Anyone who has been to New York at least once is well aware of the type of scaffolding one often has to pass under while walking along the sidewalks. They are familiar structures even to those who have never been to New York, because they are all embellished in the same way and are the backdrop for many photographs and filming of the city.
They are not exactly scaffolding, not in the sense we usually mean, i.e. a series of scaffolding with one or more levels used to carry out building work. The so-called sidewalk sheds – literally “sidewalk sheds”, while to say “scaffolding” it is more often used scaffolding – are scaffolding used to allow people to pass under them while walking on the sidewalks. They serve to protect them from falling rubble or other materials from the facades of buildings: a rather frequent eventuality in New York due to the presence of many old buildings and many maintenance and renovation activities, and all the more so dangerous in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
The historical reasons forexceptional presence of these urban structures in the New York area date back to a law introduced in the early 1980s – the Local Law 10 – following the death of a girl struck by a piece of masonry while walking down the street in Manhattan. But they also refer to other factors which over time have made it economically more convenient for those who are required to comply with that law (which has also changed in the meantime), to pay for the rental of scaffolding for pedestrian protection for long periods rather than incurring the costs necessary facade repairs.
It is a phenomenon that particularly affects the neighborhood of Manhattan, but also Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. And it’s a topic debated for years because the scaffolding – which stretches a total of more than 500 kilometers of sidewalks across New York – reduces the brightness and width of the sidewalks, obscures the signs of the premises and is judged by many people as an aesthetically unpleasant thing.
According to data from the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), the department that deals with city planning, the number of scaffolding on sidewalks it has tripled over the past twenty years. And at least one-third of all scaffolding on city sidewalks relates to the law’s effects on building facades, not construction or maintenance activities initiated for any other reason.
In essence, the conspicuous presence of scaffolding is due at least in part to the outcome of the inspections connected to Security program for facade inspection of the city of New York, an extension of the Local Law 11 of 1998 (itself an update of the Local Law 10) which mandates that the exterior walls of buildings taller than six stories be inspected every five years. If the building being inspected fails the security checks, it is mandatory to put up scaffolding on the footpaths to protect passers-by, while the facade repair work is carried out. However, there is no deadline within which it is mandatory to complete the work.
It therefore happens with a certain frequency that those temporary scaffolding remain installed for years – even more than ten, in some cases – while the works continue slowly or stop for some reason. In fact, building owners find it cheaper to pay the rental of scaffolding or any fines for not having started the works following new inspections, rather than incur the costs of completing them quickly. Objective that in the last two years, according to some interpretations of data, may also have been made more difficult to reach due to the various effects of the pandemic.
The first law on regular facade inspections was introduced in 1980 by then New York Mayor Ed Koch. The year before, 17-year-old Grace Gold, a freshman at Columbia University’s Barnard College, had died after being struck by a chunk of terra-cotta masonry that had broken from the lintel of a university building as she walked along 115th Street in ‘Upper West Side. There Local Law 10 it was a sensible law because it was supposed to protect people, he wrote in 2020 the New York Timesexcept that many building owners “simply chose to set up a scaffolding rather than carry out the more expensive facade work”.
In recent decades, a combination of factors has made it possible to comply with the law without the urgent need to concretely repair the facades. And this has meant that scaffolding has become a familiar and recognizable element of the urban context. Current laws they forbid to use the external sheets of the scaffolding for commercial messages unless the scaffolding covers spaces that were legitimately managed by the owners of the premises and already occupied by signs.
According to estimates Shared by insiders, the demand for scaffolding in New York construction supports an industry worth a combined $1 billion annually. The law has transformed “what had been an artisanal activity into an industry”, the owner of a building renovation company recounted in 2016, explaining that of that billion dollars “200 million go away in scaffolding along the sidewalks », and the rest in scaffolding of other types and in labour.
Over the years the city has tried to make the scaffolding more aesthetically pleasing or at least homogeneous in colour. According to an order by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, in office from 2002 to 2013, the coating of the plywood frames placed on the top of the scaffolding is in most cases dark green (the exact name is “Hunter Green 1390” manufactured by a North Brunswick, New Jersey paint company).
There have been attempts in the past to beautify the scaffolding or build alternative structures. In a 2019 public initiative, approximately 200 meters of scaffolding cladding on the south side of the Google building in Manhattan was used as canvas for paintings by emerging artists by the nonprofit ArtBridge.
Even earlier, in 2011, the City of New York held a competition for alternative scaffolding designs, which was won by a University of Pennsylvania architecture student. Its alternative structure, called UrbanUmbrella, had a more gothic style and included an LED light system, but was not successful because large-scale developments were considered excessively expensive. There was also a lot of talk about the structure during the presentation of the project with Mayor Bloomberg: it happened during a rainy day, and since the scaffolding had not yet been made waterproof, there were water infiltrations.
US journalist Matthew Yglesias recently busy of scaffolding on New York sidewalks in his newsletter Slow Boring, wondering what makes them a quintessentially New York phenomenon and absent in other cities around the world. The first reason is that, trivially, New York is full of buildings taller than six floors: but the difference is that the laws impose the use of scaffolding as a safety measure, while in other cities of the world it is allowed to use containment networkswhich are cheaper and less flashy.
Another reason is that New York’s facade laws are particularly rigid and they apply to many different cases without making distinctions. For example, they do not take into account the age or materials of the building, although the facades of newer buildings present fewer safety risks than those of older buildings or those built with parts in terracotta. Cities like Chicago or Cincinnati, unlike New York, schedule inspections at different intervals – even once every 12 years – depending on the age and construction materials of the buildings.
Then there is another factor that concerns safety at work, and in particular a New York law informally known as “scaffolding law”, considered a relevant reason for the very high costs of facade repairs in New York (and therefore an indirect cause of the delays in the works). Under the prevailing interpretation of this law, enacted in 1885, employers of companies operating on construction sites have a “substantially unlimited” responsibility, writes Yglesias, for the safety of workers.
In practice, that liability has historically increased the costs incurred by companies to take out insurance, since in the event of accidents there is in fact no possible defense for the employer, in the judicial sphere, and the processes only serve to quantify the compensation. It is a unique and quite exceptional case of job protection in the country, Yglesias points out, considering that the rights of construction workers in 49 US states and also all non-construction workers in New York are protected by national regulations established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the state department that deals with safety standards in the workplace.
One could argue that all these exceptions are appropriate, concludes Yglesias, “but I don’t think New Yorkers fear for their lives walking through downtown Chicago” or “think that non-construction workers in their state work in unacceptable conditions.” of insecurity”. Moreover, it is not certain that they are exceptions that improve safety: according to a report of Cornell University in 2014, the decision to attribute strict legal liability to employers has made construction sites in New York less safe because it leads workers to be less careful.