructions for pedestrians. The design and placement of furniture should prioritise universal accessibility and ensure convenience in both usage and maintenance,” she said.

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