Converting Construction Sites into Public Spaces

softwalks

This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional)

No one would ever think of enjoying the space within construction scaffolding (or sidewalk sheds). But, in New York City, they are so prevalent (stretching 189 miles if lined end to end), that students from the Parsons School of Design created Soft Walks - simple DIY kits with chair pieces, a counter, a light fixture, a planter, and a green trellis that anyone can pick up and install onto the beams of their nearest scaffolded area.

The initiative aims to transform nearly 6,000 construction sites, equaling 189 miles of covered sidewalk. Soft Walks transform construction scaffolding from a dark, covered walkway into a rest stop for busy city dwellers to stop and have a seat, or even eat and socialize. Softwalks recently won the Student Category of Fast Company’s Innovation By Design Award.

kit parts

I discovered this project while perusing Kickstarter - the world’s largest funding platform - for my recent article about projects for improving city life. I was able to get in touch with one of the founders, Bland Hoke, who graciously agreed to answer my questions about the project .

Jillian Glover: How did the project come about?

Bland Hoke: The team was assembled while studying at Parsons in the new Transdisciplinary Design MFA program. Softwalks was initially focused on ‘greening gray infrastructure’ and researching the feasibility of installing vertical gardens on sidewalk sheds (the technical term for scaffolding on sidewalks). The team later re-oriented it’s goals to a solution that has potential to affect almost any sidewalk shed, hence a Kit of Parts that is modular and adaptable.

JG: How did you get involved with Kickstarter?

BH: We decided to develop a Kickstarter campaign about two months ago. The largest challenge is presenting a campaign with a finite goal. Kickstarter states it is not a platform for starting new businesses, but rather a place for projects. “A project is not open-ended. Starting a business, for example, does not qualify as a project.”

Using Kickstarter to raise funds for a pilot project will show public support, and enable us to test the marketability of our design artifacts and design process. So far, one of the most popular rewards is an ‘Innovation Lab’, where we will guide backers though an hour long design thinking session using methods we used for Softwalks. As a strategy for discovering value, Kickstarter is a great tool for completing market testing of products and services – designed as rewards.

counter

JG: How have New Yorkers reacted to the Softwalks project?

BH: When we have set up our Kit of Parts on the sidewalk, even hurried New Yorkers are surprised and delighted and stop to chat and test the parts. Often citizens are so intrigued, they end up talking to us for quite awhile! It seems everyone in NYC is an expert in something, and we have received valuable insights from every perspective. The most generative ideas have come from populations like the elderly or handicapped citizens, for whom we will definitely incorporate into the next iteration of our Kit of Parts.

JG: Why would  people want to hang out at a construction site ?

BH: The safety of sidewalk scaffolding is an interesting issue. On a broad level, there are two types of sidewalk sheds: active and passive. Construction sites with men working, concrete trucks rolling in, and general chaos is not our focus. Many sidewalk sheds in New York City are erected due to Local Law 11, which stipulates every 5 years a building must undergo a facade inspection. Unfortunately, some buildings fail an inspection and in the worst case the cost of keeping a sidewalk shed installed is more economical than repairing the facade. In our research we discovered an instance of a shed remaining in place for 12 years! In addition, sidewalk sheds are frequently a site for people to hang out – during hard rains and even in the heat of the summer. At a conceptual level, Softwalks reveals how people assume the function of a structure, and how tricky it is to change perceptions.

Softwalks_planter

JG: What challenges did you face in getting the project going?

BH: The project was initiated during graduate school, and the biggest challenge was transitioning from an academic project to a business oriented project. Our focus was originally on providing communities the opportunity to reclaim public space and while this is an altruistic goal it didn’t incorporate business sensibilities. Since graduating, we have re-oriented our project towards Business Improvement Districts in New York City, since these organizations are largely responsible for establishing many of the pedestrian plazas, as well as maintaining them.

JG: What long-term goals do you have for the project?

BH: Our short term goals are focused on our Kickstarter campaign, which will enable us to refine the Kit of Parts for long-term public use. If the pilot project is successful we will market the finished Kit of Parts to one Business Improvement District to use for special events, street festivals and short periods of time where extra seating and counter space is quite helpful. At that point, the buyer would own the Kit of Parts and can deploy it at their discretion. Lastly we may keep the Kit of Parts and use it in collaboration with other designers or event producers for finite projects.

seat

For the long term vision, we welcome inquiries from business savvy individuals who are interested in partnering to scale the concept. Beyond Softwalks – design, innovation and imagining new experiences is our passion. We are in the germination phase for a set of new urban improvement projects designed to activate neglected and underutilized public spaces. Softwalks is the first major project of our partnership as an urban lab. Our focus is on developing products, experiences and strategies using simple, desirable and unexpected design.

