Greening the Sidewalks of New York City

By Sabina Pendse

One of the best aspects of living in New York City is being able to walk around and explore the city by foot.  However, my trips are often interrupted by scaffolding which obstructs the sidewalk, block my views, and drip what I can only hope is water onto my head.  The continuous development and construction across the city leaves many buildings surrounded by scaffolding, creating sidewalk “sheds” and confining pedestrians in dark, dreary tunnels which often sub as toilets.  New York City has over 6000 of these sidewalk sheds, which if lined up end-to-end would be over 189 miles long and could reach from NYC to Baltimore! Though the sheds are meant to protect pedestrians from construction sites and building facades, they are often seen as merely a nuisance. But what if we could do something more with all of these sheds?

Image Credit: Softwalks (

Earlier this month, I was privileged to attend a collaborative design workshop hosted by the New York Horticultural Society, which aimed to answer this very question.  The workshop focused on re-imagining the sidewalk sheds to benefit the community and the surrounding environment.   The premise was based on Softwalks, a research endeavor from Transdisciplinary Design students from Parsons, the New School for Design, “to prototype a modular horticulture system designed to reduce greenhouse gases, particulate emissions and storm water runoff – green goals established by the City of New York.” In other words, the design students are looking at ways to make the semi-permanent structures more environmentally friendly; they are trying to green gray infrastructure.

I always found the scaffolding around the city to just be annoying and I never really considered how the sheds could have multiple functions until the workshop.  I was surprised when the Parsons students proposed that the sheds could even be assets to a community, rather than simply eyesores.  What a great idea! The grad students facilitated a design charrette where we explored many options for the sheds ranging from rain barrels to art murals.  While the Softwalks project is focusing on using plants, we all shared our own visions for how the sheds could be transformed.

When you are out and about in New York do you notice the scaffolding? Next time you are walking around, think about how you would re-create the sidewalk sheds in your neighborhood into something both environmentally-friendly and useful for your community.

About the Author: Sabina Pendse is a Presidential Management Fellow in Region 2’s Office of Policy and Management, where she serves as the Region’s Sustainable Schools Coordinator. She also collaborates with other federal agencies, state and local governments, municipalities, and non-profits to provide assistance to improve environmental quality in communities through smart growth and green building.

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