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The Payphone of the Future Is Calling

Ideas for radical reinventions that would make the obsolete technology useful again.

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FXFOWLE Archtiects

The May issue of The Atlantic, on newsstands now, highlights two of our favorite finalists from a competition New York City held earlier this year to reinvent the payphone for an era when landlines (and quarters) now seem obsolete. The city's 15-year contract with its current payphone vendors expires next year. And in advance of that opportunity to re-create this classic urban infrastructure, New York has been inviting residents, designers and tinkerers to help dream up what the phone booth might become if it could be more than just a phone. What if it were also a WiFi hotspot? A bike rack? An electric car charging station? An emergency alert system?

In the late 1990s, New York's streets had about 35,000 payphones. Now that number is closer to 12,000. If these objects served so many of the city's other needs as well (while still enabling the occasional phone call), it's easy to envision the payphone – although we likely won't call it that – becoming ubiquitous again. Below are some of the many images and ideas from the competition that didn't make it into the magazine. New York is planning to incorporate some of these concepts into the request for proposals for the next generation of phones. But maybe you have one more idea that isn't covered here?

NYfi, Sage and Coombe Architects (winner of the Connectivity Award)

Made of steel, this phone contains an LED lantern up top and a touch screen with direct links to 911 and city services.

NYC I/O: The Responsive City, Control Group and Titan (co-winner of the Community Impact Award)

Windchimes, NYU ITP, Cooper Union, Parsons (co-winner of the Community Impact Award)

The phone senses and transmits data on wind speed and direction, dust particles, sound levels and rain fall.

Smart Sidewalks, Syracuse University, UC Davis, Parsons, Rama Chorpash Design LLC,
Cheng+Snyder (winner of the Functionality Award)

This proposal is "driven by two competing aims: the desire to pack as much function into a single device as possible and the opposite urge: the reduce the literal and figurative footprint of the phone booth." Also a weather station and a solar collector.
The sidewalk platform collects and filters rainwater before it reaches the subsoil.

5/2: Five Boroughs, Two Ways to Talk, Rhode Island School of Design (semi-finalist)

An Augmented Reality: NYC’s Payphone of the Future, Philadelphia University (semi-finalist)

This phone pod would make most of Manhattan wireless, while doubling as a bikeshare station and a crime alert system.

Look Up!, The New School (semi-finalist)

Includes both a retractable bench and a crown of greenery.

MANNY, Metropolitan Application Network of New York, The New School (semi-finalist)

This glass booth is lit from below, with the light changing colors in emergencies.

NYC The Official Experience, Virginia Tech (semi-finalist)

Offers suggested walking tours through the city, from payphone, to local attractions, to payphone

Top image shows the NYC LOOP, designed by FXFOWLE Architects.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.