Parklets, Everywhere

As parks the size of postage stamps pop up all over San Francisco and spread to other cities, “tactical” urbanism is taking on a cannily strategic edge. 

By John King, Honorary ASLA

SF Planning.

If you’re a tourist who’s visiting San Francisco, you’re unlikely to find yourself on the 4600 block of Noriega Street near the Pacific Ocean, and until recently there’s been little to miss. It’s a comfortable but prosaic strip of low buildings that are home to the likes of a food market and a salon along a broad swath of asphalt. In January, though, it sprouted a new feature when three diagonal parking spaces outside the Devil’s Teeth Baking Company were turned into a semi-enclosed living room joined to the sidewalk, an urban oasis for anyone who might be passing by.

The new space sits within ledgelike seating walls made of weathered cedar, and the edge along the street forms a backrest and a protective wall—a wall that in spots doubles as a planter filled with clumps of Mexican feather grass that sways in the stiff ocean wind. Two interior ledges create triangular nooks where people can sit and relax. There are a large water bowl for dogs and a box of chalk for children to decorate the concrete floor.

“There was no place on the block to sit,” the owner of Devil’s Teeth, Hilary Passman, says in explaining why the bakery, with the help of a city grant, built and now maintains a public open space known in the San Francisco planning lexicon as a parklet. “We saw one outside another café and thought, ‘What a great idea.’”

Parklets are San Francisco’s contribution to the ever-expanding field of “tactical urbanism,” a phrase used to encompass yarn bombing, food trucks, street closings, and a host of short-term activities in between. Thirty-six parklets have been installed since the first one appeared in March 2010, and another 20 have been approved by the city and await completion. (Noriega’s parklet is the only one that replaced diagonal parking spaces rather than parallel ones). The parklet formula has been replicated in cities as diverse as Long Beach, California; Philadelphia; Vancouver, Canada; and Adelaide, Australia. Boston will fund the installation of four parklets next year. Houston is studying the program as well.

Yet even as they gain wider attention—Governing magazine in June dubbed parklets “the latest trend in urban placemaking”—San Francisco’s parklets have been in place long enough to glimpse the practical limits of the small-scale and idiosyncratic mode of intervention for which tactical urbanism is best known.

They’re great at adding accents to a district or block, but they’re not transformative elements. Nor are all parklets created equal. Some are platforms with seats, while others are miniature landscapes; some feel public, and others do not. One became a magnet for indigents and revelers. And even as city officials talk about using parklets as systematic tools of neighborhood revival, the experiences with parklets so far suggest that they work best when they build on social and cultural aspects of a community that already exist but that don’t have a setting to flourish in public.

“A parklet isn’t a catalyst. It doesn’t create energy,” says Blaine Merker of Rebar, an interdisciplinary studio that has designed four existing parklets and is as responsible as anyone for spawning the parklet movement. “It can give focus and a physical presence to energy that exists.”

The extent to which parklets have taken root in San Francisco can be gauged by the fact that there’s now a bureaucratic process established to clear the way for bright ideas to become structures on the street. There have been three rounds of applications, each beginning with a public request for proposals; responses are reviewed in the city’s planning department by three staffers who also vet each design with the Department of Public Works and the Municipal Transportation Agency. The applicants pay all the costs of building and then maintaining the parklets, as well as permit fees of roughly $1,000 to $1,600, plus a $221 annual fee once the installation is complete (technically, these are temporary installations). The city charges no rent for spaces; it figures that any loss in parking meter revenue is offset by, to quote its most recent request for parklet proposals, “an economical solution to the desire for wider sidewalks…providing aesthetic enhancements to the overall streetscape.”

Most of the applicants to date have been businesses—restaurants and cafés in particular—or commercial organizations, but parklets also have been installed by a homeowner and by a nonprofit youth arts program. The budgets often approach $25,000; one café sold deck bricks to patrons as a fund-raising tool, while another used to close a $15,000 funding gap. Costs would be higher if not for the time and talent that many supporters have given, in addition to or instead of money.

The design of the parklet outside Devil’s Teeth Baking is by Shane Curnyn of Matarozzi Pel­singer Builders, an architect who lives two blocks away and heard about the idea from the owner of a nearby surfboard shop. He talked to Passman, the bakery owner, and then volunteered his talents for free. Another neighbor, Heather Buren, who is a firefighter, drew up the planting scheme of feather grass and phormium for the street-side wall and then went to the nursery with Passman to select the best specimens possible.

Curnyn’s employer built the parklet for cost. “Something like this is an amazing example of a public–private partnership at a really micro scale,” he says. “You see an outlet for the neighborhood and want to donate your time and make it amazing as can be.” Another draw is the chance to create an unorthodox structure in a public setting; Curnyn’s design received a citation award this year from the city’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

With each round of applications, the guidelines have been refined. The first set of parklets produced spaces that in some cases felt like dining annexes rather than public nooks, so there’s now an emphasis in the RFP that “greening is an important aspect of this beautification” and that “all seating on a parklet must remain free and open for any member of the public to use.” Installations must be removable, they must keep the gutter clear, and they must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The range of what’s possible within these parameters can be seen in three of the more recent parklets.

The sleek sports car of the bunch—appropriately so, given that its sponsor was Audi of America—is the Powell Street Promenade, a two-block procession with eight platforms that provide eddies alongside the churning stream of shoppers and tourists en route between the cable car turnaround of Hallidie Plaza and the department stores and hotels of Union Square. The deck is shiny aluminum, as are the ribbonlike railings and the scalloped, curving planters with narrow ledges that double as (unintended) seating. Four platforms even come with solar panels, attached to tall aluminum posts that slide upward from the deck and resemble abstract rowing oars.

The promenade’s metallic forms are a shiny contrast to the masonry buildings on either side, many of which date to the early 20th century, when City Beautiful classicism was in vogue. This parklet, which won a 2012 ASLA Honor Award, is also exponentially more lavish than others, and not by accident: Union Square’s business association was working on plans for a string of pedestrian pullouts when Audi stepped in with an offer to sponsor the project. The company is rumored to have spent upward of $900,000 on the result, which was designed at Audi’s behest by the landscape architect Walter Hood, ASLA, of Oakland.

Not everyone is a fan of Hood’s stylized approach; one city hall official complains privately that the silvery sheen of the promenade seems designed to attract attention to itself in an otherwise historic setting. But there’s no denying it serves its intended purpose of being, in the words of a planner before its opening in July 2011, “a comfortable space to get out of the path of travel.” During one typical lunch hour I spent there, a cluster of construction workers lounged with takeout while tourists snapped photographs of a passing cable car. A woman breast-fed her baby beneath a blanket as her partner frowned at a map. A panhandler leaned back against one platform’s built-in raised table.

Outside the Fabric8 gallery and boutique on 22nd Street in the Mission District is a more whimsical example of what a parklet can be. It sits a short block west of Valencia Street, which may be the city’s most adventurous retail and dining strip. The parklet fills a former parking space with a platform with decking of recycled wood and, in one corner, a mound covered in shingles that is topped by an outhouse-like shed. Seating is provided by a trio of beanbag chairs. On the weekend, you might also find an antenna-powered television brought out by the parklet’s sponsors, Anthony Quintal and Olivia Ongpin. The plants and olive tree that dot the shingled slopes were gifts from neighbors. A horseshoe hangs on the shed; an anonymous donor slipped it through the couple’s gallery mail slot. An artist, Erik Otto, created the space; the sponsors intend to line up another artist this winter to create a fresh vision of what found urban space can be.

Two blocks to the east, at 22nd and Bartlett Streets, another parklet is a long space that has raw steel planters at either end of a narrow wood counter atop tough steel posts. The deck consists of perforated steel plates. Six tables and 12 chairs come out in the morning and go in at night. This industrial tone is a response to the social realities of the block—and of lessons learned since a much different parklet was installed here in May 2010. That space, a kind of outdoor lounge, had modular sections of dark-stained bamboo that swelled up to form generous seating pods interspersed with low planters. The design proved too inviting for a block where there are nightclubs, a community college, and no shortage of in-your-face street people. Within 18 months, the narrow bamboo boards were bleached by sun and scarred with graffiti. Most of the plants had died, and the space often attracted noisy club goers at night.

