Public space is one of the pillars that a strong sustainable urban city is built on, going hand-in-hand with public transit and infrastructure – which is why urban designers have been working to exploit public space in the best way possible. Inspired by the work of urban designer Jan Gehl, who create detailed data analytics on how to make public spaces better, a group of designers led by Sarah Williams from MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab is designing smart street furniture. The initiative – dubbed Project BenchMark, can be used in streets and public spaces to serve people via their smart phones.

According to the report detailing their prototypes, developing robust and effective methods for studying public spaces that result in more informed decision-making has always been a challenge for urban designers. “Yet, we now live in a new era where data is everywhere, sensor networks and the Internet of Things (IoT) have created big data sets that have radically changed our ability to measure anything, and this project set out [to see] if these tools could help us measure public space,” Williams tells progrss. 

Diagram of smart street furniture.

Courtesy of Gehl Institute

Funded by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the designers created six bench design prototypes. The BenchMark benches and signs are designed to collect anonymous data about where a given bench is located, how close it is to other BenchMark benches, whether it is in use as a seat, a backrest, a table, or something else. The data collected could also identify the number of people in the public space in which the smart street furniture is placed at any given time, as well as identify environmental conditions like light and noise.

“The benches were designed [out of] wood so that the design templates could be milled at any local CNC routing shop, making them easy to build by anyone,” Williams explains. “The model is easy to replicate, but we learned a lot from the prototype and future designs will be easier to build and will include better sensors.”

Cutting wood to make the smart street furniture.

Courtesy of Gehl Institute

While the project does not represent a new urban intervention, it does build on a relatively new idea. Smart street furniture is already being used in public spaces in cities like New York; in March 2016, LinkNYC replaced public telephones with poles that provide free WiFi hotspots and charging stations, among other city services. Also, some bus stops now and city lights now provide WiFi. “We are just at the beginning of a new trend,” Williams says.

Nonetheless, the ability to access the data has been difficult. “BenchMark provides a way for anyone to collect and access data to describe the places we live [in] and make informed decisions about them,” she continues, adding that the project also creates a highly accessible Do-It-Yourself measurement tool for public space which gives anyone access to the power of Big Data.

Smart street furniture in public space

Courtesy of Gehl Institute

While making street furniture smart is not pressing, Williams believes it can be useful. Whether it provides WiFi to the public or measures public space, it adds a digital layer to the city. “Using street furniture to measure public space can help anyone build a detailed and accurate pictures of a place – which is useful for all the automated mobility products we will soon be seeing on our city streets,” she elaborates.

The Civic Data Design Lab, an MIT collective that works with data to understand the public good, developed the BenchMark project back in 2017 to see how “smart” street furniture, equipped with sensors and machine-learning technology, might augment urban design methodologies for measuring public life. BenchMark was also influenced by the desire to challenge the status quo of private-sector actors shaping the augmentation of urban space with smart technologies, by providing alternative smart street furniture.

Smart street furniture placed in public markets

Courtesy of Gehl Institute.