As urban housing gets squeezed, it’s time for smart street furniture

Link NYC provides wifi in the streets of New York. Image: Getty.

Increasing urbanisation, denser city living, more expensive apartment prices and higher rents are reshaping our access to and use of urban space. Room-sharing websites are one sign that the cost of city living is driving people to consider sharing rooms with strangers out of necessity. Those flats are not homes anymore.

If people can’t spend time in their flat – because it is too crowded, too noisy or not safe enough – they end up spending more time in public spaces like libraries or quasi-public spaces like gaming arcades or shopping malls. Dutch Prizker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas calls this Junkspace. Others are spending more time in the street, plazas and parks.

How does the city cater for people in these places? Imagine a home furnished with the kind of furniture we typically see on the street. Would it feel comfy?

Generally the design of this kind of public furniture has a strictly defined scope. It has to be vandal-resistant, easy to install, require little to no maintenance, not encourage littering, tie in with the style of the precinct, etc.

Public furniture also has an established typology – benches and seats mainly. This restricts what we can do in public (sit down with a straight back, we can’t lounge). These are part of the design considerations to provide a bench for people to sit on.

What if we want to do more than just sit?

The spacing, positioning and location of furniture in public space play a big part in deciding what I can look at, with whom, for how long and how I’ll feel while sitting there.

But what if I want to do more then just sit there? Where, for instance, do I plug in my phone or laptop to recharge?

It is also not easy to wash my hands in a public space. For example, I’ve sat down and eaten an orange on a bench, my hands are sticky and I’d like to wash them. Perhaps I’ve also taken off my coat while sitting there. What now?

I’ve got to seek out the nearest public toilet and use the hand basin, but where to put all my other belongings while doing that? On the toilet floor?

A basic human right is access to water and utility services. We need to provide this access in the public sphere, and not just in commercial environments like coffee shops.

Filling up a water bottle is not easy, buying water is – if you can afford it. This is not an equitable solution. It adds to the already significant financial burden of paying high rents and city living.


Think about how design can expand our options

While we have furniture for the street, the street, parks and plazas lack other services. Design embeds a narrow social script in the current range of street furniture. The design of new public furnishings needs to adapt and offer citizens a wider, more diverse range of options for being in the city.

For example, people should have access to facilities to carry out basic healthy living practices, such as washing hands. They also need access to power – perhaps even a facility to heat up food, like a home-made lunch, or a pre-prepared meal from the supermarket.

Furnishing a public space with such new public appliances could transform it, soften it, bring familiarity, comfort and a sense of domesticity to it; a public backyard. The opportunities for a smart city are not just large-scale infrastructure, public transport and traffic monitoring, but also exist at a finer-grained level.

These new kind of street furnishings can be made available to users via a contemporary, digital version of the old city gate. It can require them to log in or authorise them to use equipment via a unique identifier. We already practise this on e-commerce and sharing economy websites.

This new kind of public street furniture can have sensors embedded that monitor and respond in real time to their use. Interactive furniture can be part of a larger dedicated data system. It can inform relevant authorities if the power point is drawing excessive power, or if the noise level at this power point is too loud for the time of day and, in response, turn off the lights and the power.

Parameters can be tested and the calibration of use and user patterns can be explored in line with neighbourhood expectations. The system can then autonomously react to the data gathered.

The ConversationStreet furniture can be reconceived as connected and interactive appliances. These would then provide a gateway that gives people access to everyday utilities. And, by doing so, these new facilities could provide quasi-domestic-style amenity in the public realm, making the city a more equitable and welcoming place for all.

Christian Tietz is senior lecturer in industrial design at UNSW.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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