Smart Sidewalks

In spring 2013, Mayor Bloomberg challenged designers to re-imagine the pay phone in the mobile era. Smart Sidewalks conceptualized the project as an opportunity to employ over 11,000 existing payphone locations as a decentralized network for wayfinding, communication, and addressing impacts of climate change. This includes providing beacons during severe weather events, alternative energy sources during power outages, and water filtration to improve storm-water runoff quality. All these aims were confined to a limited footprint to minimize obstruction to the already over-crowded streetscape. Out of over 120 entries, Smart Sidewalks was one of six finalists and awarded the Best Functionality Award by Mayor Bloomberg and the City of New York.

The project’s success stems from the recognition of multiple scales of functioning within a city; thus the payphone’s design was conceptualized at the scale of both object and network. At the scale of the individual, the payphone was designed as an extension of the existing pattern of NYC sidewalks. Integrating with existing expansion joint patterning, Smart Sidewalks utilizes a 6” strip embedded into the sidewalk and a slender ribbon of steel to provide internet access, wayfinding, and solar power. The form is designed to withstand gale-force winds and accommodate wheelchair access. At the scale of the city, the 11,000 payphone locations provide an opportunity to integrate water filtration within the streetscape while also collecting real-time data on pedestrian flows and water volume collectively building the city’s emergency reaction capacity.

This project addresses the critical need for dualistic scalar thinking when tackling challenges of climate change impact, the need for defining here at multiple scales. While environmental change occurs at the global scale, impacts are felt locally and resilience is built within individual communities. Smart Sidewalk’s approach embodies important ways cities might capitalize on outdated infrastructure to build new networks for urban resilience at the scale of the individual, the city, and beyond.


Brett Snyder, AIA, Assistant Professor of Design, UC, Davis, Partner, Cheng+Snyder

Rama Chorpash, Director of Product Design and Associate Professor, Parsons The New School for Design, Rama Chorpash Design LLC

Claire Napawan, Assistant Professor, Landscape Architecture + Environmental Design, UC Davis

Sinéad C. Mac Namara, Assistant Professor of Structural Engineering, Syracuse University

Ben Busse, Product Strategist, Startup Leader,Technologist, San Francisco, CA

Jesse Ganes, Architecture Student, Syracuse University

Grant Foster, Architecture Student, Syracuse University


About group projects

Claire Napawan is a landscape architect, urban designer, and academic who has designed and studied urban environments for over 10 years. She is an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology at UC Davis and co-founder of the design collaborative, Group Projects. Her research and creative work includes co-design methodologies to achieve community resilience to climate change. Examples of her design and research include: Smart Sidewalks, the winning proposal for Reinventing Payphones in New York City, which seeks to address the digital divide and improve urban environmental resilience; #OurChangingClimate, a research and design project that broadens and diversifies climate conversations; FOGWASTE, a public art installation that seeks to bring greater awareness of San Jose’s vital infrastructures to local communities; and Unlocking Alameda Creek, a selected proposal for the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge that looks at unlocking flows of sediment, people, and fish. These projects represent award-wining proposals, commissioned by local municipalities, and/or exhibited at notable venues throughout the U.S. Claire currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area; she is an associate professor within the Department of Human Ecology at the University of California Davis and co-founder of the non-profit design collaborative, group projects. She holds advanced degrees from Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Architecture and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

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