Jillian Glover is a communications advisor specializing in urban issues. She is a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner and holds a Master of Urban Studies. She was born and raised in Vancouver.

  • runawayartist

    This is truly horrible. The safety issues are blithely brushed aside here, but they are real. Have we so quickly forgotten the crane accidents that have become more frequent around this city? You are not supposed to stand and have a coffee around construction sites!

    Just because something got Kickstarter funding doesn’t mean the public passed a referendum on it. Kickstarter is not a public opinion barometer.

    Most New Yorkers in our heavily pedestrian city have enough problems getting from point A to B with the MTA. Then we have to deal with tourists, people with strollers/ handtrucks/ parcels/ food carts, people with their smartphones not looking where they’re going, homeless people wheeling shopping carts (and more) through the streets…

    Oh, and the homeless, for which these “structures” will be a magnet– let’s discourage sidewalks for their intended purpose, you know, WALKING. “People hang around these things”– yeah, people will hang around ANYTHING in NY because there’s NO public space. Oh, and because it’s hard to find ANY public space that hasn’t been totally taken over by homeless people (who, understandably, don’t want to go to a shelter, but maybe getting a shower twice a week wouldn’t be so unbearable? How about a public policy that makes it easier for homeless people to use the shelter for a shower now and then if they don’t want to stay overnight and risk getting beaten up? How about not forcing homeless people to pick one or the other? I think it’s called drop-in centers, they have them in other cities and they work, but I guess we excel at everything in NY including having the filthiest homeless people on the planet– because it’s either riches or rags here, no middle class left.)

    That was a rant, yes, but not irrelevant–I’ve had it with this uninformed hipster design –I call it as such because it is design that caters to hipsters and TOTALLY IGNORES the day-to-day experience of the city and how working, middle class, NON-trust fund people slog through the city. This is why we can’t have phone booths either in this city either–b/c the homeless use them as urinals–they do have rights to use the bathroom, but let’s not talk about it, they’re not human–I AM MOCKING people who claim to be ‘advocates’ for the homeless without considering these issues– and I’m also mocking those who take into account certain privileged groups in their design but don’t take into account the homeless, or how their designs might be used in a REAL, NON-PERFECT city that might, heaven forbid, have 1) congestion problems and 2) homeless people. Let’s see some hipster overdesign a new second wave of “ironic” phone booths, please. They’ll just become new-wave urinals, just like these benches will have homeless people all over them. I suppose that’s great because they’ll be the ones hurt when the construction accidents happen, and who cares if homeless people get hurt? I mean, if people cared about them, they wouldn’t be homeless, right (again: MOCKING– I’m saying that this is a weird modern version of “A Modest Proposal,” let the homeless sit under construction sites, see what happens).

    You know what I never see hipsters (self-appointed do-gooders with little real-life experience) volunteering to design? Some sorely needed PUBLIC TOILETS. You know, something everyone needs, except hipsters who go from cafe to nightclub to friend’s house to party to whatever all day long. Public toilets? Not glamourous. Props on a construction site? Oh, so brilliant! Maybe some public toilets would benefit EVERYONE in this city, but who cares?

    BTW, if this is a “city law” about facades…um, why are the overwhelming majority of these scaffolds in Manhattan and not in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, or SI? Those boroughs also need public space–badly– are any of these lovely designers doing ANYTHING AT ALL to enhance livability for those of us who break our backs for this city day in and day out but can barely afford to live here?

    On second thought, DON’T. Anything you might do that could remotely enhance livability in this city (which definitely needs to be made as livable as, I don’t know, your nearest mental hospital) would just be used as an excuse to raise the rent even more.

    Yeah, these are the unbearable day-to-day things about living in NY that NO ONE talks about, so let’s add another thing that will ADD to sidewalk congestion.

    I am an artist (too poor to leave NYC–can you tell?) and want to like this but can’t. This is a logistical nightmare in a hard, over-populated, over-congested city. In a medium sized city or large town this could be charming or novel. Not for NYC. Even the planters propose potential safety issues: otherwise–newsflash!– they would have been done before. I couldn’t not comment on what a nightmare this is. Of course the people on Kickstarter liked it. How many of them live here? How many of them have to walk through the areas that are now going to be un-walkable because of stunts like this?

    • Emmy

      Honestly, I feel like public toilets would come with some bigger problems. Homeless people will use any space and after your rant what makes you think people won’t just camp out there? Portland came up with a pretty unique public toilet that allowed people inside to hear noise outside, and shows feet so you can make sure two people aren’t having a little too much fun in there, but I think that the way cities go they’d just be destroyed. I feel the same way about this design, but I think your attack is a little harsh. You did say people in New York congregate anywhere because there is no public space, so why not make some? People huddle in the middle of sidewalks anywhere, and honestly I’d love to see something like this in Chicago. At least you’d know where people would go, and it would give shops (not sure how New York is set up but…) back some of the sidewalk space they end up relinquishing when scaffolding comes around. I’ve walked underneath the same scaffolding for what seems like my whole life and I wouldn’t mind a chair attached to one.

