The unrealized potential of parklets
Boys gather in a parklet

Parklets are successful at increasing public space for pedestrians, but have not yet reduced the prevalence of cars. Photo by Waltarrrrr.

Over the next few decades, urban areas across the world are projected to experience exponential population growth. In the U.S., Census information shows that the largest cities, those with a population of over half a million, grew more in the two years between 2010 and 2012 than they did in the twenty years between 1990 to 2010. Jobs continue to transition from rural to urban areas and cities continue to develop as cultural and intellectual meccas. Those in charge of leading our urban centers into the future are hoping to make adjustments now that will allow cities to sustain themselves under the pressures of future growth. One infrastructure that is emerging as a popular component in this transition is the parklet.

What is a parklet?

Parklets are small public parks that are built in areas usually devoted to cars, most commonly in metered parking spaces. Though not always realized, the larger ideal of parklets is two-fold. Parklets aim to increase public green space while also disincentivizing the use of cars in urban environments. Because of this broader goal, parklets are strongly embedded in the New Urbanism movement, which aims to transition cities from car-centric to people-centric systems. Preliminary studies have shown parklets to have many of their desired effects, such as increased civic street life. However, there are some potential problems with the current parklet process, that need to be acknowledged and addressed for parklets to have the kind of broad and lasting impact that many hope they will.

City infrastructure is one of the most effective tools in sustainable urban growth. Through infrastructure, city leaders set priorities and expectations. Most cities in the United States prioritize cars over people mainly by designating more public land to moving and parking cars than to human leisure and recreation. Parklets are part of the movement to reverse this trend.

The parklet concept originated in San Francisco in 2005, and the first formal parklets in the United States were established in the same city five years later. In the past three years, parklets have grown in popularity. As of January 2013, thirty-eight parklets had been installed throughout San Francisco, and cities from Long Beach to New York have implemented them as well. The parklet movement has even led to the establishment of an annual international event called PARK(ing) Day, which is occurring this September 20th, 2013. Yet there has been very little study devoted to assessing how well parklets actually achieve their various intended goals.

The shortcomings of parklets

Early research conducted on San Francisco’s parklets show that the implementation of a parklet does seem to increase civic activity on the particular block where the parklet is installed, and the average number of people on the block at any given time also seems to increase. For a movement aimed at making cities more people friendly, this is definitely an achievement.

However, when it comes to disincentivizing car use, the parklet process often falls short. In order to make up the revenue lost by allowing a metered parking spot to be converted into a parklet, cities often require that they be able to build a new metered parking spot nearby.

Parklet programs also use a funding model that could prove counterproductive in the future. In general, parklets are funded entirely by the community. By removing all costs of implementation from the city, and forcing parklet funding to depend solely on the abilities of the local community to raise money, the infrastructure can only be implemented in those communities with disposable income. As a tool used to help people reclaim city streets, parklets may only be going as far as reclaiming the streets used by people who have the money to buy them back.

Parklets have great potential

For parklets to truly transform cities, they have to be implemented in concert with other measures, including the elimination of parking spaces, the widening of sidewalks, and the improvement of public transportation systems. Furthermore, their funding model needs to be reassessed so that they don’t become just another resource available to the wealthy few and out of reach for many.

As we move forward in the transition from car-centric to people-centric cities, it is important that we do so inclusively and neutrally. Leaving segments of our cities behind in the process by withholding infrastructure development, or making that development out of financial reach, will only lead to unsustainable urban growth. Parklets are a great way to increase public green space in urban environments, and have the potential to be a very effective component of the New Urbanism movement, but we must address their shortfalls now for them to have a real and sustainable impact on our future cities.

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