Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Another Epic Public Space WIN in New York

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.

Design Process

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

Topics: Architecture and Design, Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: New York

10 Responses to “Another Epic Public Space WIN in New York”

  1. John Morris says:

    Wasn’t Maya Lin a student? Anyway, a very good point. It does seem like major player cities can be quicker to recognize unknown people or ideas.

  2. jerry 101 says:

    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 in other places it is 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.

    This doesn’t seem like a paradox to me. After all, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.

  3. m. heurtebise says:

    Those bike racks are not only distinctive and good for the local economy, they seem like they would be more useful than most bike racks — that type of rack would give you a lot of options as to lock placement on your bike frame. A lot of standard bike racks (such as the wavy potato-masher type) are difficult to use if you have a non-standard bike frame. I’d use those big metal Cs any day!

  4. Matt says:

    I really like those bike racks, although they remind me of the Google logo!

  5. Roland S says:

    Yea, Maya Lin immediately comes to mind for the Vietnam War Memorial competition. Looks like the first poster beat me to it.

    Certain types of competitions are reluctant to select or even accept student submissions. If the sponsor of the competition is actually seeking to build the winner, then they often want to choose a submission from a qualified architectural firm that can follow through to execution of the design. If a student’s work is selected, then that student must be paired up with a qualified architect and/or engineer who will work out the cost and technical problems with the design.

    I actually planned to enter this very competition, but I realized I wouldn’t have the time to put together a high-quality submission, even if I came up with a good design. Immense kudos to Mr. Choi – first-year students, even those with great ideas, often find it difficult to represent their ideas on paper in a way that catches the eye.

  6. Ok, he IS a first year student BUT he is 28 years old. Probably already has either a Design degree or work experience in an architectural office. Not exactly a 17 year old freshman… Let us not read too much into this.

  7. ps: the work is awesome though, no questions there!

  8. Thanks for the comments.

    I’d forgotten about Maya Lin. But I don’t want to suggest taking young talent seriously is a monopoly of NYC. Europe generally seems to be very forward looking here. My comment was more aimed at the heartland, where designs either tend to get awarded to established out of town names or to clout heavy locals.

  9. John Morris says:

    No, I really agree with your basic point. It’s what I see in Pittsburgh all the time. I’m an artist and have to admit the NYC part of my bio is what gets me shows in other cities. My shows in San Fransisco and Portland were rehashes and leftovers from my NYC show.

    It’s a very sad and weird situation I wasn’t prepared for when I moved to Pittsburgh and it undermines what should be one of the city’s key advantages. We have Major universities churning out lot’s of highly qualified creative design types, We have a low cost of living and reasonable location. But the relative social isolation and connections to other places as well as this provincial attitude really works to against us. Almost all the major outdoor public art in town is by non regional artists. (and a lot of it isn’t very good)

    I could go on and on about this. Someday, at least in my dreams a midwestern city like Cleveland or Pittsburgh will host a really open arts festival or Biennial. It’s not like we don’t have the space.

    By the way, have you heard about the Artprize in Grand Rapids? It’s well worth a post. People insulted the quality of the work, but as a way of creating and showing off the city as a place open to new ideas and creative energy, it was a big success. Perhaps the best idea from Michigan in years.

    Aaron, if you haven’t already, you should post about it.

  10. John Morris says:

    I agree, but does he mention Kotkin in this post?

    Anyway, it really brings up a big question. Are dense cities just a matter of taste or do they deeply enhance the exchange of ideas and play a huge role in the creative economy?

    I’m not an expert, but I really think cities as dense intricate webs of interation really have to exist and play probably the dominant role in an even remotely sophisticated resilient economy.

    This is the core problem for the Midwest. It lacks cities that play that role and we can see that in the lack of new company and new idea generation.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures