by Jessie Lamworth, MKThink Summer Intern | Whitehead Scholar | Haverford College ’18 | Majoring in Growth and Structure of Cities
If you’ve strolled anywhere in San Francisco in the past six years, you’ve likely walked past a parklet. Parklets are metered parking spaces that have been transformed into miniature public parks. Owing to the efforts of public-private partnerships and community initiatives, 52 parklets now dot San Francisco’s city streets. Averaging 6 feet wide by 12-to-52 feet long, these mini-parks range from a simple railed platform to a repurposed Citroën H Van.
San Francisco gave birth to the first parklet in the nation in 2005, when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in a downtown neighborhood that lacked public open space. (Streets account for 25% of San Francisco’s 47-square-mile area, with only 11.6% dedicated to green space.)
Rebar’s installation marked the first PARK(ing) Day, which has evolved into a global phenomenon with the mission of “calling attention to the need for more urban open space, generating critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and improving the quality of the urban human habitat”.
Park(ing) Day evolved into Pavement to Parklets, a multiagency effort between the San Francisco Planning Department, Department of Public Works, and the Municipal Transportation Agency. Since the founding of Pavement to Parklets in 2010, parklets have steadily populated San Francisco’s city streets with the current count at 52. Businesses have reported increased foot traffic and revenue. Pedestrians remark on the convenience and charm of small oases sprinkled throughout the city.
Parklet for the Public or Paying Patrons?
Not all reviews have been positive. Some parklets have been described as “eye sores,” or “a waste of perfectly good parking space.” Most of all, confusion has escalated around the purpose of parklets; namely whether or not they are open for the public.
Parklets adjacent to restaurants, outfitted with the same furniture, color scheme, and design elements, appear to be outdoor seating reserved for patrons. A whopping 85% of parklets is sponsored by food and beverage establishments—many of which have received complaints about unclear use. Of the city’s 52 parklets, 60% follow the design formula of railed platform with café-style chairs and tables, which visually signals private, for-patron-only use. This problematic design flaw undermines the intention of parklets to provide public open space.
While all parklets must display a Pavement to Parks sign to indicate the seating is open to the public, the five-inch by eleven-inch sign is easily overlooked and frequently placed below knee height and out of view.
Playful Public Parklet
To correct this current design flaw, future parklets must be clearly designed for the public and offer more than just lifeless seating. Close your eyes and imagine a park from your childhood. Was it a stark wooden platform equipped with a bunch of chairs?
My remedy for the characterless, uninspiring parklet disease spreading through the city is a parklet design that captures the imagination and playfulness of jungle gyms and neighborhood parks within the bounds of the allotted six-by-twelve-foot space.
In my design research, I visited 28 of the 52 parklets throughout the city to observe and assess how each fulfilled the mission of providing public open space. I read reports on the Pavement to Parks initiative, perused Yelp reviews, and researched articles in SFGate and the San Francisco Chronicle. Based on my analysis of this quantitative and qualitative data, I defined key criteria to inform my design.
- Appear welcoming
- Obvious demarcation
- Engaging, abstract, interesting
Jungle gyms and play structures that present an open invitation to climb and explore were the inspiration for my parklet design. I was intent that the design should boldly advertise the public nature of the parklet. I made a point to include a bike rack and sufficient greenery. (Half of the existing parklets has less than 5% greenery per square foot, and 37 of the 52 parklets offer no bike racks.)
The design offers what many existing parklets do not: versatility of use. People of all ages can engage with this public space in many different ways, whether they play with the tic-tac-toe board, sit and drink coffee, or simply store their bikes. The colorful, graphic design draws attention and piques an onlooker’s curiosity, and the large, bold letters spelling “PARK!” clearly demarcate the space as a park.
As San Francisco grows and changes, public spaces will be the cornerstone of communities and city character. Public design should reflect the vibrant soul and colorful variety of the city’s people, and should provide accessible space to relax, converse, and especially play.