Public Works: The Data-collecting, Phone-charging Park Bench of the Future
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Public Works: The Data-collecting, Phone-charging Park Bench of the Future

Boston is installing public seating that keeps pedestrians informed.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Boston is bringing public seating into the digital age with Soofa, the solar-powered park bench of the future.

Soofa is the brainchild of urban furniture designers Changing Environments Inc., founded by MIT Media Lab scientist Sandra Richter, Media Lab PhD student Nan Zhao, and Harvard-educated furniture designer Jutta Friedrichs. It’s a public bench that charges your smartphone or tablet using solar energy. It’s a convenient service, and yet it’s not even Soofa’s best feature: each bench also collects and transmits data that show how many people sit on it in an average day, how many hours of solar power it has stored and emitted, and whether the bench is in use at a given moment.

Changing Environments unveiled the Soofa bench on June 19 at the White House Maker Faire, a presidential initiative that celebrates American science and technology innovators. Over the course of this summer, the company has installed Soofas in public spaces around Boston, with support from the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and funding from Cisco. You can already find the first half-dozen benches and check out their preliminary data findings on Soofa’s website. Soon, you’ll be able to view information collected by each bench on air quality, weather, noise levels, and foot traffic, to help you plan your visit to the area.

Soofa benches are multi-use tools helpful for anyone thinking of travelling to certain corners of Boston. Of course, they require more maintenance than normal benches. And they aren’t the only kind of public infrastructure that’s collecting urban data. But the best argument in favour of the Soofa is that it’s an important cobblestone in the road toward pedestrian-friendly cities. Big-city information services cater to drivers, not walkers. Car commuters in urban centres such as Toronto have easy access to regular news updates on traffic volume, backups, and gridlock. There are online tools that let public transit users know when the next TTC bus will arrive. But pedestrians get no such advantages.

Cities around the world—Toronto included—are taking a greater interest in making their streets welcoming for foot traffic as much as for car traffic. That means changes to roadways and sidewalks and bylaws—but it also means reconsidering the provision of information the public needs. If pedestrians are to become a valued part of our cityscape, we ought to give them the benefit of the latest information technology.