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What Small Municipalities Can Learn from New York’s Street Furniture

Historic custom details give the Big Apple its distinctive look

May 15, 2019

A city view of New York on the Manhattan side approach to the Brooklyn Bridge
Although NYC taxis have changed over the years, they are still a distinctive part of the streetscape.

The atmosphere of a location is built by a thousand small details. Some of this comes down to geography: the quality of light, plants in the ecosystem, and movement of air make their imprint even in the heart of a city. Cities also construct personality with the materials and design of their buildings, common spaces, attractions, and amenities. What would London be without double decker buses? Even modern versions remember previous styles. What would Hong Kong be without junks in the harbor? Although the traditional fishing boats are gone, there are now junk-styled restaurants and cruises that help maintain Victoria Harbour’s unique feel. History is preserved in a recognizable view.

New York has many large iconic buildings—from the unsurpassed art deco of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings to the historic Brooklyn Bridge. Yet New York is also built on smaller scale design. Consider the green metal enclosures emblazoned with bright circles that mark the subway; the sidewalk cellar doors that open onto steep ladder-like stairs; the wrought iron overhang of fire escapes. Many of these small atmospheric details arise from municipal laws, infrastructure, and volume purchasing. Although they may seem like small or practical details when they’re first installed, the look that arises from these choices shape the city for generations.

When small municipalities today are looking at the requisition of street furniture, their choices will similarly echo into the future, creating ambience and place that brands their city, as it grows.

A woman sits on a wood bench watching a grey squirrel
New York City’s World Fair bench is seen throughout the five boroughs.

Benches

Benches invite people out onto the street. Research has shown the presence of comfortable benches to help mental, physical, and social health, and the continuing popularity of dedicated or commemorative benches shows we agree: we love the street furniture that makes a city our home. Seating is also a powerful tool for creating social landscape. A municipality that invites people to gather and interact is engaged in placemaking with their community. Such great spaces often attract tourism and clients to local businesses for a vibrant, engaged streetscape.

The World Fair bench

New York city has several popular bench styles, but the World Fair bench is one of the two most iconic.

Robert Moses, a city parks commissioner in the 30s, wanted to develop an aesthetic that would tie the look of the city together, throughout its many parks. He commissioned a bench design to be created for the 1939 World’s Fair. This World’s Fair Bench is found in formal areas in Central Park, as well as notable installations in Washington Square, Lindsay East River, and Bryant parks. The benches are also a place to rest on the boardwalks along Coney Island, Roosevelt Island, and the North Cove Marina. The precise geometry of the circular arms and half-circular feet reflect the art deco aesthetic popular at the time.

In Central Park, the wood on these benches is often painted green, but plain or stained wood is common in other locations. Original styles feature an X of bracing metal strips across the back.

The Chrystie-Forsythe bench

A series of green-slatted wood benches on concrete brackets edge a walkway near a playground
These Christie-Forsythe (wood-and-concrete) Benches were also designed in the 1930s.

Also developed in the 1930s was the “Christie Forsythe” (Chrystie-Forsythe) bench, known sometimes only as the “wood-and-concrete” bench. This bench is seen all over Central Park.

The NYC Parks board link suggests that “Christie Forsythe” is the correct spelling, but does not offer provenance of the name. Another prominent location for this concrete bench is also found at Sara D. Roosevelt Park, opened in 1934, between Chrystie St. and Forsythe St. in the Lower East Side. It is possible that the bench was originally developed for or installed at this site. Examples are found in other parks opened during the mid-thirties, like Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Although it is slightly less recognizable than the World Fair bench, it also is dotted around the city.

The Chrystie-Forsythe has a comfortable, laid-back style, often placed in rows so that many people can gather and lounge. The concrete looks like a bracket with a shaped flourish that holds sloped wooden slats. These are occasionally replaced with recycled plastic, but wood is still the most common replacement material.

Two Martello bollards with a slope facing traffic guard a pedestrian ramp to the sidewalk
Martello bollards both act as a barrier and a guide that can redirect vehicle energy back to the road.

