Public Park(ing) – Rise of the Parklet Movement

The parklet, two or more parking spaces completely redesigned to function as anything but parking – an active extension of the sidewalk.


Photo by Eric Scott


In cities large and small, ribbons of space hug our sidewalks, reserved for one use only: the temporary storage of a vehicle. Recently, some of these spaces have undergone a transformation. The parklet, two or more parking spaces completely redesigned to function as anything but parking – an active extension of the sidewalk, a park, an art gallery, café seating, or a micro-gym – is igniting the imaginations of artists and businesses alike. In less than five years, parklet programs have cropped up in cities throughout North America.

The City of San Francisco, CA’s, Pavement to Parks program defines each parklet project as “a public laboratory for the city to work with local communities to temporarily test new ideas in the public realm.” At its essence, a parklet is a window with a view into the aspirations that a city has for itself.

Birth of the Parklet

On a sunny day in 2005, the parklet movement began in San Francisco with a metered parking space, some pocket change, a roll of sod, a tree, and a bench. Rebar, an art and design studio, rolled out the grass, invited passersby to sit, and then packed up and went home once their two-hour lease with the City expired. Park(ing) Day was born.

Today, Park(ing) Day is celebrated by various communities on the third Friday of September. True to its roots as an open source movement, anyone willing to concoct and install a creative use for a parking space can participate in Park(ing) Day.

But why stop at transforming a space for only one day if a more permanent solution is possible? In an interview with Inhabitat, Matthew Passmore of Rebar described the search for more permanence: “We worked very closely with the City to develop the pilot project … but now it’s an open permit process, and anyone can apply.” The City piloted its Pavement to Parks program in 2010 with the installation of the Mojo Bicycle Café parklet on Divisadero Street. By January 2013, 37 other parklets had joined the City’s street scene. Streetsblog chronicled some of the excitement at the opening ceremony of Mojo’s parklet, including that of District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. “When I came into office in 2005, I declared that Divisadero would be one of our comeback corridors. This parklet right here, this 44 feet (13.4 meters), is really the first template that is going to have a citywide impact,” said Mirkarimi. “It’s an exciting 44 feet.”

New York, NY’s, Street Seats program serves as a complement to its robust public plaza renaissance. The City permitted the first parklets in the summer of 2010 as a public seating solution to the too-narrow sidewalks near storefronts. David van der Leer, executive director of the Van Alen Institute, is among the many hopeful applicants for a new Street Seats installation. “What I find beautiful about it, is New York City is always on the go. [A parklet] allows us to take a step back and enjoy the moment.” Other cities have pointed to both New York and San Francisco as their inspiration.

The Sidewalk Escape Valve

Perhaps the meteoric rise of the parklet is due to the release valve they provide for the pressures of a sidewalk’s many roles.

Compared to the relatively narrow scope of traffic travel lanes, the sidewalk hosts “everything else” in the right of way: utility poles and lighting, mailboxes, newspaper kiosks, sidewalk cafés, bus stops, benches, waste receptacles, bike racks, trees and landscaping, street signs, parking meters; and that’s all before you add the bustle of people walking. Parklets provide a little more breathing room on congested sidewalks.

Going to School

Since parklets by nature can take shape in a never-ending range of designs and can involve a diverse group of stakeholders, early adopters of parklet projects have found themselves writing and rewriting the playbook for their nascent programs. Academics at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have seized the opportunity to create a toolkit summarizing best practices and considerations based on lessons learned from eight cities. “We felt that we wanted to compile the many different design ideas and open the imaginations of people,” said Professor of Urban Planning and Associate Dean of the School of Public Affairs Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, co-author of Reclaiming the Right of Way: A Toolkit for Creating and Implementing Parklets. “We hope that people are going to use this as a guide of what works.”

As a general rule, streets with lower traffic speeds and volume located in more walkable neighborhoods serve as the most welcoming hosts for parklet projects. In addition, a dedicated business or local partner willing to take on site upkeep and liability insurance is critical. Parklet projects can last a day, a season, or for several years. Most northern cities with harsher winters opt for seasonal projects: for example, New York’s Street Seats unfurls on April 15 and packs up mid-October each year. Seasonal and semi-permanent parklet designs tend to favor modular design elements that can be broken down or swapped out on occasion.

Permanent parklets are rare, since they require both sturdier materials and a longer, more involved, approval process.

Funding the On-street Revolution

As noted in the UCLA toolkit, a parklet’s price tag can climb toward $25,000 for a two parking space-sized installation. Volunteer labor and donated materials can help in some cases, but who foots the rest of the bill?

Local business partnerships have proven essential for many parklets. Given that adjacent businesses see a 9-20 percent average increase in local business revenue, investing in parklets makes good business sense.

Some cities contend with the issue of offsetting metered parking revenues. Robin Abad Ocubillo, San Francisco’s park let program manager, is quick to weigh the benefits of parklets to the city against the loss of what is comparatively little parking meter revenue.

