Street furniture: Material choices for the modern urban environment

Appropriate material specification is essential for ensuring that street furniture can withstand the rigors of everyday urban use. Marshalls Street Furniture expert Violeta Diamanti discusses how choosing the right material can prolong the life of street furniture and reduce the need for expensive repair or replacement.

It is now widely accepted that quality public space in our towns and cities has a positive impact on the wellbeing of residents and visitors. Street furniture is an essential element in creating safe, useable and attractive spaces; seats and benches encourage social interaction, bins deter unsightly litter, cycle stands reduce traffic and encourage physical activity, planters provide habitats and help to green our streets and bollards provide demarcation and protect pedestrians from motorists.

However, the urban realm is a harsh and demanding environment and street furniture elements can quickly become damaged and tired looking, making an area unsightly and necessitating costly repair or replacement.

For this reason it is essential that careful consideration is given to the material specification. Modern materials and production techniques mean that in order to achieve superior robustness you no longer have to compromise on aesthetic appeal.

Engineering grade polyurethane has become an increasingly popular material choice for a wide range of street furniture applications because of its looks, strength, high durability, low maintenance, design flexibility and value for money. While capable of exactly replicating the appearance of cast iron, this strong polyurethane offers so much more, with a wide range of benefits over the older material which is now rarely available from a UK foundry.

Products made from this material have a high chip resistance ,making them ideal for heavily trafficked areas such as supermarkets and pedestrianised zones. This high level of durability results in low maintenance costs.

This lightweight material will not rust or corrode, a quality which has made it a popular choice at seaside locations where cast iron quickly rusts and requires regular costly maintenance, and often full replacement. In many of these cases throughout the UK cast iron has been used to replace these systems. A unique benefit of this material is that moulds can be created quickly and cost effectively by taking casts from the degraded cast iron products and producing exact replicas in polyurethane.

Concrete street furniture has become an increasingly popular material choice. Thanks to modern production techniques, it is not only tough but it is now possible to create stunning street furniture items of varying colour, finish and shapes.

Concrete street furniture will meet the demands of any landscape and will suit most budgetary requirements. It is extremely durable, will not rust or corrode, and well withstands the rigors of modern environments. Robust and hard-wearing it is ideal for urban areas where there will be frequent street cleaning or the threat of deliberate damage. Concrete weathers naturally and therefore requires minimal maintenance.

The raw materials for concrete are sourced from within the UK, unlike those for other construction materials which are often imported from thousands of miles away with all the resultant CO2 transportation emissions.

Stainless steel’s notably stunning aesthetic appearance, high corrosion resistance and mechanical properties make it ideally suited for street furniture. In particular the clean attractive finish suits modern spaces. If selected and maintained correctly this material will remain attractive over its required life cycle.

There are two important elements to consider when selecting stainless steel products; the grade and the finish. The grade of stainless steel has a major influence on its performance and needs to be matched to the environment.

The two main grades used most in street furniture products are 316 and 304. Grade 316 is suited to all areas, especially marine locations where high sodium chloride levels in the air can degrade other types of stainless steel. Grade 304 is more suited to urban locations where there is less risk of sodium chlorides contaminating the surface of the steel.

The influence of grade on the performance of stainless steel is fairly well known. However, it is not so well known that surface finish has an equally important role in determining corrosion resistance. Poor quality polished finishes can lead to disappointing performance of stainless steel, especially in exterior applications.

If well maintained, corrosion is highly unlikely. As a result the metal can be fully recycled at the end of its life. Stainless steel has no down cycling no matter how many times the steel has been recycled. For those seeking ‘green’ materials to use in their projects, stainless steel should be a definite consideration.

Natural stone, in particular granite, is a popular material choice for street furniture. As well as being visually attractive, granite is an extremely strong and scratch resistant material. It is also resistant to staining and is impermeable, which ensures a product with a long life. Again, choose a reputable supplier who has a strict quality control procedure to ensure your product is of the highest standards.

Damage to street furniture is often caused by vandalism, whether willfully or by skateboarders or BMX bikers. However, measures can be put in place to deter and protect. Once a material has been specified, applied coatings and treatments can give further protection. For example, sacrificial polymer coatings are applied to cast stone to allow for chemical cleaners to be used to remove graffiti, without dulling the surface. Anti-skate deterrents can be fitted to benches and furniture with a linear profile that is ‘grindable’ and steel can be polished and aluminium anodised to provide greater damage resistance.

Finally, choose a reputable supplier who has the expertise to assist you in choosing the right material and finish for your application.