Parklets are the latest biophilic feature to invade the streets of urban America this year. The concept began in 2005 as design studio Rebar purchased a 2-hour metered parking spot in San Francisco and gave it a life of its own by bringing in sod, a bench, and a tree for the people passing to stop and enjoy. This demonstration, later known as Park(ing) day, caught on quickly and has been replicated in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Vancouver across the country. By 2011, Park(ing) Day had gained a strong foundation of support with thousands of people canvassing their cities to lease and personalize spaces. The city of San Francisco responded to this popular notion with an innovative plan to offer a special permitting process for temporary sidewalk extensions known as “parklets”.
“The project continues to expand to include interventions and experiments well beyond the basic ‘tree-bench-sod’ park typology,” according to parkingday.org, and in San Francisco there is no shortage of diversity among the more than 20 parklets that have been implemented this year and the more than 40 under review for permitting. Some serve as accessory seating for cafes while others serve as works of art or general public seating. Not all parklets consist of large amounts of greenery or are celebrated as urban forests. They incorporate varying degrees of natural grasses, trees, or plants, yet their ultimate goal – to draw people out of buildings and onto the street – is a promising gateway for future policies that push the envelope further towards integrating nature and culture into urban places.
In San Francisco, the public right of ways and streets make up 25% of the land area, and exceed the land covered even by parks there. “San Francisco has inspired a national movement against asphalt, “ said Scott James in his Transforming Streetscapes New York Times article last summer. San Francisco’s official Pavement to Parks initiative through the Office of the Mayor has been an important factor in the success and implementation of these unique projects throughout the city. Each parklet is allowed – and in fact encouraged – to be as unique as possible by the review commission. Several constraints are required for safety reasons, and even those parklets that are privately funded must allow public seating. Many of the parklets are designed pro-bono by local architecture and landscape architecture firms and are built with volunteer labor.
They range in size from small projects to expand restaurant seating like Columbus Avenue to traffic calming and native vegetation landscaping projects like Naples Green to Powell Street’s scattered series of eight raised platforms planters (a $900,000 project funded by Audi America in partnership with the city).
The formalization of parklets has worked simultaneously with a number of other innovations that bring bits of nature to the streetscape in San Francisco. PlantSF is a group that uses small demonstration landscaping projects that include low-maintenance, drought tolerant, or native species to beautify the city while educating the population about how to initiate their own urban gardens – the group’s website even includes detailed PDF downloads of the species in each project. Yerba Buena’s Community Benefit District is using red dumpster-like containers filled with soil and a variety of landscaping such as Arbutus trees, Tasmanian tree ferns, or Yucca shrubs to attract birds, butterflies, and people alike to less developed streets in the area. These “parkmobiles” can be either moved frequently or used to establish an identity for certain blocks.
Are these ideas only a gateway or are they representative of truly livable communities? Several research studies by San Francisco’s Great Streets Project indicate the benefits provided by parklet projects including increases in the pedestrian traffic, the stationary activities at the sites, and the number of bicycles parked in the area. These statistics indicate that parklets are presenting San Francisco city-dwellers with rare opportunities to spend more time outside and engage in physical activity – something that will hopefully blaze a trail for innovative public projects across the country.
Post by Holly Hendrix
Biophilic Cities Project Researcher, UVA Department of Urban & Environmental Planning