The payphone that became a disco: how street furniture is being transformed

Newspaper racks are being used to collect compost, payphones are becoming Wi-Fi hotspots and toilets are turning into cafe as street furniture that has watched its usefulness fade get reinvented. But do these quirky designs always work?

It was the softest of soft launchings on a Tuesday in January, for the biggest urban public Wi-Fi system ever commissioned. As the first four LinkNYC kiosks advance party of an eventual citywide army of 7, 000 went live on Manhattans Third Avenue, most walkers hastened past the devices, despite the efforts of project ambassadors handing out leaflets.

The kiosks are striking: 10 -ft tall, made of aluminium, marked with the universal Wi-Fi emblem, they have big flat panels showing digital ad, and a thin side panel with USB charging slots, a headphone jack, a keypad for phone calls, an emergency button, and a space for a future tablet-sized screen that they are able to operate Android apps to navigate the city.

Around New York, orange plywood cones covering holes where Links kiosks will bud. Each was, until recently, the site of that near-obsolete entity, the payphone. Some 11,000 payphones are set to disappear. Titan, the citys main payphone operator, is a partner in Intersection, the venture deploying LinkNYC; other investors include Control Group and Sidewalk Labs a Google-backed startup headed by a former deputy mayor, Dan Doctoroff.

Offering ultra-fast, gigabit Wi-Fi with a 400 -ft range, the Links promise connectivity across broad swathes of the city, with potential to construct home or coffee shop internet unnecessary for people situated close enough to the kiosks.


One of the LinkNYC kiosks in New York. Photograph: CityBridge

But if passers by seemed oblivious, it may have been because the Links were just another item amid the street jumble. Close by stood lamp posts, traffic control boxes, tree planting guards, rubbish bins, fire hydrants, bike racks, post boxes, parking meters, newspaper stands, bus shelters and vendor stalls.

Known as street furniture, these items span a range of needs and relevance to urban life. Some are crucial for safety; others are convenient; others have ensure their purpose change or fade-out. Their forms and design vary by city. But all face rethinking by planners imagining the city of the future, or by enterprising someones with creative ideas.

The result is a wave of repurposing in which public toilets are was transformed into cafe, newsstands are made into food kiosks, parking meters take charity donations, and phone booth become party spaces. At the pavements edge, parking places are being reclaimed and turned into parklets( mini parks ). Builds have long been re-purposed( warehouses into lofts, churches into condos ), and so has big infrastructure, such as New Yorks High Line. But change at pavement level is more recent.

Expensive and large scale, LinkNYC sits at one objective of the spectrum of street furniture reuse. It is not the payphones proper the hell is repurposed( instead, they are uprooted) but the holes that lead to them. One of the most expensive parts of a network project is the last 10 feet, getting from the manhole to the sidewalk, says Colin ODonnell, Intersections chief innovation policeman. This way we can reuse the conduit.


Old newspaper boxes on New Yorks streets are being used as food waste compost boxes. Photo: New York Compost Box Project

At the other aim are the one-off, the temporary, the unauthorised, the playful. Debbie Ullman, a former tabloid newspaper decorator in New York aware of the decline of print media at the hands of the web, turned three dormant newspaper vending boxes into compost boxes for food waste, raising awareness of the eco-friendly process of urban composting. In Berlin, two phone booths are now brand new coin-operated micro dance clubs with electronic jukeboxes that can take video selfies. A growing business in Britain rents out iconic red phone boxes to use as coffeehouse.

Somewhere in between, in terms of permanence and scale, is the boom in repurposed public toilet especially the larger facilities in Europe, some of which were quite ornate in their prime. These were progressively shut down over the decades, partly to discourage unseemly activity, but also thanks to the spread of home plumbing.

Britain has generated enough hip coffee, booze, or food places in ex-loos to warrant best of listings in publications. They have clever names, like Ladies& Gents or WC Wine& Charcuterie. Last year, Auckland council, New Zealand, requested proposals to rent and reuse five of the citys heritage lavatories. In US cities, with fewer surviving public toilets, this repurposing is more rare. One ex-toilet structure in Chicagos Logan Square became a volunteer-run art space called Comfort station in 2010.


The Power of Change homeless initiative in St Petersburg, Florida, repurposed parking meters as gift stations to help the homeless. Photo: St Petersburg City Council

Street furniture repurposing isnt automatically a win. A wave of conversions has considered parking meters in downtown areas turned into units in which passers by drop coins for charity. Versions exist in cities large and small, from Denver to Lawrence, Kansas, or Fredericton, New Brunswick. But the take can be anaemic. St Petersburg, Florida, which launched its Power of Change homeless initiative in 2014, reusing parking meters as gift boxes, recently reported a total of $2,582.44 in gifts. Advocates for the homeless worry that such programmes dedicate cover-up to aggressive anti-panhandling enforcement while delivering trivial assistance in exchange.

Parklets conversions of parking space into miniature areas in which to sit, play, or enjoy greenery have had differed outcomes as well. Some critics dread they are too dependent on businesses that shoulder part of the costs in exchange for priority access. Adelaide, Australia, is removing a decide of parklets that became a haven for drunks and yobbos. Still, parklets have enjoyed widespread adoption since they were pioneered in San Francisco in 2010, and best-practice design guides are available.

Other efforts have failed outright. A Chicago entrepreneur launched four healthy food kiosks in old newsstands in August 2014, with chef-imagined menus and locally sourced ingredients; by the following March, they had shut, business felled by the Chicago winter. And while a temporary project turned a bus shelter into an urban living room in Minneapolis, a call for proposals to repurpose six big, old fashioned bus shelters for the long term in Rochester, New York, received no replies at all, merely informal proposals from vendors who could not afford water and electricity hook up. The shelters were then dismantled.


A bus shelter in Minneapolis is transformed into a Living Room Station as part of a larger initiative by the Downtown Improvement District( DID) in partnership with Metro Transit. Photograph: Alamy

Street furniture repurposing faces special constraints. One is the number of entities that operate or govern pavement objects. These include transportation, sanitation, flame, planning, parks agencies, private parties, business improvement districts, contractors that run bus shelters or motorcycle share strategies, and so on.

The city itself controls these things less and less, tells Justin Garrett Moore, a senior urban designer at New York Citys Department of City Planning and adjunct prof at Columbia University. Reliance on advertising for funding can restriction design options to ones that make room for LED displays or other ad opportunities; and design arguments often favour removing street furniture to reduce clutter, rather than put it to fresh use.

The next wave of street furniture will come from both hi-tech futurism and local improvisation. A payphone of the future design competition that preceded LinkNYC rendered a jumble of edgy ideas, including theories for sentient sidewalks or climate monitors. Theres a lot of work around communication systems embedded into street furniture, the internet of things, a sentient city, Moore says.

Starfish, a wireless network that can connection street devices such as parking meters, was adopted last month by San Jose, California although the city does not yet know which uses it wants to enable. Closer to the pedestrian experience, a Copenhagen design centre came up with a quirky prototype of parking meters that make bird noises and project images on nearby walls, to stimulate the Danish concept of hygge , or cosiness.

But dont discount the hipster coffee ideas, either not, for example, the Grand Newsstand in San Francisco that artist Courtney Riddle adapted into a shop for indie publications and self-published text. Moore tells one-off street furniture repurposing follows the rich tradition of activism and environmental justice that produced community gardens, bicycle advocacy, and anti-pollution projects in underprivileged neighbourhoods.

A bar in a toilet or compost in a newspaper box might seem small right now, but could be the precursor to something necessary and liberating. What used to be guerrilla strategies, Moore says, are now part of the toolkit in the place-making regime.

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