Thursday, January 28th, 2010
I recently gave an overview of some of the great developments in the transportation system and public space of New York. Well the hits just keep on coming as this week New York announced the result of its sidewalk shed competition.
Sidewalk sheds are those generally unpleasant steel and wood scaffolding structures you have to walk through when traversing a construction site. They protect pedestrians, but not much more. Here’s an example of a classic version (via Lynn Becker):
And here’s a rendering of the new New York version:
Wow. Quite the difference, don’t you think?
The design is called “Urban Umbrella.” It’s so nice you might want to even, say, put a sidewalk cafe under it:
This is the type of thing that separates the men from the boys when it comes to cities. Here’s one more rendering showing the cool, integrated lighting.
The use of the urban umbrella will be encouraged, but not required. As there are approximately 6,000 sidewalk sheds in New York City, with over one million linear feet, the potential impact on public space over time is huge.
But beyond the design itself, there are a couple of other aspects of this that are noteworthy I want to higlight.
The design was chosen as part of an international competition that received over 164 entries from 28 countries around the world. The winner was Young-Hwan Choi, a 28-year-old first year student from the University of Pennsylvania.
That’s right, New York’s new standard sidewalk shed was designed by a first year architecture student. Lot’s of cities hold design competitions, but how many select winners from student work? Thinking specifically about our smaller Midwest cities, I’m having trouble imagining it, though maybe there are some examples.
What usually comes to mind is something like the St. Louis arch grounds competition. Admittedly, that’s a significant landscape, not an object, but the cost of just participating in the competition is likely to scare off even many professional firms.
New York has the self-confidence to pick something it likes, regardless of where it came from. Perhaps that’s because New York is where reputations are made, while other places are where they are consumed. Almost paradoxically, a young upstart like Choi has a better chance of getting noticed in a hyper-competitive market like New York than in an ostensibly less crowded talent pool.
One of the standard complaints I hear when suggesting we should make step change improvements in the quality of our public space is that “we can’t afford it.” I might argue you can’t afford not to, but that’s for a another day. But the reality is, in many cases cost isn’t even a legitimate objection.
The urban umbrella design costs the same amount of money as a conventional design, but costs less to maintain. In other words, this vastly superior design is actually cheaper. This is particularly noteworthy in New York, which is one city that might legitimately take the view that cost is not a major concern.
Design competitions always have various criteria around engineering, green feature, etc. I don’t know why we don’t just always include price in the equation. If I were running a competition like this, I’d say, “Unit cost 25% less than current models.” Even if you don’t get quite there, you’d be amazed what you can accomplish. It’s like Jaime Lerner said, “If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget.”
Beyond the better appearance and pedestrian experience of the design, beyond the cheaper price that should appeal to CFO’s, the design also hides less of the building, letting building owners show off more of the facade. It’s an even greater incentive to install the product – no mandates required.
Another Example: Columbus, Indiana Bike Racks
I mentioned the New York bike racks before, but I want to highlight another bike rack project in Columbus, Indiana. The city decided to create bike racks from its icon “C” tourism logo. Here’s the result (image via American Dirt):
The city was able to get these fabricated locally at a cost of $200 each. A standard U-rack ranges from $80-$250, so this is at the high end of the range, but not out of line. Keep in mind, this is for a low volume production run, not output at scale. It’s bike facilities+civic branding+local production. In other words, a “win-win-win”, just what I always like to see.
Given the prices here, there is simply no excuse. If you aren’t doing things like this, you either don’t care or don’t have it on your priority list. Or maybe it’s like Wal-Mart, where the architecture of the store is deliberately intended to look cheap, to convey the message that the company is committed to low cost and low prices. Regardless of price, maybe communities consciously don’t want change or to look “uppity” or like they are aspiring to anything other than the generic status quo. Perhaps, ultimately, the quality of public space in America is simply a deliberate statement of community values.
More Coverage of New York’s Urban Umbrellas
Streetsblog: Coming Soon – Ped-Friendly “Urban Umbrellas” for NYC Sidewalks
The Architect’s Newspaper: The Decorated Shed
GOOD: No More Ugly Scaffolding
A Daily Dose of Architecture: Three NYC Projects
Lynn Becker: Scaffolds Slum Up Chicago’s Streets