When it comes to reimagining urban streets, parking spots are often fiercely contested spaces. Drivers think they are absolutely necessary, but as the most common public space, this real estate is underutilized. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, parking spaces are becoming a new demonstration of what constitutes public domain. Meet the “parklets.”
You have probably seen them. Where there used to be two parking spaces, now you’ll find these spots — parklets — filled with people eating, socializing, and enjoying themselves. In our post-pandemic culture, these “street seats” or “curbside seating” have taken on a whole new meaning. Their widespread introduction was meant to be a temporary social-distancing tool, but the benefits of providing hundreds of people a day with meaningful recreation space, to me, outweighs any concern of lost parking.
From a public policy perspective, automobile advocates have historically had the upper hand. When it came to parking, legislation and regulation typically favored vehicle usage, mostly because automobile-dependent residents and visitors continued to view parking as an absolute necessity.
The original call to reclaim and re-envision street parking sprang from a movement and social experiment based in California, back in 2005. Associates from the San Francisco local arts community, otherwise known as the Rebar Group, parked grass turf, a bench, and a potted tree in a parking spot instead of a vehicle. As people passed by, the Rebar Group encouraged pedestrians to “feed the meter” if they supported the idea of converting the space. To raise awareness of the value of public open spaces, communities across the country mirrored this “Park(ing) Day” project in support of these curbside micro parks, or “parklets.”
Parking spaces are not just for cars
One of the first successful campaigns against the idea of parking spaces being solely for cars was a simple one: Close streets off to vehicle circulation and open them up to pedestrian-only traffic. These pedestrian plazas — with a simple treatment of the asphalt, protective barriers, a few natural elements sprinkled in, and portable tables and chairs —became popular, permanent fixtures in cities and towns. They transformed automobile-oriented spaces into more enjoyable “human” and recreational space.
The widespread introduction of parklets as a temporary social-distancing tool has created the framework for these to take on a more permanent design. Most parklets have a distinctive design that incorporates seating, greenery, and/or bike racks, which promotes alternative means of transportation and settles into the irony of needing a parking spot in the first place. They accommodate the unmet demand for public space on thriving neighborhood retail streets or in commercial areas. Moreover, as cities continue to adapt to hyperlocal needs, most of the parklets cost taxpayers next to nothing. Often, neighboring businesses, community organizations, and business districts will pay for and provide upkeep for them in exchange for increased pedestrian activity, which provides both social and economic benefits. The more people walking by, the more people might stop in and shop.
Universal regulations, like safe locations away from corners and speedy roads, service hours that discourage late-night antics, protective bollards, and concrete blockades, are requirements in all cities. Additionally, while each parklet is built using the same spatial guidelines, their designs are completely customizable, giving passersby a different experience each time they visit.
As cities consider the idea of comprehensive streets and the safety of residents moving forward in our “new normal,” they must balance the needs of people walking, riding bicycles, taking transit, and traveling by car. While previous parklet pilot programs helped the public re-imagine uses for the city’s rights of way, the pandemic has changed the way we view, use, and access streets. For those who continue to push the agenda of auto-centric roads, they may want to consider the positive benefits of shifting to parklets permanently. Besides their social, economic, and recreational potential, there is also one undeniable fact: Car exhaust fumes do not taste good in the salad.