Sidewalk sheds are omnipresent throughout New York City. These utilitarian scaffolding tunnels cover the sidewalk, protecting pedestrians from falling building debris. However, if all of the estimated 6,000 sheds currently installed in New York City were lined up end to end, the continuous tunnel would stretch 189 miles from New York to Baltimore.

Softwalks is a collaborative endeavor to address this issue, focusing on the function sidewalk sheds provide rather than the form they take. Our strategy is to shift the common perception of sidewalk sheds with incremental improvements, transforming them from an eyesore to a community asset with a Kit of Parts.

Softwalks is informed by the successful pilot projects the DOT has implemented in the last five years to transform various street scrapes from auto-centric spaces into pedestrian plazas, such as the theater district on Broadway. These pilot projects, aided by light, quick and inexpensive amenities mitigate risk and lead to incremental improvements. This demonstrates how small experiments are a highly effective planning strategy for creating change within complex situations with many competing stakeholders.

Our interest is how incremental change can shift existing paradigms. For example, sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of Broadway would have been considered a preposterous activity in 2007, yet now it is commonplace and has evolved into a the Public Plaza Program, which the DOT administers in partnership with BID’s and non-profits. This methodology for placemaking sets the stage for how Softwalks seeks to activate sidewalk sheds, shifting the safety-centric paradigm towards a multifunctional infrastructure designed with pedestrian benefits and amenities.

To contextualize Softwalks, we acknowledge existing efforts to improve sidewalk sheds by non-profits, private interests, and government initiatives. However, we have also learned about the different types of sidewalk sheds, their logic and design considerations, and why some remain in place year after year. Through interviews and observational research we understand the negative effects sidewalk sheds have on businesses, communities and sidewalk culture. The reality and challenges of improving sidewalk sheds are significant, and this is why we have determined that building on the existing ecology of sidewalk sheds is an appropriate move forward.