Throughout history, public spaces have enjoyed many different roles in social, political and economic life, changing to suit the needs of the time. We know the ancient Greek agora and Roman Forum as the primary political centres of the city and the spatial cradle of democracy. In the medieval city, the square became the main marketplace, taking on a strong trade and economic role. In the Renaissance, the city became an artwork with public spaces designed to leave a visual impression and showcase architecture. In the industrial era, the factory become the hearth of the city and production the main activity of the community, leading to the first fall in the quality of public spaces. Now a renewal of public spaces is underway and underpinning this is new technology.
Digital technologies have completely changed the way we live and work, rapidly increasing the speed at which we live life. Almost all data, jobs and conversations have become virtual and people are now connected via electronic gadgets and internet access. Public spaces have become merely transit links between destinations no longer acting as a backdrop to social life and leisure pursuits. They remain shaped according to the needs of the past, losing the important role they once played at the heart of communities and have become outdated. In our fast-paced modern lives, people no longer have the time to slow down and enjoy public spaces, most of which aren’t equipped to support our modern, digitally driven lifestyles. The challenge is how to update them and make them relevant again.
The importance of public spaces
Public spaces are at the heart of a big number of global and local concerns so they are becoming a more, and more important part of almost all global agendas including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the United Nations in 2015. SDG’s include 17 goals which should be achieved by 2030 all around the world, covering all spheres of life and development. Goal 11 is related to cities and urban development, it says: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” It also includes 10 targets, two of which are related to the issue of public spaces:
- By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries
- By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities
The New Urban Agenda is a document created for implementation of SDG Goal 11, and according to this document: Public spaces must be considered as multifunctional areas for social interaction, economic exchange and cultural expression among different people and should, accordingly, be devised and managed in order to ensure the social and cultural development of societies and promoting cultural diversity.
These documents propose a step by step methodology as the best way to reach these goals and engender change. They propose small changes which have the biggest possible impact, rather than a huge project involving radical change. One of the biggest challenges is changing an individual's awareness of the space in which they live. A human-centric approach in design is needed, which will take into account all the needs of the modern population, particularly in terms of how we use digital technology and communications.
Small changes, big differences
One of the solutions that requires small change but has a huge impact on public outdoor space is the concept of smart street furniture offering different types of ‘smartness’ and services, such as Wi-Fi and mobile phone charging. As well as being used by passers-by smart furniture, such as smart benches, are also used to collect data for the informed management of urban development or for quick responses to different public service needs. Examples include, smart lighting which detects movement and switches on according to need and rubbish bins with sensors which detect and monitor when bins need emptying. Almost all furniture can be Wi-Fi enabled and designed to collect different kinds of data.
One of the examples that currently stands out is the smart bench network, which can provide a wide range of different services, both as a single bench and a network, such as the one Strawberry Energy provides. Besides providing a place to sit and socialise as a primary use of the bench, this smart bench uses solar energy to provide users free Wi-Fi, USB and wireless mobile charging, and environmental information on air quality, temperature, humidity, air pressure, and noise level. As a network, it collects the same data creating the opportunity for monitoring and analysis.
This way the smart bench performs a direct promotion of solar energy as a source, showing users in real time what it can deliver. The range of services it provides also makes the smart bench relevant, giving it a new contemporary role in modern day life. As a Wi-Fi spot it connects virtual and real space, making it possible to draw a parallel between the public space network and the network of the benches as spots for access to a virtual public space.
A smart future
Urban furniture and smart benches have endless uses and can be easily adapted to different local environments. A great example is the smart bench network in the London Borough of Islington, where the benches were recently enabled to allow users the option to donate two pounds with contactless payment to Cancer Research UK, as a part of a campaign for World Cancer Day.
Smart benches are multifunctional and also create a multifunctional network. They are a discreet way to provide services and collect data without distorting the visual identity of a public space, the smart bench network is set to grow and help improve the experience of urban life as well as the relevance of the data collected on urban living. By presenting the environmental data in real time, benches also enhance and promote transparency and raise awareness of air pollution.
Smart benches provide a plethora of benefits for users and urban management. With this small change huge differences can be made in how we live and enjoy life in cities, making the role of public spaces once again contemporary.
Milos Milisavljevic, CEO, Strawberry Energy
Image Credit: Everything Possible / Shutterstock