Parklets: From Pavement to Public Spaces

Tiny Green Spaces Create Respites for Urban Dwellers

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Robin Abad Ocubillo is parklet and research lead at the city of San Francisco’s Planning Department.

Jennifer Wieland is manager of Seattle’s public space program.

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Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 4:00 pm

With its temperate weather and steady stream of pedestrians, it’s not surprising that the city of San Francisco conceived and installed the nation’s first parklet in 2010.

Today, less than four years after that original site was opened to residents, the concept of parklets has expanded beyond California, with small-scale public spaces growing in cities around the country.

At first glance, a pedestrian might assume that a parklet is an extension of outdoor seating for a café that spills out into a parking spot in front of that particular restaurant. In fact, parklets are miniature open public spaces that aim to fill park inequalities in mixed-use neighborhoods with a high concentration of foot traffic.

“Parklets provide public accessible areas. They are not an extension of a private dining space. They are not a private right of way,” said Robin Abad Ocubillo, parklet and research lead at the city of San Francisco’s Planning Department. “You don’t have to be a patron of the particular restaurant to enjoy sitting in a parklet, just like any park in San Francisco.”

Besides being the project manager at large for San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks program, Ocubillo is the founding principal of Parklet Studies, a volunteer collaborative focusing on research and evaluation of experimental urban design interventions in the public right-of-way. It’s a website dedicated to sharing and swapping information about parklets from communities around the country.

Experimental urban design is a central component in parklets. There isn’t a uniform size, shape or purpose. Each one is unique to its location and purpose.

Parklets are “typically created by building a platform on the pavement to extend the sidewalk space, and retrofitting it with benches, planters, tables and chairs, umbrellas and bike racks. In the case of active recreation parklets, exercise machines can be bolted to the platform,” according to “Reclaiming the Right of Way: A Toolkit for Creating and Implementing Parklets.” The 173-page toolkit was created as part of the Complete Streets Initiative, a joint effort of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, the Luskin Center for Innovation, and the Institute of Transportation Studies in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The toolkit’s purpose is “to provide city staff and community members with practical guidance to support the development of small-scale parks, called parklets.

“Parklet programs and projects are spreading quickly across the nation, from San Francisco to New York and other cities profiled in the toolkit. This decision-support toolkit is designed specifically to facilitate the development of parklet projects in the city of Los Angeles and encourage a parklet program that creates an institutionalized pathway for their installation. Despite the focus on Los Angeles, the program case studies, project guidelines, and other best practices presented in this toolkit are easily transferable to other communities across the nation,” according to the publication.

Most parklets contain seating and plants to create an inviting micro-park. They typically take the place of one or two parking spots and seamlessly extend from the sidewalk.

“It’s kind of like a deck,” Ocubillo said.

A well-designed parklet will not obstruct street gutters and can withstand wind and rain. Parklets also must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and often can be used for musicians or poets. Every parklet has a host or steward, who has a permit with the city to manage the parklet. This person finances the construction of the parklet and oversees its maintenance and cleanliness.

That’s where the parklet similarities end.

“In San Francisco, there is encouragement for creative design and expression with our parklets,” Ocubillo said. “It’s a unique opportunity to create something beautiful.”

The city of Los Angeles’s Department of Transportation will manage its growing number of parklets through its People Street program. The city’s first parklet was open to the public in February 2013 and featured mosaic glass tile from a local artist, redwood decking, seating and planters filled with succulents and other drought-resistant plants.

This spring, the city launched “Kit of Parts for Parklet,” preapproved parklet models that can be installed in predictable ways. This model helps predict costs for parklet hosts and streamlines the city’s review process.

Seattle’s pilot parklet program was launched in 2013. Seattle residents approached the city asking for parklets in 2011, but the city didn’t have any development guidelines, said Jennifer Wieland, manager for Seattle’s public space program.

Two parklets have been built and 13 more parklets are in the works. The parklets are built with private money from a parklet sponsor who applies for the permits through the city. The fundraising website Kickstarter has been a popular avenue to gain donations for the construction of a parklet by community members. The smoke-free parklets are not permanently affixed to the pavement and must post a green sign stating, “Public Parklet, All Seating Open to the Public.”

Prior to parklet installation, some city residents had concerns about the impact of the parklet.

“People have an idea in their head of a huge structure and that it will block traffic, but then once it is built they call us saying ‘I’ve looked for it and I don’t see it.’ Once we point it out, they say, ‘It fits in quite nicely,’” Wieland said.

Potential parklet locations must be scrutinized by city employees prior to approval, Ocubillo said. Besides reviewing the location for safety factors, such as driveways and speed limits, successful parklets should be built in areas with a high level of pedestrian activation, Ocubillo said. Ideally the area is a mix of residential and commercial services, both retail and restaurants.

Parklet application also must contain letters of support from business owners and residents that will surround the proposed area. This community involvement factor is essential for success, Ocubillo said.

“Make sure that everyone in the neighborhood is supportive. Everyone has their eyes on it. Everyone is invested in seeing this new public space succeeding,” Ocubillo said. “All friends and neighbors need to be on board and support to ensure the success of the parklet.”

The parklet host, as he or she is called by the city of San Francisco, also needs to be responsive and dedicated to the long-term maintenance of the parklet, Ocubillo said. Parklet host permits are reviewed annually and Ocubillo said the city looks at host’s responsibilities, ranging from aesthetics to managing conflict between parklet users and noise control. The city also looks at factors that might be out of a host’s control, but lead to the discontinuation of a parklet.

“We have a strong sense of what a good host looks like on paper,” Ocubillo said, recommending that cities considering parklets download a parklet manual published by the city of San Francisco in 2013. The city is currently in the process of updating the manual to include impact studies and other research related to parklets.

San Francisco was the first city to incorporate parklets in March 2010. Currently there are 48 parklets, six will be installed soon and 100 are on a waiting list and planned to be installed. San Francisco hosts more parklets than any other city in the nation.

Parklets can be a solution for urban areas, Ocubillo said.

“One reason parklets are created is because cities are space constrained and it’s really expensive to create new open spaces, or the current open spaces are not equally distributed,” Ocubillo said.

Parklets might have started as outdoor seating near a restaurant, but as the popularity of these micro parks continues to grow, their availability and purpose will evolve to meet future needs. More and more parklets are being hosted by art galleries, museums or youth centers, Ocubillo said. In Philadelphia, a church is the steward for a parklet.

The discussion and installation of parklets goes beyond the nuts and bolts of seating and landscaping. This creative open space movement opens the doors for city planners and transportation officials to talk about what streets can do and can be, Ocubillo said.

“Parklets lead to a future with better street lighting, expanded bicycle lanes and incorporating planters into the design of sidewalks,” Ocubillo said. “Parklets are more than a place to sit and have a cup of coffee. Parklets will do and have done so much more than that.”

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