What if scaffolds became destinations for eating a taco, resting your feet after a long walk, or even testing your amazing chess skills? Previously nothing but urban eyesores, these metal obstacle courses can be transformed into social hangouts thanks to an urban hacking kit by the Softwalks innovation studio.
In an already overcrowded city like New York, scaffolds (AKA temporary structures around construction sites) occupy extremely valuable public space. “New York’s number of scaffolds increased from 6,000 to more than 8,000 units,” according to Bland Hoke, co-founder of Softwalks.
For added perspective: Lined up all the way, these structures would form at least 189 miles of continuous scaffolding!
“Softwalks started out being curious about the meaning of sidewalks and their endless potential,” explains Hoke’s colleague Howard Chambers. “We started to wonder how we could reclaim them and turn a negative experience into a positive one.”
With this philosophy in mind, Hoke and Chambers took to the streets and asked people about what they miss in New York’s public space. Their conclusion: There is just nowhere to hang out.
A toolkit for urban hacking
Hoke and Chambers started to look for ways to create hangouts in public, despite the general unavailability of large public spaces. What if the existing structures of scaffolds could be included in the creation of new and useful public spaces?
The duo designed the Kit of Parts, a special toolkit, comprised of nifty components that can be attached to scaffolds. These include a tip-up seat for a place to sit, a slick counter to enjoy your lunch or a conversation, a planter to incorporate nature into the city and improve the streets’ aesthetics, and, finally, light reflectors to create pleasing spaces at night.
“The project turned out to be a success as New Yorkers loved the fact that they finally had a place, and a reason, to hang out in public,” says Chambers. “We tried to involve people to get them excited and enthusiastic by showing them what was possible and how we could facilitate a place to hang out in the city.”
To generate social energy, Softwalks set up a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Some initial skepticism about the potential recreational value of scaffolds was quickly replaced by enthusiasm once people were able to experience the value of Softwalks and their new lovable public hangouts.
Agenda setting through hacking
“If you create something and bring it to the streets, you may be able to inspire others and set the agenda to rethink public space,” adds Hoke. “It’s no longer just city planners who design spaces for people – people themselves are becoming city-makers. Urban hacks grab your attention and make you feel what change is like, rather than just showing it.”
Depending on your own perspective, the structure of a city may seem like a maze filled with obstacles and inconveniences or – to those who have developed the heart of an urban hacker – like a blank canvas with endless opportunities for playful interventions.
Temporary instead of permanent change
Unfortunately, Softwalks hasn’t been able to bring permanent change to New York’s streets. The Kit of Parts was just a pilot project, which is currently looking for interested business partners to scale the idea. Nevertheless, Hoke and Chambers feel satisfied with how Softwalks has worked out.
“Our goal was not to start a profitable business – rather, it’s about innovation, rethinking urban space from a new perspective, and enriching city life. An important lesson learned is how small ideas can make a big change.”
With its special toolkit and energetic urban hacking approach, Softwalks may have done just that, leaving us with nothing but the desire to sit down for a moment and soak up the beautiful, inspiring city life.