On the Road: Street Furniture

This month, Spacing Edmonton Editor, Paul Giang, spent his vacation in Montreal and Winnipeg. His next few articles will share experiences stemming from (but not exclusive to) both fascinating cities and how they might relate back to Edmonton’s urban context.

While Edmonton is definitely experiencing a boom in patio culture this summer, there is still a lot of catching up to do in providing basic street furniture that doesn’t just cater to customers at restaurants or cafes. Sure, there is some seating along 104 Street and the public art ‘vessel’ benches along Alberta Avenue, but they are often lacking in other main streets or they are not always necessarily where we want them. If well-executed, street furniture can create desirable public spaces and promote active street life and surveillance (which in turn can be great for businesses). Thus, it should be in the best interest of businesses, the general public, and the City to promote and support a variety of methods to integrate furniture in the public realm. The next few photos will pull examples from my visit to demonstrate some of the opportunities.

1) Sturdy, portable pop-up furniture

2013-08-08 12.38.53-1

A “suitcase” picnic bench in Montreal

While eating breakfast on a patio in Montreal, across the street, a worker in front of his office pulled out a suitcase and transformed it into a picnic bench.  Despite the intended private use, I think the design is quite brilliant and relatively cheap in comparison to conventional picnic tables. These benches could be easily stored and quickly assembled for events in public spaces. Imagine them at a outdoor farmers market, a public park, or even an underused parking lot.

2) Alley furniture

2013-08-15 18.17.25

A bench snugged between two buildings in Wolseley, Winnipeg

Edmonton’s Alley of Light had the right idea to program and make use of an alleyway in downtown Edmonton. However, one thing I did note was the lack of seating during events. It would be nice to get a chance to sit down and enjoy the spectacles and displays that occur in the alley. The one depicted above in Winnipeg has a visible bench, some plant decor, and a poster wall for reason to visit and have some quick relaxation.

3) Public benches, not patios, at storefronts

A bench in front of a cafe. Photo via Parlour Coffee

At times, I find myself waiting outside for a friend at a store or restaurant because that person may not know where it is or what it looks like. In many instances, that business will invest in flower pots and decor to make the exterior quite pretty and welcoming. Still, resting on a bench nearby would definitely make that wait much more enjoyable. The presence of customers or friendly strangers hanging in front of a business may encourage new customers to check it out. If well-located, a business may even become an initial meeting spot because of the outdoor seating.

4) Buffered street furniture

2013-08-14 18.23.06

Public seating along Portage Avenue, Winnipeg

Portage Avenue is eight lanes wide and full of car traffic. Despite that, it has intimate, inward-facing street furniture where people can sit, talk, and people watch. Although this would require a lot of investment for such infrastructure, there are definitely opportunities for developers and the city to create these spaces along wide boulevards like 104 Avenue. In the photo below, Red River College in Winnipeg’s Exchange District incorporated public space along the sidewalk and its recently constructed building. Could post-secondary institutions as they expand and other developments in Edmonton’s downtown do the same?

2013-08-13 15.54.18

These improvements do not need to be extravagant as the ones shown above. They can be relatively simple as well (see example below). There are also many other benefits to developers: such landscape and street furniture improvements could replace unnecessary water fountains (and their maintenance costs), improve drainage and still provide excellent amenity/meeting space for workers. Let’s keep this in mind when we talk about street life and shift the discussion to beyond just patios.

Street Furniture in Montreal. Photo via @Streetfilms