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Sidewalk sheds could be pleasant social hubs for New York City

As contractors continue to lobby lawmakers in Albany to revise New York’s 128-year-old scaffold law, two designers from Brooklyn are discovering just how limiting the law is. Their focus is not safety; rather, these two and their company work to redefine the public spaces in sidewalk sheds, the sidewalk area protected by exterior scaffolding.

The scaffold law, as we discussed in our Sept. 13, 2013, post, is the last of its kind in the U.S. When a construction worker is injured on the job here, he or she can sue the property owner and the contractor directly. Because workers’ compensation is not the injured worker’s sole remedy, construction projects need more insurance, and more insurance drives up the cost of the project.

The designers have developed products that transform the spaces from dark and uninviting passageways into places where people will want to hang out. According to the company’s website, the objective is “placemaking and human-centered design.” The products — countertops, chairs, planters and light reflectors — attach to the sides of the sidewalk sheds to create mini-social hubs, or parklets.

Not all scaffolding is appropriate for the products, one of the designers said. The city is full of scaffolding, though, that is not part of a major construction site. Local law requires all buildings more than five stories high to undergo façade inspections every five years. These “passive” sheds can be in place for a few weeks or a few decades, and the designers say they are perfect for the installations.

While the company has run a few pilot pop-ups here in New York, though, the designers have run up against state and city laws that make working with the scaffolding companies difficult. Liability concerns have made these companies wary of participating, even if the project has proved beneficial to pedestrians.

Sidewalk sheds cover almost 200 miles of pedestrian walkways in New York City on average. Pedestrians walk through about 8,000 sheds on any given day. That is a lot of dark, uninviting space that makes for a dark, uninviting cityscape.

Unless the law changes, though, the designers are heading overseas for a city to pilot a large-scale project. The famed sidewalks of New York may remain the dark and uninviting, the unintended consequence of a complicated and outdated law.

Sources: 

Forbes, “‘Softwalks’ Transforms Sidewalk Scaffolding Into Urban Playgrounds,” Rachel Hennessey, Oct. 17, 2013

Softwalks.com, “FAQ,” accessed Oct. 31, 2013

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