Residential density in DC is increasing at a faster rate than we can create public spaces for new residents to enjoy. Parklets, like those that have been cropping up in San Francisco, could provide much-needed green space while making our neighborhoods more interesting.
When I look out my office window in Shaw, all I see are cranes. Planners and developers tell me that vacant land is almost impossible to find. Mixed-use developments being built in places such as the 14th Street corridor are allowed to cover between 75% and 100% of their lots, leaving few opportunities to create new public spaces.
In order to infuse more life into the city, we need to do more than increase population. DC already has amazing public parks, but what if there could be a more intimate outdoor experience?
What if we had a park for every block?
Two years ago, I spent the summer in San Francisco researching my architecture and real estate development thesis in graduate school at the University of Maryland. I wanted to measure the value of quality of life, and San Francisco was attractive since it’s a place of innovation that trickles down from tech to urban design.
That’s when I discovered parklets, an extension of the sidewalk that turns on-street parking spaces into privately funded public parks. In 2005, San Francisco architecture firm Rebar installed a temporary park in a single-metered street parking space. This intervention evolved into what is now Park(ing) Day, an annual event in which day-long parklets pop up around the world to generate awareness of the necessity and value of public space. Last year, there were several Park(ing) Day parklets closer to home in the District, Silver Spring and Arlington.
San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks Program, which began in 2010, says parklets “repurpose part of the street into a public space for people.” Today, there are over 35 parklets in the city and more getting entitled.
Parklets often have seating, plants, bike parking and art. Unlike Park(ing) Day parklets, which are only a placeholder intended to start a dialogue for how we can utilize urban space in new ways, permanent parklets are set on a platform raised about 6 inches above the street. This makes it level with the sidewalk, creating a sense of separation and security from the activity of the street and establishing the parklet as a discrete space.
Though they’re often maintained by private businesses, residents or community groups, they’re open to the public. They’re an affordable way to provide high-quality public open space in areas where land is expensive and hotly contested, especially on commercial corridors.
The Pavement to Parks Program has found that parklets also have economic benefits. “Parklets catalyze vitality and activity in the city’s commercial districts ... by encouraging pedestrians to linger,” notes San Francisco’s Parklet Manual, making them more likely to shop and spend money at local businesses, which helps the city’s economy.
You might wonder how a parklet is different from a wide sidewalk, nice landscaping, and a few benches on the street. The difference is all in the context. Extending the sidewalk into the street creates a sense of being in a separate space, the same way that a bay window feels separate from a large, open room.
Just think how much you cherish the bay window in your home, where you can curl up with a cup of coffee and look out the window, listen to the birds and appreciate the street scene. The parklet is essentially the same idea. It’s a small, safe green space where people can curl up and rest, or spontaneously interact with friends and neighbors.
Parklets create intimacy in the street, and that’s what makes the experience magical. And that’s why people keep coming back to them.
Why aren’t there permanent parklets in DC? For starters, it’s a relatively new concept that not everyone is aware of. As a result, the policy isn’t there, and there hasn’t been organized demand to put one in place. While San Francisco has found a lot of benefits to parklets, they’re hard to measure in dollars.
DC could build just one parklet as a trial, but the policy involved wouldn’t make that feasible. For parklets to be successful, the critical mass of a city-wide program needs to be in place. Imagine going to Rock Creek Park and bringing 400 square feet of park space home with you for keeps! A lot of mini-parks would create a noticeable gain in open space. A city-wide program would also allow residents, business owners and policymakers to see different kinds of parklets in action in different contexts.
As DC grows, we will need more places to be outside, to linger, gather, celebrate and rest. Parklets are a great way to provide them. We should follow San Francisco’s lead, so mini-parks can start to spring up around the city.