Sidewalk Shambles: Let’s Talk NYC Infrastructure

Flat World Partners
5 min readSep 4, 2019


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As New Yorkers make their way through the city streets, there’s one thing they’ll never escape: scaffolding — often referred to as “Sidewalk Sheds”. Call it an eyesore, a way to stay dry in the winter, or a massive inconvenience, scaffolding has proven to have significant consequences on NYC city-siders. Not only does it detract from the beauty of the historic buildings, it also threatens public safety, hurts small businesses, and attracts drug crime. In April 2019, it was reported that there were over 8,300 scaffolds across the five boroughs, amounting to roughly 300 miles of dimly-lit plywood tunnels.

The New York City’s “Façade Inspection Safety Program” (FISP), previously known as Local Law 11, was first instituted as a safety measure in 1979 after an 18-year-old pedestrian, Grace Gold, was killed by falling debris on the streets of Manhattan. This city law stipulates that owners of buildings with more than six stories must have their exterior walls inspected every five years to ensure there are no loose bricks or masonry. The scaffolds are installed to keep construction materials from falling on pedestrians below.

Because there are no time restrictions on their presence, nor deadlines around the work to be done, many scaffolds stay up for years with no renovations seemingly underway above. Thrifty owners leave the sheds up in between inspections as it is cheaper than disassembling and re-erecting for future projects.

With the inundation of scaffolding around New York City, it has become a lucrative industry for incumbents in the space. The ubiquitous steel-and-green-plywood structures cost approximately $90 to $110 per linear foot of shed for the first three months, followed by 5% monthly rental of the initial installation cost. The sub-industry is estimated to generate over $1 billion a year in revenue of which $200 million is from street-level sheds themselves.

Although they were intended to protect pedestrians from falling debris, these entombing sheds have not succeeded in their mission, and in some instances actually collapse on pedestrians. The sheds permanent presence have caused significant uproar amongst New Yorkers who advocate for smarter regulation and new legislation from the city council in an attempt to reclaim sidewalks. Ben Kallos, a City Council Member for District Five, who describes the sheds as a “once welcomed house guest that never leaves”, is at the forefront of this advocacy. Regulation proposals include incentivizing stakeholders to get construction work done more quickly and efficiently and putting a six-month limit to complete necessary repairs, alongside with other legislation.

Ultimately Sidewalk sheds perform an important function of protecting pedestrians from crumbling building facades and other construction hazards. However, the overall lack of regulation surrounding the tunnels has proven to cause more harm than good, causing headaches for many stakeholders and effecting small businesses to operate.

Hamish Baillieu, Investment Analyst

Two pedestrians were hit by falling bricks in Manhattan on Tuesday the 11th of June 2019 following a scaffolding accident at 42 West 39th Street.

Other cities around the world use drones to inspect the building and have certified engineers report back on any work that needs to be done. Could NYC take a leave out of their book?

Want to learn more about scaffolding? Scaffolding — The Handbook for Estimating & Product Knowledge by Michael “Terry” Marks will teach you all you need to know about product training.

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