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San Francisco's parklets put public space on the map


The state has seen a huge drop in public funding for public space. Over the past year, a quarter of state parks have closed indefinitely, because the state doesn’t have the money to maintain them. In their place are more and more spaces that are open to public use, but privately owned. This is actually nothing new. People find themselves in public-private spaces all the time: cafes; shopping malls; or even some parks like Zuccotti in Manhattan, the starting place of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The newest introduction has been the parklet. Parklets are small, parking-space-sized places for people and come and sit at their leisure, with no commercial intent. However, a parklet almost always owes it existence to a nearby business. The sponsor provides the capital, design and stewardship of the space, according to a few rules set forth by the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department. Still, the space is public. There are currently 26 parklets on the ground in San Francisco, with more on the way.

One of them is at the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Stockton and Green Streets.  Cars queue up beside the parklet waiting for the red light at Green Street. Delivery vans, sightseeing buses, taxis and motorcycles buzz around it.

But the parklet provides a tiny haven from these vehicles in what used to be a couple of parking spaces. It has rolling wood seating spaces, some decorative plants, and a fence to divide the street from the sitting spaces.

The parklet is connected to Cafe Grecco, which sponsors the parklet and has provided at about 15 additional seats for people to sit and take in the surroundings. This parklet is just one instance of a growing trend.

It all started back in the year 2005, with an idea hatched by Blaine Merker and his colleagues at San Francisco’s Rebar Art and Design studio. “We found a metered parking space in downtown San Francisco that was sunny between the hours of twelve and two PM,” says Merker.

The idea was to reclaim space from the automobile. They called it “Parking Day.” They paid the meter and took over a public parking space for the maximum time permitted. “And we used that parking space as sort of the cheapest real estate in San Francisco that we could find to try and create a new kind of public space out of a niche in the urban landscape,” Merker explains. He says the project “blossomed.”

It blossomed into something of a movement. It started with one parking space in downtown San Francisco that stood for only a few hours in the afternoon. Its popularity skyrocketed. Parking Day is now held in cities on every continent, except in Antarctica. But, that’s just one day. Merker wanted to make it into something more permanent.

“In a city like San Francisco, where street life is really important and really healthy, it actually makes a lot more sense to look at how some of that street can be given over to human bodies,” says Merker. Thus, the parklet.

To build a parklet, a sponsor – usually a business owner, but sometimes a neighborhood resident – pitches their idea for a parklet to the city’s planning department. Next comes the permit, which can cost as much as $1,500. That may sound like a lot, but when you compare it to the $13.2 million currently being spent to renovate Dolores Park, it starts to seem like a deal.

Olivia Ongpin co-owns an art gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District. Out front, they’ve built a parklet that’s an extension of the gallery. The parklet itself is a rotating one-year exhibit. Each year, the parklet is reinvented. Local artists submit their parklet designs and a jury of neighbors chooses the winner. Right now there are beanbag chairs and bright green AstroTurf. Ongpin says her parklet provides much needed play space for young families in the area.

“In the time that we’ve been here we’ve seen just the nature of the block change,” says Ongpin. “It’s been really fun to see all of the neighbors and the neighbors kids interact and meet each other and basically sort of utilize the space as a real park for the kids for sure.”

Paul Chasan of San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks program says demand for parklets is “huge.” He says a quarter of San Francisco is publicly owned land. “The vast majority of that is used for storing cars,” he explains. “That’s space that we all, that as San Franciscans, that we, we own. There’s parts of the city, where people live in apartments, they don’t have backyards, they don’t have private open space. Or there’s areas in the city where we don’t have as much park space as we’d like to have.” Chasan says parklets can help fill in those gaps.

But parklets can also cause problems. One of the first to be built in San Francisco was in front of the Revolution Café in the Mission District. The space was so comfortable that people started to move in. Local merchants complained, and Rebar’s Blaine Merker and his team decided to redesign.

“The thing we learned from that is that maybe we didn’t need as much seating, actually,” says Merker. The Rebar team thought it might be better to have high tables and encourage people to stand up and “lean on the high table, where you could have a snack and chat with your friends and then move on,” explains Merker. “But it didn’t need to be a living room in that space.”

In a city where parking is at a premium, taking away scarce parking spots is another problem, says San Francisco resident and activist Rob Anderson. “When you take away parking, you make it more difficult for both residents in a particular area and businesses,” Anderson says. It’s not just about making life more difficult for drivers, says Anderson. There’s a lot of money at stake.

“The city owns a lot of parking garages and parking lots and the parking meters. So it’s a major source of revenue for a city that’s having a hard time balancing its budget,” Anderson says. He believes the parklet project is “developing a predator and prey relationship to everyone who has to drive in San Francisco.”

So far, San Francisco’s parking challenges aren’t stopping new parklets from being built. Right now, three are under construction and 24 more are in the design phase. In Oakland, construction on seven temporary parklets begins in early summer. Parklets are catching on outside the Bay, too, in cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Roanoke, Virginia.  Rebar Design’s Blaine Merker recently advised a city in Denmark about how to institute a parklet program.