      As far as safety is concerned, their point about semi-permanent scaffolding is great. Like I mentioned, CSI (Chicago Scaffolding Inc) is literally everywhere and honestly maybe one in four of the scaffolds I walk under are actually being worked on. I also think that their pop-up design could have an interesting use in other places, like bus shelters and train supports. I don’t think the design would’ve been done because for the past fifty years cities haven’t really cared about public space, and no one thinks about the scaffolding. Ever. It’s one of those things that are just seen as part of city life.

      In the end while I see your point, it would be easier to agree with if you spent less time attacking the people behind the design instead of the design itself.

      • runawayartist

        Please do not comment about NY if you have never been here, just as I will not comment on Chicago or Portland, having never been there.

        As for public toilets & the homeless, I believe you answered your own argument–ways of doing it practically, etc.–I will not engage the point further.

        I have actually studied urban theory and know of what I speak when I talk about livability, which is what allows me to critique cities and design. There are different *types* of public space. Just because public space is needed–I never said it wasn’t– doesn’t mean we should put up public space without regard to safety considerations first. My god, is this really an abstract concept? If you are going to say I had a “rant”–which I didn’t deny I did– please refute it with reason, not because you didn’t prefer my tone. The content of what I said is sound. Not all public spaces are considered equal, and, alas, this is NOT an example of GOOD public space.

        Is nuance really this endangered of a species now? You don’t just plop down public space anywhere. It has to be planned, and putting it at construction sites is still poor planning, I don’t care what “hip” way anyone wants to spin it.

        Finally, people who think this is so great– amazing how you come out of the woodwork AFTER someone is brave enough to, I don’t know, question design being plopped down just anywhere. If this was such a wonderful idea, why was this place a ghost town before I dared introduce thoughts that were not considered? Again, you may dislike my tone, but the content of what I say is sound.

        I have seen other proposals to beautify scaffoldings. Beautification is one thing. Let’s do that. It doesn’t contribute to congestion on sidewalks– something you didn’t address because you don’t deal with NY headaches– and it doesn’t pose safety issues, like this does.

        As I also said and stick by, this project would probably be far better in large towns or small cities rather than a major city such as NY.

        Really, please read all facets of my argument (which was considered and took time to compose) before attacking me or writing off what I say as a “rant.” Thanks–that would go a long way.

        Oh, and in the end, please consider commenting on the content of my argument and the content of the article rather than nitpicking my tone– which was meant to be a satirical jab at those who fail to consider the non-affluent daily users of proposed “creations”– that would be a far more constructive use of everyone’s time. If you’re not disagreeing with my content, you should be explicitly clear on that.

        • runawayartist

          I mean, fine– let’s see how things change when there’s another scaffolding accident and someone gets injured. I know when I get injured I’m not blase’ or casual about it, but that’s just me.

          Whether active construction is going on or not, these are not places to hang around.

          Beautify them, sure. Make them less drab. But don’t encourage congestion and possible safety concerns.

          • runawayartist

            BTW, you could call me the Credible Hulk– I back up what I say with facts and sources. Here are just 2 very recent examples that back up how this idea is a recipe for disaster.

            Exhibit A

            http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/lives-fall-cracks-city-lets-safety-lag-article-1.1239076#commentpostform

            Entitled, “Jobsite accidents in New York City jumped 31 percent from 2011 to 2012, while injuries up 46% in same period”

            Subheadline, “Meanwhile, buildings department cuts number of worksite inspections by 40% from 2009 to 2012.” (1/13/13)

            Exhibit B

            http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/crane-collapses-construction-workers-queens-article-1.1236637

            Entitled, “Seven construction workers hurt after crane collapses onto Long Island City, Queens work site.”

            Subheadline, “Hardhats flee as James Lomma-owned 380-foot mobile crane tumbles onto Queens construction site on Wednesday afternoon. Ambulances hurry to the scene along 46th Ave. and Center Boulevard.” (1/9/13)

            Were there ANY community board meetings about these things, I would have attended them and spoke out in the same way I did.

            You may not like my tone, but that’s only because these are urgent safety matters with real environmental & congestion impacts and how they are exempt from public comment or ULURP is beyond me. Kickstarter– it bears repeating again– IS NOT a referendum on anything, or a barometer of public opinion.

  • gpsspg

    wow the products are crazy expensive in my opinion. its a step in the right direction, but could be better executed. as a landscape architect the plant fixtures are horribly cheesy.