The new design emphasizes pausing rather than lounging, with materials that can withstand cas­ual abuse. Still, it’s striking that the sponsors—three adjacent eating establishments—chose to invest in a new structure rather than throw up their hands and put away their checkbooks. They also stuck with the same designer, Rebar.

Rebar’s participation is a reminder of how closely today’s parklets are tied to tactical urbanism, for the firm’s three partners are the same provocateurs who in 2005 fed quarters into a meter on a block lined with office towers and then unrolled sod alongside a potted tree and spent the next two hours enjoying the startled looks of passersby. A fellow traveler took photos and blogged about what Rebar dubbed PARK(ing) Day. A movement was born. Three years later, the idea took Rebar to the Venice Architecture Biennale and now is replicated annually on the third Friday of September; last year, blink-and-you-miss-it landscapes appeared in 162 cities in 35 countries.

PARK(ing) Day’s success factored into the birth of parklets; so did the desire of San Francisco planners to enliven city streets without years of community meetings followed by years of environmental reviews and then, finally, the expenditure of millions of public dollars. “The initial idea was to help people imagine what the public right-of-way can be,” says Paul Chasan, one of three city planners assigned to the department’s “Pavement to Parks” program. “It’s a way to make something real with a lot less time and effort.”

For his part, Merker of Rebar sees the change at 22nd and Bartlett as part of the evolution of what he and Chasan call “a new open space typology.” A one-day happening is one thing; a 24/7 insertion into a diverse urban setting is another. “That’s a good thing about work at this scale. The move isn’t so big and permanent that you can’t revise it,” Merker says. “It’s a little bit like gardening—you try something and then adjust it a little bit. Intervene and refine; intervene and refine.”

The Powell Street Promenade has seen changes as well: some furniture-like features were removed or streamlined to remove obstacles for sight-impaired people, and the ribboned outer walls were tightened to discourage users from cutting across the busy street from one platform to the next. At Fabric8, the only problem beyond an occasional act of tagging was the ongoing theft of planted flowers—an issue resolved by going with succulents instead.

Parklets’ bigger challenge is to show they can serve a broad public. The largest batch of parklets—six, and more to come—is along raffishly chic Valencia Street, a strip that is more grit than greenery and attracts a generously tattooed constituency. But there’s no reason this “new open space typology” can’t be placed and programmed to serve all kinds of people, including those who might like a more sylvan place to escape. The redesigned parklet at 22nd and Bartlett may not be as inviting as its predecessor, but there’s a comfortable flow from the sidewalk to the deck; on a recent Saturday afternoon all six tables were in use, only two by people with food and drink. A father sat reading Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps while his child napped in a stroller. Two middle-aged men conversed intently in Arabic.

The need for business sponsors to enlarge the pedestrian realm sits awkwardly with proponents who would like parklets spread more uniformly throughout the city: “The biggest challenge was that we want these to be public spaces, but we’re relying on the private sector,” recalls Andres Power, the parklet planner from 2010 until February of 2012, when he became an aide to a San Francisco supervisor. “The flip side is that because someone has paid for it, they have a vested interest to keep [the parklet] operating and inviting,” as was the case at 22nd and Bartlett. As for the proliferation along the Valencia corridor, “those hipsters are there regardless,” Powers shrugs. “Because the parklets are there, they use them.”

Some city planners would like to use parklets more assertively. “So far each one has been something in and of itself, but we’re beginning to think about their potential as tools for larger change,” says David Alumbaugh, who directs the department’s City Design Group, which includes the parklets team. He contemplates using a series of parklets as a way to pull people into neighborhoods that otherwise might be avoided by outsiders, or concentrating them in such a way as to form a sort of traffic-calming system: “There might be ways to tie several of these spaces together…. A few years ago, any proposal to do something in the street was met with such resistance. Now that they’re popular, it’s ‘Why not do more?’”

Merker, the parklet veteran, isn’t convinced. Nor is Walter Hood. “The value of something like a parklet is in places where there exists a mundane everyday social life that has not been validated by the presence of inviting spaces. This becomes a way to respond and bring that out,” Hood says. “I would not be in favor of a standardized process where every street has a parklet. Then you end up creating spaces that don’t get used.”

John King, Honorary ASLA, is the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic and the author of Cityscapes: San Francisco and Its Buildings (Heyday, 2011).

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