Small, Public Spaces: Parklets

Many of our New England towns and villages have limited street and sidewalk space when you take into account two lanes of travel, parking spaces and/or lanes, sidewalks and even snow piles. A cafe with outdoor seating is lovely in the warm weather, but only feasible when there is enough space for seating and for pedestrians on the sidewalk. A typical sidewalk, five feet in width, is not going to be sufficient for all our desires. And even then, do we really want to sit outside if a car is going to park next to our lunch seats? Maybe not. And what about benches (street furniture), trash/recycling bins and landscaping? In a nation that mostly caters to automobiles and convenience, roadways and parking spots often call the shots.

How can we add some green space and public space to our villages and cities with narrow sidewalks? Perhaps old news to some, a concept called a “parklet” is called the next big thing by Governing magazine. The article in the June 2012 issue, “Parklet: The Next Big Tiny Idea in Urban Planning,” explores the concept and prototypes of parklets. What is a parklet? Simply put, a parklet is the conversion (temporary or permanent) of a parking space or a few sparking spaces into a mini-park. Parklets can be furnished with outdoor benches, tables & chairs, umbrellas, landscaping in movable planters and similar items. They are designated for public use, meaning cafes and restaurants cannot serve to these park lets, and people are free to come and go as they please. Check out the slideshow with the Parklet article for great parklet designs.

Parklets began in 2009 in San Francisco, CA by the Bicycle Coalition and continues to be supported through the San Francisco Great Streets Project. The website is full of information including transformative before and after photos, from parking space to parklet. See also the How-to-Guide.  According to the Governing article, businesses often fund the park lets, but cities will sometimes share costs. Each parklet costs around $15,000 – $20,000. In terms of infrastructure, that is a small investment for long term positive effects to a community. As far as winter season, parklets can be disassembled and stored until warm weather returns.

So, what do you think? Does your town or city desperately need more green space and seating space? I can think of many towns that would benefit from a more interactive street, yet do not have the sidewalk space. Real estate, whether for streets or buildings, comes at a high premium in our compact villages. Using space wisely is a fine art. And typically, parking spaces are not something that municipalities are willing to lose. But what if just one parking space could be a parklet outside your local eatery or civic building? People could pause in the parklet, gather or meet there, get a cup of coffee to go from elsewhere and enjoy it in that space.

A parklet isn’t going to replace your town park, but it can get people to linger longer in the business district and to enjoy the surroundings. When was the last time you stood and looked up at the second or third story of a building? Imagine sitting on a bench in a parklet and gazing at the cornice on a historic building. Or – okay – people watching if that’s more your thing.  And the storefront aesthetics will be improved by the change from automobile to parklet fronting the building.

Some questions that need to be answered: how will the pedestrians in the parklet be protected from traffic? How long will the parklet stay? Who will fund it? However, next time you are walking through your town’s business district: look around. Where can you imagine a parklet?

What do you think? Good idea in theory, in practice, or both? An idea here to stay or just a trend? Do you know of similar ideas?