It all began in 2005 with a single parking space, a patch of turf, a bench and a potted tree. There was also a sign that read, “If you’d like to enjoy this little park, please put some coins in the meter.” With a small investment and a little effort, the first “parklet” was created.
A parklet is a sidewalk extension built over several parking spaces that is designed to provide more space and amenities to pedestrian traffic. Parklets offer folks a place to sit, read and relax, or provide some much needed green space to an area that needs it. The first parklet was created by the San Francisco arts collective Rebar, and over the past decade, parklets have become one of the hottest urban design trends in communities nationwide.
Pavement to parks
Once the initial prototype proved successful, the City by the Bay decided it needed more. In 2010, they created the Pavements to Parks program — a partnership between the San Francisco Planning Department, the Department of Public Works and the Municipal Transportation Agency. The organization conducted some research and learned that 25 percent of the city’s land was streets and public right-of-ways, more than all of the public parks combined. They also realized that many of those streets are excessively wide and underutilized, especially near intersections. They decided to test the possibilities of these areas by converting them into pedestrian spaces that would be enjoyed by people of all ages.
According to the Pavement to Parks website, parklets are temporary structures that can be changed easily according to need, may fold into the local landscape and can consist of outdoor seating arrangements or something much more elaborate. When properly designed and executed, parklets reimagine the potential of city streets, encourage non-motorized transportation, enhance pedestrian safety and activities, foster neighborhood interaction and support local businesses. Parklets typically take between 12 and 18 months to plan and construct and can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $14,000; however, those who have them say they are well worth the time and effort.
“It’s a go-to for people, “ said Tony Gemignani, owner of a parklet outside his pizzeria in New York City. “It just grabs people.”
Parklets populate big cities and small towns
After San Francisco’s parklet movement took off, other communities wanted to get in on the act. Today, parklets can be found in a variety of locations — including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia and even Auckland, New Zealand — and are making their way to small municipalities as well. Covington, Ky., installed five parklets in May that will be on display until the beginning of October and range from a wooden igloo — known as a Wish Igloo — to a hopscotch garden and a parklet that enables visitors to pedal stationary bicycles. Layfayette, Ind., has also installed five parklets to be part of the community’s long-term streetscape plan, and even Rochester, N.Y., is working on bringing its first parklet prototype to the community.
“We started our parklet as a demonstration at our Earth Day festival to see the community’s reaction to it,” said Adam Foster, code enforcement officer/assistant planner of the city of Lafayette, Calif. “It was so well-received that the Downtown Development Authority approved a pilot parklet project for this summer.”
With a budget of $5,000, Lafayette constructed two parklets consisting of palettes, plywood, tables, chairs and umbrellas arranged in two parking spaces at local intersections. Thanks to their proximity to a local coffee shop and restaurant, it didn’t take long for the community to gravitate toward the open-air seating areas and enjoy their food alfresco. It may not be as elaborate as the parklets in San Francisco, but the installation will help the city determine whether or not repurposing a parking space is more beneficial to the community.
“It’s something that we are going to have to study further. We have to determine if the space costs more to the city as a parking space or as a parklet,” Foster says. “With a parking space, you have to maintain it all year long, but a parklet may encourage people to spend more time downtown, which gives the local economy a boost. We are fortunate that we can maintain a parklet all year-round. Colder climate areas can’t do that.”
Naturally, there are those who lament the loss of the parking spaces, but Foster said they are generally older residents who live in the suburbs and whose lives are designed around the car. However, he says many of those same people genuinely like the idea of the parklets because they remind them of a time when people ambled along sidewalks and interacted with their neighbors.
Foster said that Lafayette has created a community survey to determine if the parklets were a success. As of this writing in August, they are two months into the four-month trial period, but so far 53 percent of the respondents are supportive of the concept while 47 percent are opposed. Foster said that approval has been as high as two-thirds so it will be interesting to see what the final numbers will be.
Ultimately, he feels that parklets are a great opportunity for community input, and as the movement grows, it will be interesting to see how their parklets will evolve. Will they be city funded or sponsored by local businesses? Will they include free wi-fi so that students can gather and do their homework or be tutored? If so, how will those kids be protected from motor vehicles? What about theft? How will the furniture be protected? If it is anchored down, will that compromise the integrity of the structure?
“There is still so much to be learned and many people will be impacted … These are small differences to a community, but it is exciting to be part of something so creative that could have big benefits,” Foster said.