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September 26, 2012
WINNIPEG, MB, Sep 26, 2012/ Troy Media/ – In an episode of the hit sitcom Parks and Recreation last year, deputy parks director Leslie Knope announced her plan for ‘the most amazing, awe-inspiring, fun-filled park ever!’ When asked about its size, she proudly proclaimed, ‘It is 0.000003 square miles.’
While viewers probably interpreted this tiny park – on the site of an old phone booth – as simply the stuff of comedy television, it turns out there is more truth to this vision than we may realize. In what has become one of the hottest new trends in urban design, cities across the United States are establishing similar postage stamp-sized parks, appropriately called parklets.
The first parklet was created in 2005 in San Francisco, when a local design company descended on a downtown parking space, fed the meter for the day, and established a pop-up park complete with sod, benches, and trees. When New York City began converting some of its street spaces into pedestrian-only plazas four years later, urban planners really began to see the value of tiny parks, and officials in a number of cities started working with business owners to turn parking spaces into more interesting parts of the urban landscape.
In 2010, San Francisco became one of the first municipalities to see permanent parklets take off, when the city government permitted businesses and community organizations to take one or two parking spaces and turn them into a park. Spread across the city, these little bursts of greenery and art range from hip, modern brushed-metal and hardwood designs to more serene spaces composed of murals and plants. Today the Californian city boasts 27 parklets – with 40 more in the works – and the craze has spread to Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, and many other municipalities.
Parklets are distinct from patios and cafes in that they are completely public and do not permit restaurants to provide table service; they are there for all to enjoy. Usually designed by members of the community, they reflect the character of the neighbourhood or fill an unmet need. The area of Andersonville, Chicago, for example, had plenty of sidewalk patios but little vegetation, and thus created a parklet of lush bushes, flowers, and benches.
Much like their American counterparts, Canadian municipalities should consider the benefits of these dynamic urban spaces. While city halls do give up parking meter revenue and may throw in a little cash or design help, in most cities business owners or other sponsors fund the construction and maintenance of the parklets (usually about $15,000 to $20,000) themselves, in order to beautify the neighbourhood and generate greater foot traffic in front of their stores or restaurants. For local governments already struggling to pay their bills, permitting parklets would therefore be a way of establishing a more livable, engaging streetscape at almost no cost to the city itself.
Moreover, while there has been talk in recent years of reclaiming the urban space for people instead of cars, parklets might be a compromise from some of the other proposals that have been suggested, such as car-free streets. They extend the area of pedestrian access, increase pedestrian safety, and create visual stimulation for citizens on foot, but still allow traffic to flow freely.
Canadian cities could follow Chicago, where parklets are portable and will be packed up in winter, to return when the weather is warm and walking from a parkade a few blocks away is no longer as unpleasant for motorists who have lost closer parking spaces. In fact, cities north of the border could emulate much of the Windy City’s ambitious Make Way for People program, which goes beyond the original parklet vision by working to convert not just parking spaces but also alleys, bus loops, and other ‘excess asphalt areas’ into semi-permanent sites for gardens, buskers, farmers’ markets, and public art exhibits.
Large conventional parks are obviously a necessary part of any vibrant community, but parklets could prove to be of equal value, adding splashes of colour and life to areas otherwise dominated by grey streets and mundane building facades. More elaborate than just a bench and a tree, these public spaces incorporate design, art, and functionality, animating the streetscape and helping promote local economic development. As it turns out, Ms. Knope’s ebullient description of a tiny park may not be that far off the mark after all.
Troy Media Municipal Affairs columnist Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.
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