Soon everyone will be talking to the lampposts

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The Independent Online
SUMMER 2005. After years of gridlock, pedestrians and cyclists have won the battle for city centre domination and the once powerful car lobby has been relegated to the suburbs.

Streets have been cleared of the mismatched paraphernalia so ubiquitous in the late 20th century when closed-circuit television cameras jostled for space with Victorian lamps and utilitarian postwar signposts.

Ugly black barrel wastebins and those uncomfortable wooden benches stained with bird droppings have been consigned to the annals of bad design history.

It may sound like a Utopian dream, but if Westminster Council has its way, this could soon be the new, pared-down look for central London in the 21st century. The council has launched a competition to develop a landmark family of futuristic street furniture based around the idea of a millennium post.

In the past, the borough's distinctive Misha Black red-lettered street name plaques and its Grey Wornum lamp columns have become international classics.

Now four design companies have been shortlisted for the competition and the winning furniture is expected to be off the drawing board and on to the streets by next summer.

Some four million people walk Westminster's pavements each day and, with this number expected to rise further, the search is on for furniture that will be multifunctional as well as attractive.

While the four family designs each have their own look and philosophy, all the companies envisage variations on the central theme of a network of multi-purpose posts providing lighting, information and communication links.

The posts incorporate clear and detailed waymarkers and touch-screens that allow people to book cinema tickets or leave messages for friends.

The inbuilt computer screens on the "one-stop posts" are completely interactive. So for those who take issue with a restaurant review that they earlier downloaded, there is the opportunity to register their disapproval.

Offensive language and pornography are automatically screened out of the vandal-proof system.

Constructed from individual components like circular seats, computer screens and even smartcard-operated bicycle racks, the posts can be clamped together in various permutations.

In the open spaces of Trafalgar Square and Victoria they could be dramatic six metre- high sculptures, topped by screens showing the latest in electronic art and advertising local exhibitions.

By contrast, in the cramped streets of Soho and older residential neighbourhoods, the posts are more likely to be toned down in keeping with their setting to provide canopied and ambient lighting. And, in the age of high street technology, those once-essential guidebooks could simply become an irrelevancy.

Passers-by will download street maps and cultural information on to their mobiles or portable computers from a distance of 100 metres, or simply read it off text strips at close range.

The shortlisted designs for Shaping the Heart of London by Peter Fink and Igor Marko, Mackenzie-Chong, Pearson LLoyd Design Partnership and Timpson Manley with Harland Design will be exhibited at the Architecture Foundation, Bury Street, London, from July 21 to September 15 when the winner will be announced.