Turning streets into destinations, one bench at a time

Outdoor furniture and art are essential parts of a healthy urban environment

This is part 4 of 5 in the series Healthy cities

By Natalia Pryadilina,
Roy Damary
and Allan Bonner

Most of us upgrade our furniture over time. We progress from a student’s bookcase made of bricks and planks, through second-hand furniture, to better and newer items. The same is true of green cities, where outdoor furniture is a key component.

If citizens are to be encouraged to walk, bicycle or jog on trails in parks, or just stroll in the streets, they need places to sit down, maybe to tie up their shoelaces, eat a sandwich, admire the view or simply take a breather. In the right climate, there can even be cross-country ski trails with warming huts.


Appropriate urban furniture encourages healthy behaviour and enhances the attractiveness of parks, trails and city streets.

The official policy of Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, is to become greener. So it’s improving urban amenities, working through the Committee on Urban Construction, which is part of the city council.

Wood is the obvious choice of material for outdoor furniture, fitting especially well into parks and woodlands. Even for the streets, it’s softer in appearance than metal, and can be stained, painted, sanded and refurbished. Moreover, most cities, including Ekaterinburg, have a plentiful supply of timber. And they have the workers and enterprises with the skills to turn it into furniture.

Urban street furniture should be designed to take account of:

  • Aesthetics: It should reflect the architectural, compositional and artistic patterns of their space in the urban environment. Each new element must fit harmoniously into the environment, giving it an attractive and finished look. Examples are found in the flower beds, rubbish bins and benches in the city-centre streets of Ekaterinburg.
  • Safety: There are choices to be made on the shape, optimal height, eliminating unnecessary parts and sharp angles, and fire safety. Measures should be taken to make outdoor furniture as safe as possible.
  • Functionality: Dimensions and design elements need to reflect the purpose of the furniture. If it’s a bench, it should be convenient and comfortable. How many people should be able to share a bench? How many benches should there be and how far apart on a street or trail? A waste basket should be easy to use and simple to empty.
  • Durability: This means reliability, resistant to the effects of weather and use, and resilient to vandalism, including graffiti.
  • Versatility: Simple installation with concrete footings, modular construction, some pre-fabrication off-site and quick assembly onsite with simple hardware.
  • Practicality: Easy to maintain, repair and refurbish.

All these requirements are met by wooden furniture. Nevertheless, wood requires serious pretreatment for best use and durability.

Pine, notably the heartwood rather than the sapwood, provides a common and inexpensive material for outdoor furniture. This wood has a loose structure, with a high resin content and low swelling coefficient. It’s resistant to biological corrosion and can be easily machined, allowing for carving, polishing, drilling and other modifications.

Heat treatment of wood provides a high-quality material that addresses many problems that until recently could be solved only partially by using special types of wood or expensive coatings. Heat treatment, involving prolonged exposure to high temperatures in specialized equipment, has a variety of benefits:

  • The moisture content of wood is reduced by 50 to 90 per cent (depending on the heat treatment conditions and raw materials). The material is thus lighter, the surface becomes denser and the cellular structure changes. This leads to far less warping.
  • Wood sugars, a nutrient medium for microorganisms, burn out, reducing the attraction to wood-eating organisms.
  • The resin from coniferous trees almost completely flows out or burns out. Pine produces much resin as a defence mechanism against damage, but leaks of resin in furniture aren’t pleasant for those sitting on it.
  • The sap is also burned off, avoiding leakage that causes paint to peel.
  • The material acquires a golden brown colour all the way through, so sawing or sanding the wood don’t cause noticeable colour differences.

The streets of Ekaterinburg are being beautified with outdoor benches, flowerbeds and decorative elements. In fact, some of the items preceded the green city project.

The city is calling for outdoor wooden furniture to enhance urban parks, gardens, rest places at businesses, public gardens, public transport stops, gazebos and even balconies in high-rise buildings.

Various public areas – formed with the help of park benches and kiosks, flowerpots and rubbish bins – provide an attractive environment for residents. Wooden furniture fits harmoniously into parks alongside trees, providing little gathering places and rest stops for walkers, joggers and bicyclists.

Wooden sculptures also fit remarkably well into the project. Works of art make for better resting sports. Some North American cities recognize this and require developers to spend one per cent of their total budgets on public art.

There’s an emergency response role for public art, too. In New Orleans, large pieces of public art serve as gathering places in case of an evacuation order.

In Ekaterinburg, art also serves a cultural function. In the park of Russian foresters, wooden sculptures provide authentic decoration and greet visitors at the entrance. Within the park is a gallery of 19 tall wooden sculptures linked to the history of the Riphean Mountains, once know as the Ural Mountains. The sculptures, made long before the green city project, now inspire new creations.

Urban amenities are of greater value if they serve multiple purposes. A street need not be just a means of getting from A to B. It can provide shops and eating places. And it can provide a pleasant walk, with works of art, seating for rest stops and trees for shade. Indeed, a street can be a destination in its own right.

Streets have even more potential uses. If the art reflects history and culture,  and if the walk is pleasant, a street creates an interesting, fulfilling classroom for adults and children alike.

Another dimension of streets’ usefulness is in an emergency. As with the evacuation gathering points in New Orleans, Japanese benches can contain emergency supplies. And bus shelters around the world provide shelter in inclement weather.

Outdoor furniture is a complex, vital component in the well-being of a modern city.

Part 5 next week: The greening of a city is really a process of creating a circulatory system.

Dr. Allan Bonner is a Troy Media columnist who is an urban planner and crisis manager. His next book is Cyber City Safe: Emergency Planning Beyond the Maginot Line. Dr. Roy Damary, Oxonian, Harvardian and graduate of Lausanne University, is president of the Swiss-based Graduate Institute of Business and Management and honourary professor of the Ural State Forest Engineering University in Ekaterinburg, Russia. He teaches online business courses at Robert Kennedy College, Zurich. Natalia Pryadilina is associate professor of the Department of Economics and Economic Security of the Ural State Forestry Engineering University (USFEU, Ekaterinburg). Her main scientific interests are strategies for development of regions and enterprises, and forest management. The results of the research work have been published in more than 50 scientific articles.

outdoor furniture, art

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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