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Pint-size parks: Los Angeles turns parking spaces to 'parklets'

Los Angeles, a city of cars and congestion, is joining a trend to create mini-pedestrian oases on what was once signature auto turf: the parking space.

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Andres Power, a planner and urban designer with the San Francisco Planning Department, poses while standing in the Divisadero Parklet in San Francisco in this 2010 file photo. The parklet idea is spreading.

Eric Risberg/AP/File

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Los Angeles sees itself as a city of cars and cutting-edge trends. People here like to drive convertibles and set styles, not follow them.

It’s no coincidence, they say, that the word “pedestrian” has two meanings (a person who travels on foot/lacking in vitality, prosaic, or dull.) So the local boosters are saying that, even though Los Angeles didn’t invent the idea, the fact that the city of cars is now embracing mini-pedestrian oases on auto turf is, at least, a unexpected stretch. 

They’re talking about “parklets” – that is, morphing parking spaces back into green spaces by exchanging cement for grass, benches, exercise equipment, table games, or all of the above. Invented in San Francisco at least four years ago, the idea has spread to Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities.

Los Angeles put in four this year, did a study, and now is tweaking the concept for at least 12 more – as a way to revitalize a key neighborhood that went from chic to Detroitian during the Great Recession: Westwood, the gateway to UCLA. Despite the creation of a business improvement district – with sidewalk upgrades and litter pickup – the area has had problems keeping businesses in its storefronts.

“I love the fact that you can simply take a break here on the street, sit down and have your lunch or read a paper, and it’s not tied to anyone’s restaurant or bookstore,” says Steven Foosan, who recently purchased a condo on downtown’s traffic-choked Spring Street to get in on the fast-gentrifying neighborhood. “This gives the block a real community feeling,” he says.

The parklet he’s talking about has a foosball table, exercise bikes, and redwood seats with glass-tile mosaic backing. Up the street is another. In other communities – El Sereno and Highland Park – are spaces with planters, decks, hanging twinkle lights and more.

Rita Rivers wishes they had a few in Sherman Oaks. “My son wants to know why we have to drive all the way to a park, just so I can stop holding him on my lap,” says the mother of three preschoolers. 

Most say the idea really got going because of San Francisco's Pavement to Parks program, a collaboration between the city planning department and a number of other municipal agencies, including the mayor's office. One technique that helped publicize that effort was by Rebar, a group of environmental activists who declared and staged regular “(PARK)ing days” in which participants brought sod, trees, benches and encouraged the public to feed the parking meters.

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They also held similar days in Cleveland, Sao Paulo, London, and Glasgow.

Several analysts say the trend is continuing to take hold as more people become aware of what parklets are, and civic entities devise procedures to set them up.

“Parklets are ways to individualize and humanize crowded urban spaces to create a personalized locally functional and desirable infrastructure,” says Mark Stapp, professor of Professor of Real Estate Practice at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe.

The phenomenon may be the reflection of the activist, millennial generation rather than baby boomers.

“This is a young person’s movement,” says Don Biederman, whose firm, Biederman Redevelopment Corporation, has been contracted to design parklets in seven states. Parklets he has designed in New York’s Herald Square have become staging grounds for miniconcerts that have gone viral on YouTube.

“[Young people] are the ones who have really realized how gray and overcrowded our cities have become and have the energy to pursue this as an antidote," he adds.

Other cities are trying to follow the parklets model, often starting out with a pilot project for assessment. Los Angeles just finished an 18-month trial period and the findings are positive, which analysts say should give the idea another nudge.

“This model has been growing as it moves from city to city,” says Madeline Brozen, the program director for the Complete Streets Initiative at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs. After beginning an 18-month pilot project with grant money, the school has just released findings in a best-practices manual that it hopes can be of use to other cities.

“When San Francisco began, there wasn’t a permitting process for this,” she says. Concerns about loss of parking revenue – one of the most oft-heard objections to converting parking spaces to parklets – were largely overblown, according to study findings. And there is a disconnect between how merchants think their customers arrive – on foot or by car. They apparently have thought that more people come by car than actually do. 

But not everyone seems thrilled with the idea. The Boston Globe just three weeks ago opined, “Parklets need rethinking before next rollout.”

“Parklets are supposed to bring a sense of whimsy and spontaneity to a city, but despite a reported investment of $15,000 to $25,000 per parklet, the spaces have found few users in Boston. They may be too close to traditional parks, or too oddly designed. In Jamaica Plain, the arching benches in one parklet offer more adventure to skateboarders than comfort for a conversation.”

That point is not lost on planners here.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who teaches a course at the Luskin School here, says one great appeal of the parklets is that they can be driven by the community who wants them, rather than the city, which is behind most other public parks. Her students have offered officials in Westwood no fewer than a dozen different designs, some including provisions for WiFi and computer/phone outlets.

The pilot study also showed that parklets seem to work best in front of restaurants and cafes and not regular retail space.  And they don’t have to be designed solely out of parking spaces. They can be made from traffic triangles at intersections as well as the island space in wide boulevards.

Overall, the findings seem to indicate that with the proper input and tweaking, people seem to be warming to the idea.

“This is true for parklets, it’s true for bike lanes, it’s true for bus lanes – it’s true for any innovation in the transportation world,” Vineet Gupta, the Transportation Department’s planning director, told The Boston Globe. “Initially, you don’t see the kind of use that one would hope, but things pick up.”


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