Scaffolding is a common sight in big cities. In New York City, where we live, there is no shortage of "sidewalk sheds," heavy duty temporary scaffolding that covers sidewalks. Lined end to end, the estimated 6,000 sheds would stretch from Manhattan to Baltimore—189 miles. To a typical pedestrian, it appears as if most of New York City is under construction. Yet many sidewalk sheds are vacant and unoccupied by construction workers, trucks, and commotion. This is in part due to NYC Local Law 11, which stipulates that every five years a building must undergo a facade inspection. For a period of time while an inspector combs the facade of a building, a sidewalk shed shrouds businesses underneath and gives the appearance of an active construction site.
After researching sidewalk sheds and the effect they have on public space, Softwalks
designed a "Kit of Parts," a selection of improvements, such as chairs and planters, that can be added to standard sidewalk sheds. The Kit of Parts works with the existing sidewalk shed system. This means the chairs use standard stud bolt clamps, the counters fit within standard bays, and the planter is a replica of a light pole planter. We made these choices consciously because we are not trying to reinvent the entire sidewalk shed system. As a whole, sidewalk sheds have been designed to accommodate the infinitely variable street conditions in NYC. Our Kit of Parts is designed to accommodate the diverse communities throughout the city.
The perception of sidewalk sheds is at the root of our project. We discovered when people see a function in the structure, they generally appreciate them. For instance, in a downpour people flock to sidewalk sheds marveling at how useful they are. Cyclists love sidewalk sheds for locking bikes and we have seen urban gymnasts swing through the steel structures with grace. These observations helped us focus our efforts on addressing basic needs for city life such as seating and places to socialize.
We began our design process with a survey of every effort to improve sidewalk sheds in NYC and internationally. Concurrently, we interviewed pedestrians, contractors, stakeholders and anyone that would give us their perspective. Later on, we narrowed our focus to instances when people appreciated sidewalk sheds and began designing parts that would be universally loved. A turning point in our research was learning how streets were blossoming into places for people, catalyzed by pilot projects to close off a street and sprinkle lawn chairs and planters around. As a precedent, these pedestrian plaza spaces were perfect examples of how public space can be re-imagined with the addition of simple amenities.
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