A parklet transforms one, two, or occasionally several on-street parking spaces into a miniature park. Since about 2010 we estimate that about 200 permanent parklets have been developed in America. As the idea has gained momentum, often these become sidewalk extensions that accommodate additional seating for the restaurant on the other side of the sidewalk.
On this page we discuss possible benefits, some design considerations, and indications for when such a sidewalk extension will and will not be a great addition to the neighborhood.
The American parklet started in San Francisco in 2005 with a two-hour installation of sod, a tree in a planter, and a bench in one metered parking space. This has led to an annual worldwide event called PARK(ing) Day the third Friday of September, with many innovations across the world. The original parklets had a bit of a rebellious, tactical urbanism attitude toward automobile culture and were built on the idea that replacing parking spaces with a park, if only for a day or a weekend, was an inherently worthwhile thing to do.
As you can gather from our introduction, the parklet concept now has been expanded to include permanent installations as well as these pop-up activities intended to spur conversation about public space.
Of course sidewalk extensions or bump-outs, or even permanent structures surrounded by sidewalk, are not a new idea. Neither are they an American invention. Great-looking glass-sided restaurants can be found occupying parts of extremely wide sidewalks in larger European cities including Rome and Paris. However, here we will be discussing smaller-scale, less costly, and often less permanent interventions to create small public spaces.
Predictably, some American cities have started to create formal processes for approving these bump-outs, based on explicit regulations. On the plus side, often they have allowed anyone from individuals to businesses and non-profits to propose, construct, and maintain them. Other cities still handle requests on an ad hoc basis and improvise the approval process depending on specific characteristics of the proposed parklet.
Among possible good reasons to construct a parklet, whether temporary or permanent, are these:
A pragmatic approach would be to find an appropriate location first, since you want and need cooperation from the city's elected officials and staff. Business reaction is critical too, as typically these improvements are constructed along neighborhood commercial streets where there is a relatively low speed limit, such as 25 or 30 miles per hour.
Select a fairly dense neighborhoods with a decidedly younger population where people already bike or walk. Blocks containing businesses or public buildings that do not close at 5 p.m. are most appropriate.
Once a tentative location is chosen and agreed upon, consider a broad range of possible uses of your available space, based on local strengths and interests. Possible categories to consider include:
Activities then will dictate the design. If at all possible, enlist a landscape architecture firm to help you, although it is unlikely that they will design a permanent space without compensation. For space planning, measure your space and all items you need to place in the space. To sketch out how everything will fit, use graph paper or your word processing program with the rulers feature turned on.
Be sure that you have barriers around your space. You could borrow concrete barriers from your city, as shown in our photo for this page, but even better would be a wooden structure or fencing that allows some view into the area.
If not readily available nearby, you probably should provide a bicycle rack.
Be sure to recognize any financial contributors or businesses that contribute materials or services with an appropriate sign and on all publicity. Remember public officials or city offices that have been helpful as well.
Finally you will need to provide for accessibility for people with limited mobility.
Like most good ideas, this one has its limitations. Most of what we are about to say applies only to permanent parklets, but repercussions are possible even for the one-day event. What seems like a great community asset at first could turn into a liability. This might occur if maintenance arrangements for permanent parks are inadequate or unclear. If more than one business or organization is responsible for maintenance, or if your city government only reluctantly agrees to maintenance, you need to have clearly spelled out written agreements as to who will do what.
Even for temporary parks, trash must be anticipated and handled, providing for recycling to the extent possible. Recognize that whenever people stop, they will toss unneeded items.
Anticipate anti-social uses of the parklet, and decide how you will address them, involving neighborhood associations and the police as necessary. Most cities, but not all, will want to ban alcoholic beverages.
Certainly you will need some municipal permits to undertake this project. We are not encouraging you to do anything illegal. During that permit process have a thorough discussion of the likely automobile traffic concerns, and anticipate how the city and your group will handle them. Even if you and your friends all bike, walk, or take transit most of the time, don't underestimate the influence of two or three irate drivers who sense their territory is being invaded. If you have a good understanding with your municipal officials ahead of time, you will be in a good position to weather the storm.
Some of the potential activities we mention above require ongoing attention to programming. If you design your mini-park for live music, poetry, and such, you will face some problems if the person responsible for finding talent is no longer available. Versatility is key.
Lastly, one potential problem is too much popularity. For instance, you do not want to block a sidewalk at the dinner hour by having a very popular musician perform in a parklet only two parking spaces long. Think through the likely crowd, and gear activities to available space.
Most problems resulting from a parklet can be resolved if you have taken the time to build a positive relationship with municipal officials, neighborhood leaders, and the immediately impacted businesses.
We want to suggest that you consider converting some existing bump-outs to parklets. Once an interruption to metered or time-limited parking has been established on a street, your bump-out that now features greenery or public art could be expanded by another one or two parking spaces to add seating. You might ask why.
Our answer is that seating encourages lingering, which in turn may result in increased patronage of the nearby businesses, as well as gains in social capital as people expand their networks of acquaintances. While we don't think parklets should be considered a significant economic development activity, we do think that many viable new neighborhood businesses are barely making a living and could use a few extra customers each day.
Below are just a couple of examples of current bump-outs that now serve a beautification function. Both might be suitable for expansion to create the seating opportunities that encourage community-building. Think about it.