New Forms of Public Space: Parkmobiles


With the exception of maybe New York and Philadelphia, San Francisco may be the most innovative city in the U.S. when it comes to creating new forms of public space. In contrast with those east coast cities, though, San Francisco is also remodelling its public space at very low cost, with lots of support from its local business community. Its parklet models, which took shape with the help of local community groups and businesses, are already proving so successful it’s possible other cities will be copying them soon (see earlier post). One new element in its low-cost, yet effective pop-up park repertoire: the parkmobile, which John King at The San Francisco Chronicle defines as “portable landscapes.”  

King say the parkmobiles at $6,000 each represent the city’s “most ambitious effort yet to improve the large, urban landscape in small, fluid ways.” Found in red steel bins 6 feet wide by 16 feet long, which kind of look like painted dumpsters, these parkmobiles are “intended as a shot of mobile nature offering passers-by visual relief from asphalt and concrete.” In the first project, six parkmobiles will be set around Yerba Buena Gardens, each with its own “horticultural theme.” CMG Landscape Architecture, the firm behind the new Mint Plaza, which won an E.P.A. Smart Growth award this year (see earlier post), designed the installations. Calder Gillin at CMG told King: “We want each one to be showy and eye-catching, but also easy to maintain.” 

The dumpster park idea came out of an eight-month planning process led by the local benefit district, which is financed by nearby property owners, and included neighborhood residents and businesses and CMG acting as the design team. The result: a 10-year blueprint that is meant to serve as a “a vision and road map for a next generation of public space in the Yerba Buena District.” The new plan also calls for a new dog run, widening some sidewalks, and creating new “shared streets” where pedestrians can more easily walk during business hours, among other projects. King worries about some aspects of the overall urban revitalization plan and also notes that the neighborhood, one of the nicest in the city, is already doing pretty well in comparison with some other areas that could use some investment.

King reports that the parkmobiles will stay in a space for a few weeks or months and then be moved to another spot. The space inside the parkmobile will be “off-limits” but there will be benches so people can sit and look at the greenery. Two set on Mission Street featured different plantings: One includes arbutus trees and cotoneaster shrubs, while the other has Tasmanian tree ferns. Some are parked in tow-away zones so can’t stay for very long. “The hope is that the bucolic bins will draw people onto blocks that otherwise get little foot traffic – and that the design and vegetation will survive the moves and the crowds.” Gillen also added that the plants were chosen for their ability to survive in the urban jungle.

Image credit: Parkmobile / Michelle Terris. The San Francisco Chronicle

6 thoughts on “New Forms of Public Space: Parkmobiles

  1. Prosend 08/22/2011 / 9:48 am

    Man. I want to give them credit for being creative, but I really don’t like this concept. Maybe I would have to see it live, but it just looks like plants in a dumpster to me. It seems to give an impression that the area is not important enough for a permanent green spot.

    • tg 08/24/2011 / 9:40 am

      Thanks for the brilliant observation, spanky.

      But then again, that’s Landscape Architecture, right? We take care of lawns and prune roses.

      There’s more to our profession than permanent green space.

  2. oclblog 08/24/2011 / 9:39 am

    Seems like a great idea for temporarily vacant lots awaiting development .

  3. Prosend 08/24/2011 / 10:28 am

    Well, my contribution to LA is making and planning permanent open spaces, so naturally that is something I would consider. As a senior park planner/landscape architect (RLA,AICP), I don’t plant anything. My agency looks at innovative ways to provide recreation and open spaces to an ever increasing urbanizing population in a county of one million plus residents. Plants in a dumpster are a tough sell.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on how our profession is more than permanent green spaces? That seems to me to be our primary mission. This blog idea is a pretty fringe idea that might have problems taking hold elsewhere.

    • tg 08/24/2011 / 1:27 pm

      If your a licensed LA and a senior designer/planner you should know exactly what I am referring to. Landscape Architecture is not just about green spaces. Sure, we do provide “permanent green spaces”, but what is permanent? We inhabit an environment that is constantly changing due to phenomena / environments that are entirely out of our control. Because of this it is imperative we keep an open mind for any and all opportunities that reveal our landscape for what it is… and what it can be. Our profession requires us to constantly adapt and work within these environments.

      Temporary installations, public spaces, parks, whatever… our training and experience has taught (and will continue to teach) how to design for people. Thats our primary mission. You specialize in park design, thats fantastic (in all seriousness), but not all places should be “permanent green space.”

      I may have jumped on your comment before in a somewhat juvenile manner, but it just reminded me of the narrow minded individuals I have come across in the past. I see you give them a thumbs-up for creativity… gee thanks. But in an “ever increasing urbanizing population” we need to be designing as if there never was a box to begin with.

      So give credit where credit is due whether you like the concept or not. Even if we don’t get it, we need to encourage thinking that not only is accommodating, but inspiring as well.

      Plants in a dumpster a tough sell? Well, they sold it.

      Just my thoughts.

  4. Prosend 08/24/2011 / 2:12 pm

    I never said green spaces..I said open spaces.

    I consider temporary art installations to a different animal. This could be classified as art if you were so inclined.

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