New York’s Sidewalk Scaffolding: A Tale of Urban Intrusion

Scaffolding is a scourge on the streets of New York City, and the problem can only be fixed by holding building owners accountable.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Cover Image
By Zihe Huang

Every pedestrian has encountered the notorious green scaffolding in New York City at one point or another. The jumble of rusted bars and green plywood obscures the street, rendering the city reminiscent of a giant construction site. Walls plastered with graffiti and peeling paint serve as a stark contrast to the bustling streets and towering buildings that we normally associate with our city. Though many New Yorkers write off scaffolds as nothing more than an eyesore, it creates  a host of other problems that diminish the quality of life for all of us. To ensure our safety and well-being, we must reconsider the role scaffolding plays on our streets. 

The abundance of scaffolds—officially termed “sidewalk sheds”—in New York can be traced back to a single regulation: Local Law 11. In 1979, 17-year-old Barnard College freshman Grace Gold was struck and killed by a piece of the building facade, the part of the building wall that faces the street. As a result, New York City mandated that all buildings taller than six stories must have their facades periodically inspected for loose bricks and cracks. This involves putting up a sidewalk shed during the inspection. If a building fails the inspection, the shed must remain in place until the building is appropriately renovated and passes the inspection. As a result, landlords prefer to keep the scaffolding up instead of making actual refurbishments that will inevitably demand more time and money. 

The presence of sidewalk sheds results in several problems for pedestrians. Scaffolds crowd the sidewalk, obscure light, and make streets harder to clean. These dark and dirty conditions can be  breeding grounds for rodents. Additionally, scaffolding itself can be a danger, as there have been numerous cases of injuries caused by sidewalk sheds. For instance, in 2012, four-year-old Lilia Davis was shocked by an electrified shed. It is clear that scaffolds, while intended to protect people, are a detriment to pedestrians. The exploitation of Local Law 11 has led to the perpetual, sky-obscuring scaffolding that has long plagued New York City streets. According to the New York City Department of Buildings, there are almost 300 sidewalk sheds that have been up for over five years. In Harlem, 21-year-old scaffolding was recently removed at 409 Edgecombe Avenue. 

Landlords must take responsibility to keep their buildings safe and prevent accidents from occurring in the first place rather than just using a band-aid solution. Some might argue that struggling property owners and co-op boards should not be forced to make expensive renovations that they cannot afford. However, owners have an inherent responsibility to fix and maintain their properties and, as such, should be penalized for failing to provide passers-by with safe, unobstructed sidewalks. If landlords truly cannot afford to fix issues, then it is the duty of the city, funded through the taxpayer dollar, to assist landlords in completing these renovations. To this end, the city could set up a fund designed to help landlords who demonstrate financial need pay for building repairs. This is not simply a matter of bailing out building owners but of keeping streets walkable and safe. 

To ensure that building owners are proceeding with repairs promptly, greater scrutiny needs to be placed on the timeline of the repair process. In the current system, property owners who do not start construction on repairs within 90 days of a report being filed are fined a base penalty of $1,000 per month. To disincentivize landlords from ignoring fines that are much lower than the cost of actually undertaking repairs, fines could be drastically increased, along with enforcing them more strictly. This could involve penalties and even legal action against repeat offenders. Additionally, construction progress should be more closely monitored by the Department of Buildings to ensure that efforts are being made towards repairs. 

On a more individual level, pedestrians can utilize official reporting services to alert the city of dangerous scaffold conditions. Tenants can also put pressure on their landlords to stop avoiding repairs. By involving the community in monitoring and reporting building code violations, government authorities can take action to maintain a more compliant environment. 

The death of Grace Gold is a clear indicator that scaffold has a place in the city—though unappealing, scaffolding is a necessary evil to safeguard pedestrians. Yet, it is chiefly the avoidance of due maintenance by property owners that is the problem by prolonging the use of scaffolding. It is clear that moving forward, making these concrete changes will require efforts from not just the building owners themselves but also those of the government and residents as well. By working together, we can create a safer environment for all and better promote the well-being of our city.