Friday, October 30, 2015

Making a Difference - Parklet Version

Parklets are small, sometimes temporary, uses of a parking space or two near an existing business, often akin to a sidewalk café but with a greater range of design possibilities.  The photo is a good example of a parklet.  It’s from the Better Block Newark website, which offers good insights on parklets.  Closer to Petaluma, the Greenbelt Alliance shares stories from a recent parklet event in Walnut Creek.

A few weeks back, I endorsed the concept of a parklet at Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern in Petaluma.  I envisioned a possibility that a parklet would complement Ray’s existing business and make the establishment an even more vital element of my neighborhood.

In my last post, I responded to those who had questions or concerns about the parklet idea.

And now it’s time to move on to the next step toward making Petaluma a parklet-friendly place.  And your help could be essential.

If sufficient interest can be generated, a group will be formed to write a draft parklet policy.  The draft would be presented to the City, with the hopes that the City would build from the volunteer effort to make a few edits and to adopt the policy.  A kick-off meeting for this possible parklet committee, which would be an offshoot of Petaluma Urban Chat, is scheduled for a few days hence.

Several months ago, I noted that writing about urbanism can lead to a great number of possibilities for further advocacy and activism, more than I can reasonably accommodate with my other life activities.  The observation remains true and I’m still hesitant to take on new commitments.  However, the parklet situation is different.  I have a partner who is committed to the effort and who will cover a good portion of the task.

Bjorn Griepenburg grew up in Petaluma, graduated from Petaluma High, and then headed off for an education in land-use planning.  Now the possessor of a newly-minted Masters in City and Regional Planning from the University of Oregon, where he also learned to appreciate the parklets of nearby Portland, he has returned to Petaluma, working during the day for Muni in San Francisco and spending his evenings looking for ways to improve the town he already loves.

Bjorn recently presented his master’s thesis, on bicycle access to the downtown Petaluma SMART station, to Petaluma’s Pedestrian Bicycle and Transit Advisory Committees.  His presentation is worth viewing, in part because it follows a model of bicycle accessibility that conforms to the best current approach to the subject.

Our tentative plan is that Bjorn would focus on the technical side of the parklet effort, reviewing parklet standards of other communities and digging into Petaluma’s codes looking for places to effectively graft parklet rules.  Meanwhile, I’d pay attention to the organizational and strategic elements.

However, it wouldn’t be a two-person effort.  We’d need more folks to assist in the tasks, to challenge assumptions, and contribute toward consensuses.

The special meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat for this parklet effort will be the evening of Tuesday, November 3.  We’ll meet at the Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma, and convene at 6:30pm.  (Note: This is an hour later than the normal Urban Chat meeting time.)

After spending time chatting about the concept of parklets and answering questions, including covering the parklet presentation that Bjorn made to the Petaluma Downtown Association earlier this year, we’ll ask for volunteers willing to commit to another half-dozen meetings at which a draft policy would be developed.

Nor are we only looking for parklet converts.  Parklet skeptics would also be welcome.  The best and most robust policies often result from the creative tension of disagreement.

Please note, this direct goal of this effort isn’t constructed parklets.  We won’t be selecting locations for parklets or sketching up parklet plans.  Parklets are very much a bottom-up planning concept, with the vision and impetus coming almost solely from the business owners who see value in the concept.

Instead, the goal would be a set of rules that would allow the business owners to know how to proceed.  We would be suggesting to the City that they adopt a plan for a ladder that would allow bottom-up instigation, saving the business owners from the possibly disheartening task of figuring out the ladder themselves.

If some are uncertain still puzzling over the value of parklets and therefore uncertain about joining us on the 3rd, I’ll share another couple of stories.

Perhaps five years ago, as parklets were beginning to gain ground but I was still unconvinced of the value, I made a trip to Berkeley.

On Shattuck Avenue, just north of University Avenue, are several blocks with a center median, an uninspired six feet of intermittent low shrubs and patchy grass.  And sitting on the grass were people eating lunch.  Six feet of scraggly grass surrounded by four lanes of traffic in the middle of a dense city, and yet people found the setting sufficient salubrious to lean back, unwrap a sandwich, and savor a leisurely lunch.   And they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The moment I saw those folks, the value of parklets became clear.  Even if we love the vibrancy of a busy, successful city, there are times when greenery and blue sky is good for the soul, and we’re willing to risk a bit of car exhaust to secure that food for the soul.  Parklets are a better delivery system for that manna.

I’ve been engaging in a correspondence with a reader who vehemently disagrees with my advocacy for parklets.  In his most recent missive, he argues that if people want to be outside, they should secure a seasonal pass for the Sonoma County beaches and take regular drives to the coast.

I love the fact that Petaluma is a short drive from some of the most scenic coastline in the country.  But the reader’s suggestion that beaches are a reasonable substitute for parklets misunderstands the lives of many folks.  Writer Richard Louv makes a point about how infrequently many youths travel beyond their neighborhoods.  I don’t recall his exact statistic, but it was something like sixty percent of all ten-year-olds in San Diego had never seen the ocean.  And that was in San Diego, a place where many think life revolves around the beach!

There are likely a variety of reasons so few San Diego children have seen the ocean.  Perhaps it’s parents unwilling to use the gas or to fight through the congestion.  Perhaps it’s parents who work schedules that don’t leave time for outings.  Perhaps it’s a culture that doesn’t value seeing new places, even those that are only a few miles away.  But for at least some of those folks, gathering for sandwiches at a parklet might be their substitute and we should be open-minded enough not to preclude those outings.

I’m excited by what we can accomplish starting on the 3rd.  Bjorn and I hope to see a good group of folks that evening.  Aqus Café, 6:30pm, Tuesday, November 3.

Next time, I’ll write about the future of business parks, a future that could have implications for the SMART train.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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