Parklets, the appropriation of curbside space otherwise intended for cars by amenities such as bike racks, benches, tables, etc., is one of the most recent additions to urbanism’s toolkit. Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Fund offers photos of the range of activities that can be accommodated in a parklet, with amenities as varied as temporary sod, a bike repair station, and even a flower garden, although I’ll admit that the kayak seems a stretch.
Parklets were invented in San Francisco in 2005. In only ten years, they’ve spread across the country. They haven’t yet made many inroads into the North Bay, although that could soon change if a few folks in Petaluma get their wish.
I’ve previously written about Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern, a defining element of my neighborhood. In the past few years, Ray’s has become a favored gathering place for its tasty sandwiches, its community tables, its regional selection of beers in a pine-paneled tavern, and its events such as Thursday evening musical jamming. And now the owners are putting out feelers about a parklet.
I learned about the parklet concept through the communication mode that characterizes effective neighborhoods, a sidewalk chat. I had made lunch plans to meet a friend to talk about urbanist issues over Ray’s sandwiches. As I walked the block and a half, I was waylaid by a neighbor eager to inform me Ray’s evil intention to build a parklet that would be a traffic hazard and a neighborhood nuisance, a parklet that would allow Ray’s to remain open later, interfering with the sleep of the nearby good citizens.
(Years earlier, the same neighbor tried to enlist my support in opposing a Little League complex in our neighborhood, a proposal that I ended up enthusiastically endorsing. She seems slow to understand my land-use leanings.)
Intrigued by the concept of a Ray’s parklet, I parried her arguments as well as I could, extricated myself from the conversation, and continued onward to Ray’s where I hoped to gather a more objective explanation of the intentions.
My friend and I soon attracted the eye of the owner, who confirmed that she and her partner were doing a preliminary investigation of a parklet, including coordination with Petaluma about what the standards might be. She also advised us that she expected the parklet to calm traffic, reducing the traffic risks at the awkwardly configured intersection, that she had no intention of remaining open any later than her current closing time, and that the current plan for the parklet included bicycle parking with the goal of reducing car trips.
The owner reinforced what I already knew, that she loves the neighborhood and is continually looking for ways to make it better. To her, the parklet would be a way of doing that.
She concluded with an offer to arrange a meeting with the architect who was preparing preliminary sketches for the parklet. Unfortunately, I had to decline that offer. As a member of several City committees that might conceivably be asked to review the parklet plan that she would bring forth, I’m comfortable with espousing the concept of parklets in Petaluma and even with embracing Ray’s as a possible parklet location, but felt that, to retain design objectivity, I needed to avoid prejudging the actual parklet plan.
So, I can’t share the details of what Ray’s may propose, but I can draw a picture of what parklets can do for a city. John King, the architectural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the history and potential for parklets. In King’s words, “The best parklets combine design ambition with a genuine desire to engage passersby.”
King also quotes Robin Abad Ocubillo, the parklet coordinator for the San Francisco Planning Department, ““They can provide focal points where neighborhoods come together, adding open space to neighborhoods where there’s really not great open space.”
King concludes with his list of the top five parklets in San Francisco. But for those for whom five isn’t enough, Curbed San Francisco provides a map of all 43 San Francisco parklets as of early 2014. (Someday soon, I’ll make a day trip into San Francisco to sample some parklets, hopefully by public transit and foot. If anyone wishes to join me, let me know.)
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with its focus on public health, weighs in to suggest that parklets can support healthy communities.
To push the envelope even further, Azzurra Cox of City Lab writes about a “park in a cart” constructed by a theatre group to bring youth play activities to different neighborhoods in the highest altitude city in the world.
But proving that parklets, for all their benefits, can still make for troublesome public policy, Nosh documents the birthing pains of a parklet policy in Berkeley.
Coincidentally, parklets arose again during an even more recent visit to Ray’s. A young planner, who spent his youth in Petaluma and has now returned to assist aging parents while getting his career underway in San Francisco, had asked to chat about urbanism in Petaluma. We spent an enjoyable hour in the tavern talking about the opportunities and constraints in our shared community.
But the conversation really took flight when he spoke of the give-back that he had planned for the town of his youth. Having spent the final years of his college career in Oregon, he was enthralled by parklets and had a cellphone filled with photos of parklets in East Portland. He now intended to help Petaluma develop its first parklet policy and had already begun meeting with local community groups to gather support.
We quickly lassoed the Ray’s owner, made mutual introductions, shared parklet stories, and agreed that among us were the key members of a team that would bring a parklet plan to Petaluma.
As a result, one of my tasks for the near-term future is helping to identify the best route to that plan. If anyone wishes to assist, let me know.
This is an effort I’m making because I’m convinced, unlike at least one curmudgeonly citizen, that parklets, whether at Ray’s or elsewhere in Petaluma, would be great community additions.
Next time, I’ll offer another argument for the Twenty is Plenty movement and traffic calming.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)