As our cities reopened for outdoor dining, it called our attention to certain playful structures popping up alongside our sidewalks — parklets.
"Parklets are a unique way of creating an instant mini oasis of natural calm in the midst of our busy urban realms... an invigorating placemaking asset." -- Meristem Design
The term "parklet" originated from a San Francisco parking space. In 2005, a design collective called Rebar decided to challenge the automobile-centered approach to urban design by "renting" a 200 sq ft parking spot via paying the meter and converting it to a mini park where strangers struck up conversations. Cities worldwide then followed suit and participated in Park(ing) Day to build pockets of public green space out of pavements. Thanks to the marketing prowess of the US, the idea of placemaking in the form of parklets was able to spread to different corners of the world.
Despite the concept of parklets being credited to San Francisco, cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen appeared to be leading the way in parking reform and redesigning for pedestrian and cyclist friendly urban spaces. Copenhagen had removed parking spots over the past 40 years starting from historic districts and transformed them into active public spaces and protected bikeways. Amsterdam had proposed to eliminate 11,200 parking spots systematically, a way to reimagine space at scale.
The very existence of parklets suggests that we made mistakes in our urban planning; we designed for the pressures of today and could not anticipate the sharing economy of the future. We ended up with an estimate of 2 billion parking spaces (for 250 million cars) in the US, most of which are often left unused.
The process of reclaiming our public spaces has been slow, along with efforts made by projects like WePark instigating alternative uses of parking spaces. However, the oddities of 2020 have accelerated some of the changes.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, indoor dining has become untenable and restaurants have suffered. In efforts to help restaurants survive, cities around the country are rewriting the rules for outdoor dining, accelerating applications and waiving fees to allow for outdoor seating. As of late May, the Mayor of San Francisco created the Shared Spaces Program to enable more flexible use of sidewalks, streets, and parking spots, allowing local businesses to apply for a free, temporary expedited permit to make creative use of sidewalks (a process that usually took 12-18 months with costs ranging from $8,000 to $14,000 a parking spot).
A year ago one would not have been able to imagine these policy changes given the bureaucracy involved. The past few months called for the kind of progress that would've taken generations. Perhaps a tech startup will come in to build a Rent the Backyard for parking spaces and make it easy to innovate on parking spots.
Despite many of these measures being temporary, I hope some of the infrastructure changes will be permanent as cities figure out the long term impact it will have on our well-being, and to really learn to design for humanity in a millennium.
Parklets sprung from the idea of designing "streets for people." Arup, an architecture and engineering firm based in London, measured the experiences of people to understand the social value of changes to urban environments.
They've designed parklet initiatives like FitzPark and Liverpool Without Walls that promote health and wellbeing, encouraging people to walk, cycle, and spend more time outdoors. Some of the design objectives include increasing "pedestrian dwell time", enhancing local character and sense of place, and promoting biodiversity through planting. They are rethinking green infrastructure to create a linked ‘city ecosystem’ that encompasses parks, urban squares, woodland and waterways.
Parklets, like most street furniture, add vitality and playfulness to our cities. They are an intentional, purpose-driven use of our space; they’re places where kids play, where adults intermingle with members of the community; they create opportunities for social interactions.
Without these parklets, we would quickly walk by a street, desensitized by the abundance of parked cars. Parklets, on the other hand, encourage us to slow down. We stop to sit on these wooden structures surrounded by a few green planters. As we look around, we see a few friends animatedly chatting with one another; we spot another reading a book in peaceful solitude; we feel prompted to say hi to our neighbor.
Over the past months, I've dined at a few parklets (including a Mano and Cheryl's on 12th) and noticed the surrounding life in between buildings. It is these lively streets and times of dining al fresco that brings me joy. It is noticing these small moments of children playing in the parklet that makes us feel human. They make us realize how alive the city feels, bringing appreciation to the beautiful city that we live in.
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This article is written by me, Coco, a designtrepreneur that loves innovations in architecture and the built world.
There may be biases and inaccuracies; if you see anything you disagree with, would love to hear from you! Reach me @cocobliu