New York’s bollards—a unique design

Function and form went into the design of some unique New York bollards, a solution the city found when looking for barriers that could act as recoverable traffic protection.

In North America, bollards are often installed to act like a fence, absorbing impact to slow or stop what is striking them. Another type of bollard, the bell bollard, is more common in the close quarters of British roadways. Bell bollards are often placed on tight corners and are designed to redirect energy, rather than stopping it. They catch the errant wheels of a vehicle making a tight turn and they return the vehicle back to the roadway.

Martello bollards are designed to act as both barrier and redirection. In New York, tight turns are less common than on British streets, but traffic density and shared space is a definite challenge. These bollards are therefore designed to both protect pedestrians, as impact absorbing bollards, and to nudge vehicles back to their appropriate places when they wander. Inspired by the densely-walled, protective Martello forts that marked coastal locations across the British Empire, these bollards have a larger profile than a bell bollard. This allows them to stop a vehicle should their directional nudge fail.

These bollards are being installed along areas of heavy traffic and can be seen dotting the Manhattan-side approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.

A colorful brick tenement façade is ornamented by wrought iron fire escapes
Fire escapes were required on New York City apartment buildings built between 1867 and 1968.

New York fire escapes

Fire escapes are not street furniture, but in New York they frame and define the architecture in similar ways. These accents also speak to New York’s history.

New York densified quickly. Like other major cities densifying at the time, NYC was filled with tightly-packed wood-framed buildings, each filled with coal-burning cast-iron stoves. The buildings were deeply vulnerable to fire.

In 1776, during the American Revolutionary War, the first of three major fires broke out in the city. Whether purposefully lit as an act of war, or if it was accidental is still a matter of debate. (And if it was an act of war, which side did it benefit most?) Regardless, by the time it the inferno was contained, between 10-25% of the buildings in the city were damaged.

In 1815, bylaws were passed that restricted the creation of wood-framed structure. Even still, the Great Fire of 1835 took out over 600 buildings spanning 17 city blocks. The last great fire, in 1845, was held in check by the fact that many of the structures around it were made of stone or brick.

The possible devastation of these fires in tightly-packed tenements led to a requirement for outdoor fire escapes in the Tenement House Act of 1867. Evolving building codes that include sprinklers and other indoor fire control systems led to this requirement being removed in 1968. They still are a source of identity throughout the city, however. These wrought iron cages affixed to the outside of mid-size brick buildings are a celebrated view of New York. Often the escapes are painted black, but that’s not necessary: the requirement is only that they be painted a “contrasting” color.

Tree grates and tree guards

Like fire escapes, not all site furnishings persist indefinitely. Function and form together brought them into the city, and if they lose function, they will fade away. Another sight being lost on city streets are New York’s tree grates. Once an iconic part of Manhattan’s hardscape, these are ceding in favor of a policy of installing tree guards.

However, some of the allowed guard options echo the wrought iron styles of historical fire escapes. This is one way old designs live on, in new forms and for new functions.

A green enclosure around stairs descending to the subway announce Wall Street Station
New York City’s subway enclosures are consistent to help travelers navigate the city.

A custom look brands a city

Each piece of New York’s distinctive site furniture was designed for a function. Architectural trends and available materials influenced the style. The choices made influenced the suppliers and builders of infrastructure in New York, so that each design echoes and refracts past its original setting. When these designs get reimagined or restructured over the years—as tastes, style, or materials change—the foundational design can be reinterpreted many times over.

When a small municipality makes a large street furniture or bollard purchase, the city’s look or brand should be part of the decision-making process. What small design elements might echo through a growing city for decades or centuries to come? How will these elements, colors, and materials help shape the experience of the residents and businesses that come to make the city their home?

For a municipality, consulting with and designing a custom option does not need to a bank-busting scenario; large orders defray the cost of customization. For metal castings, a pattern created can be used hundreds of times.

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