Urban punctuation

From benches to bollards, street lamps to bus shelters, street furniture is an essential part of the urban fabric. Lauren Hills reports on its growing importance in the Middle East.
Urban punctuation
By Lauren Hills
Wed 21 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

From benches to bollards, street lamps to bus shelters, street furniture is an essential part of the urban fabric. Lauren Hills reports on its growing importance in the Middle East.

Like onset extras, street furniture is one of those elements frequently overlooked but very much needed to make up the whole.

If iconic buildings can be called Dubai's show stealers, then it is its everyday items such as bollards and benches that are its quieter cast members barely visible in the background.

Unlike cities such as Paris, London, Madrid or Rome, cities in the Middle East are yet to fully comprehend the importance of proper public furnishings.

Take them away, however, and people immediately notice that something is missing even if they are hard pressed to put their finger on exactly what it is.

Lining pavements, parks, public spaces and residential developments, street furniture provides the punctuation for open spaces.

Both functional and attractive, it is a driver of pedestrian activity: bollards act as safety elements; benches create rest stops; bus stops provide a form of shelter. And unlike its flimsier counterpart outdoor furniture, street furniture adds permanence to a city intrinsically helping to create a sense of place.

"Street furniture can make a city look more finished, adding important touches that infuse the areas around the buildings with a sense of belonging; it can make a city feel more complete," comments Richard Kornmayer, export manager of urban decor design and manufacture company Fundicio Ductil Benito.

Changing times

Traditionally, street furniture has not held a great deal of prominence in the region, frequently overlooked or put in as an afterthought into developments. This is now starting to change, however, say suppliers.

"Before there wasn't much thought about street furniture," says Alex Charawani, managing partner of Gebal Co LLC, which has supplied street furniture for Nakheel's Dubai Waterfront and Aldar's Al Raha Beach project in Abu Dhabi.

"People would just put a bench here and a bench there. But what we are seeing now in discussions we have with Aldar and other big developers is that they are saying ‘This is our building, this is our design theme, and we want to continue it'. We are discussing materials and not only in terms of the quality - the physical thing that you sit on - but in terms of what would look best in a particular area."Suvarna Jeetendra, managing director of  outdoor solutions manufacturer and distributor Bluestream agrees that interest in street furniture is growing although he says that the amount of importance attached to it varies.

"There are landscapers and developers who are careful with their selection of ornaments for their projects and communicate with us well ahead of time, and at the same time there are firms that only start considering street accessories in the last stages of development thus giving us very little time to design, supply and install the furnishings," he says.

"Nonetheless, overall there has been a genuine increase in the consideration for community spaces and developments across the region."

Such interest is vital, he adds, in helping to give a city or development character. "Unlike the more established cities in the west like Paris, London, Madrid or Rome, cities in the Middle East are yet to fully comprehend the importance of proper public furnishings," he says.

"Some of the cities have taken strong measures in the right direction towards implementing street furnishing that resonate the area's personality, however, there is still a long way to go before we see anything like a structured city furnishing program like the recent one in Toronto."

Aesthetic appeal

Beyond mere functionality, street furniture is valued for its ability to add to the aesthetical appeal of a development or enhance its brand identity. While practicality is at the heart of the application of street furniture, it is its design that gives visitors an emotional connection to an area.

 "Street furniture can be an intricate part of the city or nation's identity and history," says Jeetendra. "Much like the red telephone boxes of Britain or the streetlamps of Paris - certain elements of local streetscapes are very strongly associated with the city even on an international level."

There is a growing market for upmarket street furniture notes Marco Vivan, international sales manager of high-end Italian street furniture company Lab 23.

"There is a lot of interest in new furniture; in new designs. People are willing to pay more for good designs and a lasting product. There is room to do something quite special because [developers] want the furniture to reflect the developments," he says. "People are becoming more conscious about how street furniture can improve a public space," he adds.

Luxury elements are very common among street furniture designs says Jeetendra. "Comfortable bench designs, bicycle park spaces, collapsible bollards, automatic toilet facilities and even hand sanitizer kiosks are some of the key opulent options. These are yet to enjoy strong exposure in the Middle East market, but it is just a matter of time."Street furniture is also used to express the identity of a development. The design of the street furniture at Dubai Properties' The Walk, for example, has a Mediterranean feel reflecting the architectural theme of the surrounding tower blocks.

"Street furniture is something that is always optional, but it helps to give a different atmosphere to the landscape. Many municipalities and [authorities] will provide a budget for good quality, well designed street furniture to give a certain flair to the place," notes Kornmayer.

Public pride

Street furniture also has another purpose, in encouraging people to take more responsibility for public spaces.

A case in point is the arrival within the past year of recycling bins within Dubai, which have encouraged more environmentally friendly habits from residents.

Such measures are a positive step in engendering people to take more pride in their environment, says Charawani.

"If you are putting benches down, putting recycling bins and litter bins down, you are creating a space that is all part of the wider education for the public about preserving their own environment; recycling and keeping things clean. It encourages responsibility within public space, and gives people a sense of pride in the areas that surround them," he says.

Street furniture may have been overlooked in the past, but as developments complete and mature, it is likely to have a growing importance in the region.

Ivan Palmini, head architect of the Italian-based urban design firm All+, which designed the Loco street furniture range, believes the urban expansion will drive demand for street furniture in the UAE.

"The UAE is one of the most attentive countries with regards to design and innovation, especially in architecture. I think that the demand for street furniture will continue to increase in the region as people want to improve the areas surrounding the developments," he says.

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