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How One Company Is Illuminating Cities One Sidewalk at a Time

This was a blog post I created during my time at McNICHOLS that spotlights their customer, Urban Umbrella.


By flipping the foundational infrastructure of cities and turning them skyward, Urban Umbrella is shining light on a once-dismal market. Products typically used for drains, grates, and walkways are now providing overhead safety and visibility to pedestrians in an innovative way.

For over 50 years, scaffolding was an industry that existed without improvement. But in 2009, the status quo was questioned by a group of creatives seeking an original, functional alternative to the blight of sidewalk sheds.

The Plague of Scaffolding Bridges

With building inspections required every ten years and the seemingly endless construction or maintenance that follows, it’s no surprise that there are around 300 miles of scaffolding in New York City. The traditional green plywood and metal cross bracing of sidewalk sheds are a familiar, if not unwelcome, sight to passerby.

These scaffolding bridges may only be a minor nuisance to pedestrians, but for the businesses behind them, it could mean much more. The design of standard sidewalk canopies visually obscures storefronts, eliminates signage opportunities, and limits the reach of light--obstacles that reduce foot traffic and deter customers. It is estimated that one in five establishments behind traditional scaffolding will be forced out of business. Of those that survive, an average 20 percent of their revenue can be lost.

Challenging the Status Quo

With these harrowing statistics in mind, Urban Umbrella decided to propose a safer, aesthetic, and groundbreaking solution to the eyesore of traditional scaffolding bridges.

Andrés Cortés, architect and co-founder of Urban Umbrella, sparked a revolution with his inventive approach. By using higher quality steel and a more efficient design, scaffolding is no longer bound to the uninspiring standards of sidewalk dungeons.


Urban Umbrella’s team composed a scaffolding structure that is the opposite of its predecessor. The modern support system uses recycled steel beams that stretch upward, then branch out to resemble an unfurled umbrella. This shape is the inspiration behind the company’s name, and the lateral supports eliminate the need for obstructive cross bracing.

Overhead protection is ensured by assembling a roof of McNICHOLS® Bar Grating. The corrosion-resistant Aluminum Grating has a durable construction and a high

strength to weight ratio. The material’s lightweight nature puts minimal pressure on supports and allows for seamless assembly, while its durability increases safety and fulfills city regulations. This Bar Grating is an essential part of satisfying New York building code requirements, which mandate scaffolding load capacities of 300 pounds per square foot. With translucent plastic panels laid across the Grating, pedestrians are thoroughly protected from falling construction debris. This protective roof increases safety, while its translucent, open-grid structure allows light to flood sidewalks below. The sweeping views of the sky are a stark contrast to the dark confinement of plywood sheds.

With multiple redesigns, intensive engineering, and extensive examination including small missile tests, Cortés affirms that the new scaffolding is even stronger than previous versions. Even the fabrication methods of Urban Umbrella contribute to a safer pedestrian experience. Traditional scaffolding bridges are hastily assembled without regard for a building’s architecture, while Urban Umbrellas are custom fabricated for each location. On average, scaffolding in New York City is active for approximately 350 days, though there are cases of sidewalk sheds that have been around for over 12 years. With these extended lifespans in mind, Urban Umbrella is providing an enhanced scaffolding solution that is durable and assembled to be a continuous extension of each building.

Brand Partnership

The Urban Umbrella team knew that a modern scaffolding solution would need to give brand customization back to tenants.  As part of this effort, Urban Umbrella utilizes McNICHOLS®  Perforated Metal  to construct parapets. This material allows


for light filtration and provides a space for companies to feature their signage--opportunities unavailable with traditional scaffolding. It was essential that the Urban Umbrella design include an aesthetic canvas to allow businesses to tailor their messaging. This advertising space aims to increase brand visibility and reverse the negative impacts of traditional scaffolding.

Beyond signage, Urban Umbrella continues to partner with store brands to provide a fully customized scaffolding experience. A recent collaboration with ULTA Beauty added festive spirit to sidewalks by installing pink scaffolding poles at their storefront. These advertising opportunities allow companies to take ownership of their locations, rather than being subjected to city-mandated structures.

An Urban Sculpture

With or without brand customization, Urban Umbrella is beautifying metropolitan areas one block at a time. The contemporary white steel is a radiant focal point in bustling cities. With poles elevated higher than traditional scaffolding, LED lighting, and an open structure, Urban Umbrella scaffolding is a piece of art that reveals the beauty surrounding it.

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