Smarten up your Placemaking Project

Many communities encourage people to visit their downtown and other areas by offering them free public Wi-Fi hotspots.  And now, some places are taking that a step further by deploying Wi-Fi and charging stations through furniture and fixtures – benches, shelters, streetlight poles, trash cans – at public spaces.


Active public spaces are friendlier, and if incorporated around outdoor furniture, passers-by gravitate towards and around it. What’s better than having a bench to sit on to relax and sip a drink?   Being able to also charge your phone and email a friend for free.

“None of our streets or sidewalks was designed for the digital age.  But people today want to sit on a physical bench and connect to the digital world” says Francois Nion who is with JCDecaux North America

Claus Hetting, a Wi-Fi consultant, believes street furniture will be the way to go.   “I’m guessing that street furniture will become hotspots over the next three to five years.” Several companies are making that happen today.


Start-up companies such as Soofa and Strawberry Energy have installed “smart” benches with solar-powered charging stations in parks and on streets in cities across the United States, including Boston, Austin, Miami and Boulder, CO, and Europe. The benches are seen to help connect users to their street environments.

A company called Bigbelly Solar has been piloting street-corner garbage/recycling bins that sport solar-powered Wi-Fi hotspots.


A U.K. cable company, Virgin Media, created Wi-Fi hotspots from specially designed manhole covers in Chesham, a town on the outskirts of London.


And a telecommunications company in the United Arab Emirates is deploying solar-powered Wi-Fi hotspots around Dubai in artificial palm trees in parks and on beaches.  Soaking up the sun during the day, these state-of-the-art trees store energy to be discharged in the evening. On each tree, there are eight charging points and Wi-Fi ranges for 100 metres in any direction.  The company plans to plant them in 103 locations around Dubai as part of a contract with the city. Towering at 20 feet high and with leaves measuring 18 square metres, the high-tech palms are also equipped with screens and security cameras.


Viktor Nelepa, Smart Palm’s founder cited the cultural significance of using a palm tree design.  “For us, it was important to translate the important cultural identity of the date palm from being a plant that provided shelter, building materials, shade and sustenance, to our Smart Palm, designed to provide data, connectivity, energy and all in a sustainable manner”

New York City was trying to figure out what to do with all its thousands of public pay phones.  Enter LinkNYC, a consortium of private companies that wants to replace the phone stands with kiosks that will offer a free Wi-Fi hotspot, charging-station kiosks, free domestic phone calls and internet access.   How will this be paid for?  Ads on the kiosks.


Cape Town installed its first Isabelo Smart Bench, a solar-powered free Wi-Fi hotspot for public use complete with USB charging points, night lighting and seating.  Drawn by the opportunity to charge their phones or surf the net, the bench also provides Capetonians a place to mingle and meet one another. These connections strengthen the social fabric of our society.

“Increased Internet access is crucially important for Capetonians, and the public benefit provided by it gets us, and our partners in the city, exited. Cape Town’s first Isabelo Smart Bench is an experiment in placemaking,” says Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, Cape Town Partnership CEO.


The area chosen for the placement of the bench is very sunny during daylight hours as the solar-powered bench requires 8 hours of sunlight for charging. The area is also lit by night in addition to the prevalence of street lighting along one of Cape Town’s major thoroughfares. It is our hope that the Isabelo Smart Bench will serve as one more beacon of safety

Bulelwa goes on to say that “Busier spaces are often safer and provide more opportunities for relationship building. Besides homework help for school children, or directions to tourists, this bench will be a conversation starting point. The space where it’s placed suddenly becomes more: a place to meet people, find out information or just relax.  For the Cape Town Partnership, Internet access combined with safety is a win-win for all of us. Expanding the benches throughout the broader Cape Town metropole, is something that we are working towards”.

Adriaan Hugo, lead Industrial Designer of the Isabelo Smart Bench and co-founder of the award-winning Johannesburg design company Dokter and Misses sees the bench as a ground-breaking “plug and play solution for public spaces”.  “It is a first for Africa. These different technologies have been available on our continent for some time and Isabelo brings them all together into one incredible user-friendly smart bench,” says Adriaan.


These “smart benches” can also help to see how public spaces are being utilized.   Soofa benches are outfitted with a variety of sensors that can collect information including pedestrian counts which can help city officials manage public spaces.   “It gives them the tools to better understand how their spaces are being utilized so they can take initiatives to effect changes in those areas,” says Bob Breznak, Soofa’s vice president of engineering.

And real estate companies and developers are now seeing the value in adding Wi-Fi hot spots to their properties.   Beacon Capital Partners has added Soofa benches in outdoor plaza areas at their complexes in Washington, DC and in downtown Denver and Los Angeles.

LeFrak, a developer, added Soofa benches along its Hudson River Waterfront Walkway in Jersey City.   “We agree with the logic that a balanced, well-populated public space is a good public space, and we feel people will linger longer when they can use their devices at length” says David Thom, LeFrak’s vice president of design and development.


Now just think if you partner with one of these companies to have a Wi-Fi hotspot and/or charging station be part of your new public space project.


Whether that be at a parklet downtown or a trailhead pocket park, it may give folks another reason to visit your spot and make your community more connected and safer at the same time.