Creating Community and a Sense of Place, One ‘Parklet’ at a Time

Bright yellow parklet in DC

Architecture firm Gensler designs bright yellow “parklet” in D.C. Source: Gensler.

Before it even had a name, the first “parklet” marked its suitably humble beginning on a street in San Francisco in 2005. Designers from a consortium called REBAR found a vacant parking space, filled the parking meter with coins, rolled out sod, added a bench and a potted tree, and put up a sign inviting passersby to sit (and feed the meter).

Then they went across the street and waited, and before long, according to an account in CityLab, a man sat on the bench, took off his shoes, and proceeded to eat his lunch. Then another person sat, and they had a conversation. 

This may not sound particularly groundbreaking, but in a very small way it spoke to some fundamental questions that urban planners had been asking for a long time. Questions like: Why do we so often privilege cars over pedestrians? Why can’t we have more green space (and benches)? Why can’t cities—or, at least, portions of them—be redesigned on a more human scale?

“Parklet programs are growing up. They are very small, incremental measures that are being implemented systematically in a programmatic way. Parklets encourage all of us to question the status quo,” said Uwe Brandes, Faculty Director of Georgetown University’s Master's in Urban & Regional Planning graduate program.

Creating a Movement

A quick update since that San Francisco experiment: The designers of REBAR went on to other things, but their exercise inspired a movement. For more than a decade now, cities in the U.S. and a few elsewhere have hosted Park(ing) Days each fall, during which various groups create temporary parklets in designated spaces. A few years ago, for example, about 30 Georgetown Urban & Regional Planning students assembled a parklet in a parking space at 7th and H Streets, NW, that included a two-holed mini-golf course forming the letters “GU.”

In addition, many cities—Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, and London, among others—have been creating parklets that are more permanent, often in concert with a nearby restaurant or other business. 

And it’s not just big cities. In Alexandria, Virginia, city planners are pursuing a pilot parklet program that dovetails with other pedestrian-friendly projects like the King Street Place Pilot, which will reserve the 100 block of King Street for pedestrians during weekends from April until October.

Hayley Burton, a Georgetown Urban & Regional Planning student, was working for the City of Alexandria as a transportation planning intern in 2019 when she proposed reviving the city’s parklet program as an independent study project. Her work explored the multiple sources of value—social, environmental, and economic—that a parklet program represents. Not only did her research revive the program; she has now been hired by the city to help see it through.

“A parklet program is something the city has been interested in for years and that had been suggested in its Complete Streets Design Guidelines, but was never a top priority because of other pressing needs,” Burton said. “The structure of an independent study project allowed me to help make it happen.”

Fostering Community

In February, Alexandria approved six parklets for King Street, which will be built sometime this spring or summer and have to be removed by Thanksgiving Day—well in advance of snow-removal season. Additional proposals will be approved on a case-by-case basis by the city’s Traffic and Parking Board.

To ensure safety, certain parking spaces will not be eligible, such as those beside fire hydrants, on streets with speed limits above 25 miles per hour, and on most corners. Parklets also must maintain a one-foot buffer or barrier between the parklet and the travel lane, and “landscaping and greenery is strongly encouraged…”

That suggestion is especially relevant given that multiple studies show people have an intrinsic need to experience nature, whether it’s visiting a national park, canoeing down a river—or just sitting outside by a potted tree. Naturalist Edward O. Wilson famously explored this idea in his 1984 book “Biophilia,” Brandes said, and it is rapidly entering into the mainstream practice of sustainable urban development.

Another deep-seated need is for community, something that parklets, in their own incremental ways, are helping to foster.

“I think parklets represent a broader shift of designing cities around people rather than just cars, thinking about how streets can be used by all travel modes and users,” Burton said. “While one parklet on one block isn’t going to revolutionize Alexandria, I think it can be a small step in improving the connection people have with the city and with each other.”

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