John King, architecture critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, says the city’s innovative Pavement to Parks program (see earlier post), which reclaims unused stretches of streets and turns them into public parks and plazas created with salvaged materials, will needs lots more public or private support and investment if it’s going to expand from five to 25 parklets. The five parklets now in place are a form of “bootstrap urbanism,” but unless the city finds “the resources to craft resonant lasting spaces, it runs the risk of squandering the promise of the low-budget, high-concept nooks that have been conceived.” King says the new public spaces could become as unused as the earlier streets where they are sited.
Despite the pro-bono services of landscape architects and architects and free labor of the local communities, not all the parklets in place now have achieved their potential. “Three took awkward intersections and made them over into car-free plateaus. The other two […] slap a deck on parking spaces as a way to add slivered chill space to shopping streets with narrow sidewalks.”
One parklet at 22nd and Bartlett streets sits across from three cafes. “Rebar Group takes the decking of dark-stained bamboo and folds it up and over to form seating space and a small counter, with additional room for plants and bicycle racks.” King says, in comparison with another parklet outside the Mojo Cafe near Divisadero and Grove streets, the parklet has a “strong visual identity,” but visitors are still left feeling exposed given their backs are exposed to car traffic. Also, the parklets just seem like extra cafe seating instead of new public spaces. “These aren’t public spaces so much as clever ways to add seating options to crowded blocks.”
The three others are asphalt plazas that can serve as neighborhood spaces, but there were few visitors when he went. “That pedestrian hum is what’s missing from Guerrero Park, which replaced the confusing overlap of Guerrero and San Jose avenues and 28th Street near St. Luke’s Hospital.” In addition, King says, some neighbors don’t like the salvaged material look. “Some neighbors loathe the sight of tree trunks laid on pavement to form planting beds, or the tall stainless steel tubes topped by live bamboo.” On the positive side: plantings were taking root in the parks and on the day King visited, “bees and butterflies were as plentiful as people were scarce.”
Like NYC’s experiment with making Times Square a pedestrian mall, the spaces have a temporary feel, in part created by the materials salvaged from city dumps. Recently, though, NYC’s government has decided to make the pedestrian mall in Times Square permanent (see earlier post) and invest in some big-name design talent. Snohetta, an architecture firm, is leading a design team including lighting guru Leni Schwendinger (see an interview) to actually redesign the spaces as a plaza. San Francisco may also need to decide if it’s going this route, or at least require parklets to have ample private support, because the concept is quickly moving from “test case to full-blown initiative this month with the release of a request for proposals from the city’s Planning Department.” If business groups pony up the funds needed for construction and maintenance, up to 25 new parklets could be installed.
Also, check out San Francisco’s Better Streets program, which is creating green, complete streets in key areas.
Image credit: San Francisco Parklet / Matthew Roth, San Francisco Streets blog