How San Francisco Is Changing the Way People Think of Green Space

“Parklets” are cropping up in cities around the country. And they could have huge benefits.

San Francisco Parklet in front of Mojo Bike Cafe (Paul Krueger/Flickr)
National Journal
Clare Foran
Nov. 27, 2013, midnight

Tables and chairs sit neatly ar­ranged on a wooden plat­form in the heart of San Fran­cisco’s Mis­sion Dis­trict. When the sun is shin­ing, cus­tom­ers spill out of cafes and res­taur­ants and crowd onto the plat­form. But this isn’t just out­door seat­ing. It’s a park.

The plat­form is part of San Fran­cisco’s Pave­ment to Parks pro­gram, a col­lab­or­a­tion between the city plan­ning de­part­ment and a num­ber of oth­er mu­ni­cip­al agen­cies, in­clud­ing the may­or’s of­fice. The pro­gram con­verts squares of pave­ment in­to plazas and post­age-stamp-sized parks, called park­lets. It star­ted four years ago as a kind of ex­per­i­ment and has since be­come a fix­ture of civic life in San Fran­cisco.

The first park­lets to win the city’s stamp of ap­prov­al showed up in 2010 when Pave­ment to Parks launched a pi­lot pro­gram. El­ev­ated plat­forms took the place of park­ing spaces and city plan­ners ad­ded an as­sort­ment of tables, chairs, benches, and pot­ted plants.

The re­sponse was over­whelm­ingly pos­it­ive. “Right away, people liked the idea,” says Il­aria Sal­vadori, the cur­rent dir­ect­or of the pro­gram. “Park­lets provide so many be­ne­fits to city res­id­ents. It’s a way to get more open space in­to the city and cre­ate places where people can spend time out­side and sit and meet and talk and it’s all right at your door­step.”

Close to 40 park­lets have been in­stalled so far, and that num­ber is set to double. Pop­u­lar sup­port helped the ini­ti­at­ive get off the ground. Much of its suc­cess, however, stems from a pub­lic-private part­ner­ship that al­lows the city to make the most of lim­ited re­sources.

City plan­ners vet pro­ject pro­pos­als and over­see their cre­ation, but the cost of per­mit­ting, in­stall­a­tion, and up­keep is borne en­tirely by store­front busi­ness own­ers, non­profit and com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions, and city res­id­ents.

“I don’t think there was ever a ques­tion that this would be a good idea,” Sal­vadori ex­plains. “The mod­el we’ve cre­ated al­lows us to get more park­lets up and run­ning at no hard cost to the city and it gives people a chance to have a say in im­prove­ments to their com­munity.”

It may also be good for the bot­tom line.

In 2011, the San Fran­cisco Great Streets Pro­ject con­duc­ted a sur­vey of how park­lets im­pact loc­al busi­ness. Though the sample size was re­l­at­ively small, busi­ness own­ers polled said that sales either held steady or in­creased after a park­let was in­stalled and a num­ber of re­spond­ents re­por­ted an in­crease in foot traffic to their stores.

More re­search needs to be done to de­term­ine how park­lets shape eco­nom­ic activ­ity. But hard data aside, store own­ers say they have a cer­tain draw.

“When a pro­ject opens up there’s usu­ally some type of at­ten­tion giv­en to it so if you’re a busi­ness own­er, that’s guar­an­teed pub­li­city,” com­ments Madeline Brozen, the pro­gram dir­ect­or for the Com­plete Streets Ini­ti­at­ive at UCLA’s Lusk­in School of Pub­lic Af­fairs. “There’s also im­proved vis­ib­il­ity be­cause you’re build­ing something that people can see from the street.”

Park­lets can also act as an ex­ten­sion of a brick-and-mor­tar store­front.

“One of the reas­ons we de­cided to spon­sor a park­let was that it gives us a lot of flex­ib­il­ity as far as ex­tra seat­ing,” com­ments Jodi Ger­en, one of the own­ers of San Fran­cisco’s Four Bar­rel Cof­fee. “The space is open to any­one but it also gives cus­tom­ers a place to sit. We prob­ably spent the same amount of money build­ing the park­let as we would have if we ad­ded on to our busi­ness, but there really wasn’t any­where for us to build. We were com­pletely maxed out on space.”

The most com­mon cri­ti­cism of the pro­gram is that it drains city rev­en­ue by dis­pla­cing park­ing meters.

Spon­sors are re­quired to pay an ad­di­tion­al fee for each park­ing meter that’s taken out of com­mis­sion. But it’s not enough to fully off­set lost rev­en­ue. The city doesn’t charge more, Sal­vadori ex­plains, be­cause a de­cision has been made to pri­or­it­ize pub­lic space over park­ing meters.

“The ar­gu­ment that we’ll lose money from metered park­ing comes up with al­most every pro­ject the city plan­ning de­part­ment works on,” Sal­vadori says. “So it’s not par­tic­u­larly dif­fer­ent here, but we have nev­er en­countered any ma­jor op­pos­i­tion. I think this is partly be­cause, by re­quir­ing busi­nesses or in­di­vidu­als to spon­sor a park­let, we head off cri­ti­cism from the start. It’s not the city im­pos­ing any­thing on any­one, it’s city res­id­ents act­ively de­cid­ing that they want to build in a par­tic­u­lar area.”

On bal­ance, park­lets are prov­ing more pop­u­lar than not, and oth­er cit­ies have be­gun to no­tice. They’ve cropped up in Bo­ston, Chica­go, Los Angeles, Oak­land, and Phil­adelphia, and a num­ber of cit­ies have es­tab­lished form­al pro­grams modeled after San Fran­cisco’s Pave­ment to Parks.

Ex­perts cau­tion, however, that there isn’t a one-size-fits all mod­el when it comes to urb­an plan­ning.

“Every city has to fig­ure out what works in their par­tic­u­lar area,” Ar­i­el Ben-Amos, a former seni­or plan­ner and ana­lyst with the Phil­adelphia May­or’s of­fice of trans­port­a­tion and util­it­ies com­ments. “Every city has its own spe­cif­ic chal­lenges that need to be met. At the end of the day, though, the cent­ral idea is to cre­ate pub­lic space where it’s miss­ing.”

And Pave­ment to Parks has done just that.

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