Meet the Parklet

Special article by Alexandra Reisman for Union Square Main Streets

Parklets, quite simply, are very tiny parks with seating. They often provide outdoor space for nearby cafés and restaurants, bike racks, planters, and other amenities. This kind of small-scale project has successfully enhanced public space in other communities and could prove beneficial for Union Square too. Behold:

A parklet in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. 

The first parklet in Southern California opened very recently on Long Beach’s Retro Row.
Philadelphia’s first parklet, opened in 2011 in the University City neighborhood. Movable furniture and other materials make it so that parklets can be installed first as a temporary trial or only on a seasonal basis.

These cozy, inviting pedestrian niches have been carved out of car parking space—typically one parklet equals two former parallel parking spaces. The annexation of parking space makes the parklet a thrill and a novelty for many. What was previously an unmemorable slot for a car (usually hosting just one or two shoppers) may now be a lively common space for many neighborhood residents and patrons. So, though it’s actually a relatively minor intervention, the parklet symbolizes a much larger movement in which cities aim to be more walkable and pedestrian-friendly, and therefore less car-oriented.

 San Francisco has led the parklet movement since 2009. This is its first parklet outside the Mojo Café on Divisadero Street, originally a 6-month pilot project. The café provides daily maintenance for the parklet, though seating and bike parking is open to the public.


San Francisco’s second parklet. 






Of course, removing car parking in a business district, for any purpose, always raises at least a few eyebrows and often invites criticism. After all, car parking is important for accommodating patrons from other parts of the city or the suburbs. This is especially so in Union Square, which is increasingly a destination for people from outside of the neighborhood and, though fairly well served by buses, still awaits the Green Line.

Yet, for the price of a few lost parking spaces, a well-placed parklet can do a lot of good. By providing seating, some pleasant greenery amid the urban grey, and a semi-protected space, it becomes an “outdoor room,” not merely an extension of the sidewalk. It invites people to linger, making a whole block more convivial. And its location on the street encourages cars to slow down, making the area feel safer and more comfortable to pedestrians.

This one’s neat: another San Francisco parklet. 

Conviviality and walkability benefit businesses by making the whole business district a more desirable place to be. As the urban scholar William Whyte meticulously observed, “People tend to sit most where there are places to sit,” and, relatedly, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” And because people want to be where they not only can rest, but also where they feel safe and welcome, the design and placement of a parklet are vital for its success. A parking space that has been merely cordoned off wouldn’t, by itself, do the trick, but it does provide 120 square feet of newly usable public space that can be developed in myriad ways.

Check out some photos from international PARK(ing) Day for examples of some of the versatile ways people are using parking space. On this day people feed parking meters to reserve the spaces for non-car uses like lawn games, yoga, or a mini café.

This past fall the parking space on Bow Street in front of Bloc 11 cafe was reclaimed for a large bicycle rack and reception was positive.  We’re anticipating the bike rack to return this spring.  Maybe we can do something even more ambitious this summer with a full on parklet.

Where in Union Square do you think a parklet would work best? What amenities would you like to see?

Want to learn more?

An article about “the most adorable urban space to come along in a long time.”

San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks initiative

PARK(ing) Day

A classic in the field of study on how people use public space, William Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”


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