Anyone who has been involved in the planning process for any kind of urban design decision knows that it is often a contentious, drawn-out process full of compromise and design-by-committee that leaves everyone a bit disappointed in the end. Inspired by experiments in New York City, planners in San Francisco have created a system that allows for temporary urban design interventions that are easily reversible and can avoid the complicated review process traditionally required to build anything in a dense urban area. The city is one of the most dense and pedestrian-friendly cities in North America, but it is still 25% paved and in many dense neighbourhoods there is little public open space.
The first project, located at a busy street corner the Castro district, took back a street from automotive traffic to create a public plaza where the city’s vintage streetcars turn around. The space was initially designed by Public Architecture with temporary materials on a very short time scale but became incredibly popular in the community and has since become permanent. Following the success of this project in 2008, in 2009 the ‘Pavement to Parks’ program was officially created to transform underutilized street space into new public space. Each new urban intervention is done on a one year-long trial basis. If it is successful, it will be permitted to remain.
Each year, the San Francisco Planning Department issues a request for proposals for “parklets,” small parks that take up a few parking spaces and are usually sponsored by an adjacent business. The key policy is that every parklet must remain open to any member of the public regardless of the sponsor (i.e. restaurants may not require a purchase to sit). The design for a parklet is an interesting challenge; it must be durable enough to survive being outdoors in all weather year-round but it also needs to be easily removable.
In the current anemic economy, parkets have provided a design outlet for young architects and designers looking to try out ideas about public space on real-world projects. San Francisco’s Rebar Group, best-known as the originators of Parking Day, designed the first parklet and also were also responsible for Showplace Triangle Plaza, a larger Pavement to Parks space that opened in 2009. Using repurposed materials, including leftover granite from a city streetscape project and debris bins as tree planters, Rebar showed how high design could be done quickly and on a budget.
The owners of Fabric 8, a boutique and gallery a block off trendy Valencia Street in the city’s Mission District, refer to their space as the “Parklet Gallery.” Fabric 8 plan to have a rotating series of artists participate in creating public installations at the street’s edge. Their first installation was designed by artist Erik Otto.
Some of the parklets have been more practical. Four Barrel Coffee sponsored a large installation with integrated bicycle racks spanning the full width of their business, designed by Boor Bridges Architecture. Carefully detailed in rusting steel with brick paving, the design provides spaces for seating and a decorative garden trellis.
Four Barrel Parklet by Boor Bridges Architecture
Pavement to Parks has not been without its critics. Some residents have opposed the commercial sponsorship of public space, and feel that it is done entirely to drive business to the sponsoring merchants. Some car drivers resent the removal of parking spaces in a city where parking is notoriously difficult to find. The City of San Francisco is losing thousands of dollars of revenue each year when each parking meter is removed, but the city is gaining public open spaces built at private expense. Despite objections, nearly all of the parklets are crowded with people on a daily basis and the program shows no signs of slowing. Over fifty permits have been issued to date.
Nearby Oakland has also begun the process of permitting parklets as planners, when they saw how well-received the program had been in San Francisco, and other American cities are hoping to repeat the model. In European cities with less parking there is less space for this type of intervention, but the experimental approach to allowing bottom-up urban interventions and experimental design is something that could be applied anywhere.
WAVEspace proposal by Oakland, California’s Roving Studio. “A sculptural object integrated into the streetscape.”
San Francisco Parklet Map: maps.google.com
Parklets Photo Set on Flickr: flickr.com/photos/markhogan