“We are a walk first and transit first city. It doesn’t become a question of how to recoup one or two metered parking spaces but rather how to optimize the system.” In Chicago, IL, an unfortunate 75-year contract with a parking concessionaire has required the maintenance of the number of metered spaces as net neutral. As a workaround, Chicago has relocated metered parking spaces to new venues for every parklet installed.

If funding relies entirely on a benefactor business, parklet ventures will benefit prosperous neighborhoods and leave the rest of its communities wanting. A few neighborhoods have turned to crowdfunding as a means of pooling resources and making parklets possible. Vancouver, BC, resident and artist Julien F. Thomas spearheaded a successful Kickstarter campaign for a parklet. “If we have to rely solely on adjacent businesses to fully pay, then we may have a future situation where only larger businesses can afford them,” said Thomas. “I think crowdfunding can play a big role in enabling a diversity of businesses/ organizations to create projects.”

Grants from foundations, governments, and corporate sponsors have recently helped bring new pedestrian plazas – the parklet’s close cousin – to more diverse neighborhoods. In late 2013, New York City’s Neighborhood Plaza Partnership received an $800,000 grant to build in historically underinvested neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights in Queens and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.

Are Parklets Private or Public Space?

The tension between public ownership and private use in our cities is not a new problem, but the debate has certainly found focus through parklets.

Park(ing) Day began as a celebration of public use of the right of way. San Francisco policy has adopted unfettered public access as an underpinning of its program, and other cities have followed suit. According to Abad Ocubillo of San Francisco, “All parklets must have signage that identify that parklets are for public use. While businesses are responsible for stewardship, they may not inhibit public use in any form. Whether you’re homeless or you’re not, we feel parklets should be available for your use.”

A few cities have chosen to allow businesses to reserve the curbside solely for the use of their patrons. Long Beach, CA, and Portland, OR, both permit businesses to lease parking spaces for dedicated café seating.

Though restaurateurs primarily benefit from curbside café seating, Allan Crawford, former City of Long Beach Mobility Coordinator, affirms that sidewalk cafés bring in additional revenue to the city through sales tax and promoting walkable business districts. Crawford noted, “In southern California, you get in a car, and there is no limit to how far you can drive. Long Beach is very urban. We are trying to entice our residents to think: ‘I can walk or bike. I don’t need to get in a car.’”

Portland’s Street Seats program allows a project’s use to benefit primarily the participating business, but private interests have still balked at the idea of transforming public parking spaces into private use. Currently, no further applications are being accepted in Portland’s downtown core due to the perceived burden of removing on-street parking, a message championed by the Portland Business Alliance’s Downtown Retail Council. Portland’s Street Seats program does continue to allow businesses and organizations to lease curbside space in the rest of the city – where it seems welcomed according to a city survey: “90 percent of businesses surveyed believed that the Street Seats program would benefit neighborhood businesses,” noted City of Portland’s Active Transportation Operations Manager Gabe Graff. “In addition, 80 percent of community members surveyed felt that Street Seats positively impacted their street’s vitality.”

John Greenfield, editor of Streetsblog Chicago, is familiar with business concerns about removing parking spaces. However, Greenfield asserts that innovations that change the status quo usage of public space such as parklets and bike share stations support the local economy. “The number of cars that you bring to a district is less important than the number of shoppers you bring to a business district,” said Greenfield. “Parklets and bike share docking stations bring in more people than a few parking spaces.”

“It does more for the common good than a parking space would,” continued Greenfield on creating parklets for sidewalk café use. “There is sometimes the issue that cafés take up too much space on the sidewalk, and if this can free up space, that seems like a win.”

The Future of Parklets

The concept of parklets as an on-street laboratory of urban innovation is actively evolving in cities throughout North America. Parklet champions see a bright future for cities that choose to embrace curbside transformations. Loukaitou-Sideris hopes that individual park let projects will eventually spread. “The power of the idea of parklets is in numbers. Having one or two parklets in a city is pleasant, but it does not vitalize the public realm. We can identify where space can be utilized and where open space is needed – like a network of parklets.”

Yvette Lopez, Pacoima Beautiful’s deputy director in Los Angeles, CA, stated that residents are the final judges. “Parklets should be a reflection of the community. In the end, it’s like a park. If a park isn’t serving the needs of the community, what good is it?”

Time will tell if a network of unique and vibrant parklets will one day spread throughout North America, but early signs are looking good. Defending early parklets successes may be up to interpretation but the creative possibilities are endless. A survey conducted by the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council included the question, “Would you kiss your loved one in a parklet?” A resounding 85 percent responded, “Heck, yeah!”

Steph Routh is the author of the book How to Move by Bike and the mayor of Hopscotch Town, a consulting and small publishing firm that inspires and celebrates fun, lovable places for everyone. | @StephRouth

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