Park Yourself Here

Feb 20, 2013, 2:33 PM

Parklet An example of a simple parklet idea

A high point of the recent New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Kansas City was a demonstration project of “parklets” placed around the conference session break spaces  to showcase a burgeoning trend—parking spaces converted to green spaces during warmer weather, or year round, depending on the surrounding climate. The parklets help add an active living feel to urban centers.

“They increase street life, which in turn increases more street life,” says Ariel Ben Amos, senior planner/analyst for the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities in Philadelphia, who heads the city’s parklet effort and lead the presentation on parklets at the New Partners conference.

New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Francisco and other cities now all have parklets. Some are elaborate block-long spaces with comfortable seating; others aren’t much more than a few large plants and a chair. The concept got a push several years ago in San Francisco when activists created “parking day” by feeding a meter intended for cars, but used the space for seating. Studies of parklets conducted in San Francisco have found they increase foot traffic to the businesses they surround, and in New York they are often oases for weary tourists looking for a patch of home on the parklet strip near Times Square.

Philadelphia has given out $5,000 grants for individual parklets and now has nine. The city just issued an invitation to citizens and community groups to submit requests to create new parklet spaces this year. The  offer doesn’t come with funding, which is a shame since the little parks can cost as much as $20,000 each, according to Ben Amos. They can be done on the cheap, but added enhancements such as an architect to create the design, as well as high-end seating and embellishments can add to the costs. And while parklets can seem “pop up,” the rules governing them in some locations are anything but. Requirements in Philadelphia include signed support letters from community members, “bumpers” in the spaces to protect parklet users from passing cars, insurance, signs indicating the parklets are open and other safety features to guard against accidents.

Time will tell, especially given the cost, whether parklets become fixtures or what Craig Chester, a fellow at Smart Growth America, calls “a catalyst for conversation” about green spaces and active living.

“I think they are a good start to help get people to think about what they want and what things could be but they seem to me a first stop of a longer journey to healthier places,” says Richard Jackson, MD, MPH, Professor and Chair of the Environmental Health Science department at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and host of “Designing Healthy Communities,” a four-part series shown on public television stations last year.


>> Bonus Link: Read the design guidelines for parklets in Philadelphia.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.