A Compact Experience
Brittany Keogh08:55, Nov 08 2021
In 10 years, thousands of car parks in San Francisco have been turned into tiny parks for pedestrians. Wellington City Council has also proposed setting up “parklets” across the capital. Today, as part of The Dominion Post’s Reimagining Wellington series, Brittany Keogh looks at how the parklet trend took off in San Francisco.
Pulled up next to the kerb outside the Rapha Cycle Club bike store is an old Citroën truck.
At least that’s what it looks from a distance while walking up Filbert St, in San Francisco’s Marina District. But as you get closer it becomes clear that this isn’t a standard vehicle, stopped while its driver pops into the shop.
The truck’s interior has been hollowed out, so that only the front cab and rear wheels and window remain. Where the seats should be, are a picnic table and high bench seat, separated from the road by a barrier.
Eight-and-a-half kilometres away, near San Francisco's western shoreline, strangers sit side by side chowing down on popcorn as they watch a movie on a TV that has been wheeled out onto the footpath outside Balboa Theatre.
Known as “parklets”, these quirky and colourful spaces for pedestrians to stop, relax and socialise were once bland asphalt rectangles marked with white painted lines.
Today, about 2000 parklets are dotted across the compact 127 square kilometre city – less than a third of the size of Wellington.
The trend has since taken off in other North American cities, including Vancouver, Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
Wellington City Council has also proposed installing parklets across the centre city, including in the Michael Fowler Centre carpark.
Robin Abad is the director of the San Francisco Planning Department’s shared spaces programme. For much of the past 10 years, he's been working to make the process of setting up parklets easier for businesses and local community groups.
Abad says the benefits are wide-reaching – they help residents feel more “connected and committed” to their communities and align with the city’s climate and walkability goals.
“We’re not creating regional destinations here, where people come from all over the Bay Area to come see a parklet. Parklets are really about serving the neighbourhood.
“If we can get someone to choose to buy produce or groceries or eat a restaurant in their neighbourhood, rather than getting in their car and driving to another place to complete that essential task, then we're doing something good.”
The first parklet is believed to have popped up in San Francisco in 2005, when activists fed a parking metre and placed a potted plant on some unrolled grass turf over the car park.
However, London-based Italian-Brazilian designer Suzi Bolognese (Sb Design Studio) is credited for installing the first official parklet in San Francisco in 2010.
Since then, a grassroots movement has taken off, with cafes, restaurants, art galleries, museums, youth centres and schools “sponsoring” and constructing their own parklets.
Each parklet takes up only a few diagonal or parallel parking spaces, separated from the road by barriers. Because they are built on public property, mostly roads, they require permits from the Department of Public Works. Because a permit lasts for only a set period, the parklets must be portable.
In their application, parklet “hosts” must prove they have consulted neighbours. They are responsible for the building and maintenance costs and must ensure the parklet can be used by everyone and anyone.
The San Francisco Planning Department provides guidance and shapes policy on parklets.
Abad says the movement has boomed during Covid-19.
“It was really an opportunity to scale the use of outdoor spaces to support business recovery as well as psychological and social wellbeing.”
Before the pandemic there were about 80 parklets in San Francisco.
While some drivers were initially resistant to the idea of removing carparking spaces from high streets, as people saw how the increase in foot traffic that came with parklets bolstered local economies, most changed their minds, Abed says.
As the movement grew, it had “radically changed our expectations of what a street can do for the neighbourhood and for the city”.
“There are more people out and about. There are more families, there are more diverse crowds in public spaces ... This means wider sidewalks, this means more transportation and mobility options.
“It's part of urban transformation. We work in little increments as acupuncture all over the city and all of that acupuncture cumulatively transforms our expectations of what our streets and our sidewalks can do for us.”