Parklets Are Not A One-Size-Fits-All Solution

Background Reading


© Ben Tran/University City District

© Ben Tran/University City District

The article begins:

The concept of the Parklet—the conversion of a couple of curbside parking spots or other underused public space into a tiny park, complete with greenery and seating—got its start in San Francisco about 10 years ago. Since then, the idea has decidedly spread, in part through temporary “Park(ing) Day” events, but also through more permanent efforts that have sprung up across the country, everywhere from Seattle to New York, Los Angeles to Minneapolis, even suburban New Jersey.

These urban innovations are not without their detractors or problems. One parklet, in San Francisco’s Castro District, has proven to be a center of controversy thanks to nuisance activities (booze) and a small handful of unusual users (nudists). Another, in Boston, was eliminated because of a disagreement between two neighboring business owners: one liked the parklet, the other wanted the parking places given back to cars. But these are the outliers. In general, parklets have been well-received in communities all over the U.S.

“One business owner said sales were up so much he had to hire new workers.”

But what exactly does a parklet achieve? For instance, how many people really use them? The folks at University City District, a nonprofit neighborhood development organization in Philadelphia, wanted to find out. UCD worked with the city to install Philadelphia’s first parklets in 2011, and currently operates several each season in partnership with local businesses. Now the group has released a report that analyzes detailed observations of six Philadelphia parklets during the 2013 season. UCD hopes to use the data to increase the positive impact such projects have on the community.

“We heard a lot of anecdotal reports about the parklets,” says Seth Budick, policy and research manager at UCD. “One business owner said sales were up so much he had to hire new workers. What better economic development could you hope for than that?”


Parklets have a built in problem for some sorts of businesses and indeed some communities:

What UCD found is that parklets located directly outside the right types of businesses can create a dynamic that brings a neighborhood together—picture families stopping for dinner or treats, lingering to socialize, and attracting passing acquaintances to stop and chat. The most successful parklet in the study, a 240-square-foot space located outside a taco shop and a popsicle store in a medium-density residential area, attracted as many as 150 individual users in a single day.

In addition it was noted:

In particular, two parameters emerged as the strongest predictors of parklet success. The first was modest interior seating capacity within a main adjacent business, coupled with high turnover of that same interior seating. The second was large windows on the main adjacent business, which tend to increase the sense of connection between the business interior and the exterior parklet space.

The study also found that the parklets attracted a roughly even mix of men and women, a statistic that would indicate they are safe and welcoming spaces. And 20 to 30 percent of users were not customers of an adjacent businesses, answering concerns that the creation of a parklet removes street space from the public realm for the sole benefit of a private business.

For participating businesses, however, the benefits are clearly measurable. Owners reported a 20 percent increase in sales in the two weeks following a parklet installation, the report notes.

There has to be a trade-off between parking fees earned and increased taxes paid by a business before this works for a municipality. And I guess it goes without saying that the weather is a huge factor in just when these parklets could work. Winter is probably not the time when you would want to use them. Smile!

But if the shop in front of which they sit is small and cramped the parklet approach makes some sense. But then again if there is not enough tree coverage nearby sitting in the burning sun is no bargain either.

What bothers me is that we already have a tradition in this country of using tables with umbrellas for customers that does not involve removing cars. That aspect of this approach is always suspicious to me. Why? Because the subtext is the basis for the ‘War On Cars‘ approach to everything some people do. It need not be that way.

Automobiles are not the problem. They never have been. What makes cities sometimes (or, even often) unbearable is the density of the place. Cities are by definition quite noisy. And much of that noise would not be noticeable if not for the tall hard surfaced structures that house far too many people in a square city block to avoid stress.

Living on top of one another is simply not very much fun. We could remove all the cars and replace them with horses and if needed carriages and while there would be no motor fuel being used the effect would be the same or worse than having cars.

Cars are virtually silent these days (unless tuned to actually make noise). In fact electric cars are too silent and are often built to make some noise to avoid having pedestrians and cyclists unaware of their approach from the rear.

Take the same number of people in Chicago and spread them out over more than twice the land mass and you suddenly have DuPage County where the stress of city living is nearly gone. Towns like Naperville are a different matter. Well, at least the downtown portion.

You have crowded streets nearly every day in downtown Naperville. And unfortunately you also have the kinds of carnage that results in stabbings and shootings.

Density breeds congestion and that in turn makes people cranky. Thin out the herd and you blood pressure drops. And what is amazing about the reduction in density is the diminishing crime rate and stress factors that lead people to self-medicate.