Parklets: a great idea for Seattle to steal

San Francisco has created a quick way to convert a parking space or two into pleasant micro parks that the community picks and maintains. What are we waiting for?

Crosscut archive image.

Relaxing in a San Francisco parklet.

San Francisco has created a quick way to convert a parking space or two into pleasant micro parks that the community picks and maintains. What are we waiting for?

Walking 12 miles around a city in a day will give you a blister on your foot and many insights. A recent long walk around San Francisco (made with a notably poor shoe choice) offered another look at an innovation so well conceived and executed that Seattle should just steal the idea: the Public Parklet.

Originally launched in 2010, San Francisco's Public Parklet program is part of the Pavement to Parks effort started under Mayor Gavin Newsom. The goal is to create interesting neighborhood spaces in thoughtful, non-traditional ways.

The idea of the Public Parklet is to convert a parking space or two into a pleasant micro park with seating, landscaping, and community support. Before selecting a site, the city asks community groups to submit proposals that include a commitment to help pay for, care for, and maintain the parklet hardware, furniture, and landscaping. That neatly teflons each installation against any war-on-cars or war-on-business hyperventilations.

"Parklets are intended to provide space for people to sit and relax and enjoy the city around them... Parkets are public space and must be publicly accessible," say the guidelines, which are admirably brief and clear.

From what I could see, the parklets are visually attractive, delightful to experience, and well liked.  A sign indicates that they're public parks and available to all, and in practice they are nearly always occupied with a variety of users. With the support of local groups that helped pay for and maintain them, the parklets have also held up well. And should a problem arise, they are movable. A parklet can be trucked away in a day and reassembled someplace else.

One striking aspect is their appealing yet simple design. RG Architecture, the firm that designed them (gratis) used a minimalist, modern approach and some more-complicated-than-it-looks engineering to achieve an appealing aesthetic with rugged functionality.

San Francisco's experiment has been successful enough to spur additional RFP's for more Fog City parklets and New York City has taken the cue and implemented the idea in a slightly different way as "pop-up parks" for adjacent restaurants to provide additional seating. New York's take is decidedly more commercial while San Francisco's model has a more egalitarian sense about it. Either concept is worth spreading.

The drop-down parklet is low cost and flexible. It doesn't depend on city budgets to keep in place. They happen quickly by avoiding the pitfalls of top-down street and park decisionmaking. It wouldn't be that hard for Seattle to steal the idea, adopting San Francisco's operating model, user-friendly RFP process, and the same designs as in the Bay Area or Manhattan. We could have a half dozen of these in place by spring. The result would help neighborhoods and businesses and create new pockets of urban vitality.

But let's not grind this idea through byzantine Seattle process. Just take it whole and run with it, maybe with a little help from those people elsewhere who have developed and refined it. A simple project like this can also, in some small way, be a model for moving quicker, bolder and faster — a minor warmup for crafting a more effective culture of civic innovation. Parklets are an easy way to make some great community spaces without a lot of drama.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.