San Francisco’s Mini-Parks Are a Community Effort

With a little elbow grease, an empty asphalt rectangle can become a restful haven.

The concept of using empty metered parking spaces as temporary public parks isn’t precisely new. The first annual Park(ing) Day took place in 2005, when San Francisco design studio Rebar paid for two hours of time at a metered parking space, rolled out some sod, a bench and a tree, and rolled it all back up when the time expired. It was designed as an experiment in public needs. Why devote so much space and money to storing private vehicles that remain empty for the majority of the day? Why not put a tree there?

Since the inaugural event, the idea of transforming the nooks and crannies of urban life into green spaces has taken hold in a big way. San Francisco’s “parklets”—now permitted, and proliferating rapidly—have been lauded and echoed in cities all over the world, as far away as Adelaide, Australia. But perhaps their biggest advocates aren’t the business owners that sponsor them, or the pedestrians that enjoy them. It’s the local residents that pitch in their time and effort to give their neighborhood something truly unique.

Which isn’t to say that installing parklets has been smooth sailing from the start. Like most civic-minded projects, early parklets were soundly criticized. The original ones weren’t very aesthetically pleasing, offering little more beyond bushes and cafe seating and attracted indigents during the day and drunk partiers at night. They also weren’t wheelchair-accessible.

But despite these minor hiccups, the program has proven incredibly successful. 31 parklets have been installed so far, with another 15 going through the permit process, and the creative possibilities seem endless. What if a series of parklets led a path through a neighborhood? What if parklets went all the way around the block? More city dwellers would get the chance to wield a shovel and cultivate their own little sliver of green in a sea of concrete and asphalt, and even more people would get to enjoy them. What parking space can compete with that?

Image: mark.hogan.