CHS Community Post | Parklets: Creating {Mini} Spaces for Community

140330 conceptual design sketch (small) (1)There’s a new type of space coming to Seattle – it’s tiny, but packed within its small stature are all kinds of good qualities. Residents are reclaiming the public right-of-way (i.e. roadway), traditionally taken-up by parked cars, for open and green space. It’s called a parklet and like the name suggests, the easiest way to describe them is as “mini open space.” And yet that term just doesn’t quite capture the breadth and beauty of these little spaces because they’re so much more than a plaza or patch of green space.

Usually taking-up about the same amount of space as one or two on-street parking spots, parklets are being introduced to the Seattle area through the Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) new pilot program for open space. Birthed out of San Francisco’s PARK(ing) Day and later formalized within the city’s Pavement to Parks program, parklets have already been envisioned by residents of other cities as many things: ping-pong courts, outdoor café seating, lush green space, and even exercise space. From a social standpoint, there’s something refreshing about citizens reclaiming space near the sidewalk so they can spend time together as neighbors, for kids to play, or for our elders to people-watch – all the while bringing activity and life to an otherwise unused space. As our city’s public spaces become more and more critical, parklets are one way of satisfying our urban dwellers’ need for life’s familial and casual in-between moments. And without requiring months of arduous city process, obscene amounts of city funding, or painful construction delays, parklets also allow us to use our own hands to nimbly shape the public expression of our neighborhoods and business centers.

So if you had one wish to make a new nearby parklet the next best thing, what would you wish for?

You might wish for some green space like at San Francisco’s 914 Valencia Street Parklet or some cozy seating in front of your favorite café like at the 3876 Noriega Street Parklet, but for the parklet team and neighbors of a parklet in Seattle’s Central Area, they think their community could use a family-friendly space. Adjacent to Cortona Café & Swing Salon and aptly named the 25th & Union Parklet, this parklet is being designed as a place where kids can play safely while parents take a moment for conversation. Considered by many to be the hub of the Central Area, this particular part of the neighborhood has retained and attracted a number of small local businesses within its walkable core and yet does not have much in the way of conveniently located family-friendly recreation space. And lets face it, in a city which already struggles with the ‘Seattle freeze’, parents and singles alike need all the help they can get to find affordable, safe, and convenient spaces to be neighborly. These new little interventions are one convenient way that we can thaw-out our introverted ways. But even more than that, parklets present opportunities for neighbors being neighbors and to see community in action.

But if community-building and civicness isn’t convincing enough, we can’t ignore the benefits that parklets bring to local businesses. While Union Street, a major east-west connector through the Central Area, is more pedestrian in character than many other streets within the neighborhood and city, the local businesses along it need the support that only comes from the bustle of frequent and loyal customers. In San Francisco, initial polls of nearby businesses have shown a marked increase in annual revenue, sometimes as great as 20%. And according to the Parklet Impact Study conducted by the San Francisco Great Streets Project, we can expect to see more people stopping to engage in stationary activities. To put it another way, by making social activities more visible to the casual passer-by, our human desire to participate kicks-in and the businesses within the vicinity benefit from that attention.

If you want to learn more about Seattle’s pilot program or get involved in one of the 13 parklets already being planned, consider checking out SDOT’s project website. And remember, these little parklets are being funded completely by our communities, businesses, and neighborhood organizations so if you’re short on time but still want to support the mission of these little gems, you can always help by donating! If you’d like to contribute to the 25th & Union Parklet, you can do so at this parklet’s online Crowdrise campaign.

46 thoughts on “CHS Community Post | Parklets: Creating {Mini} Spaces for Community

  1. This post tries to put an all-positive spin on parklets, but I still think they are a dumb idea. I really doubt they will be used for neighbors to socialize any more than they are already doing, and it’s extremely unlikely that kids will use them for play spaces….that’s what real city parks are for.

    I take issue with the statement that parklets bring “activity and life to an otherwise unused space.” The space is not unused….it’s for parking, which is badly needed in a congested city.

    Are these things really that popular? Or are they just being pushed by a few individuals and businesses? A poll would be interesting.

    • Since the weather has gotten better, I’ve seen the parklet on Olive full of people each time I have walked by — two to three evenings each week.

      So, drawing on actual experience and reality, my support for these has only increased.

      • I should say that I’ve also seen it empty at other times, such as some mornings.

        But, on balance, seeing that space full folks in the evenings makes me *significantly* happier than seeing it filled by one or two cars all day and night. After all, aren’t people > car?

        • “After all, aren’t people > car?”

          If you assume people don’t own those cars, then yes. Otherwise, it’s “people = people with a car.”

          • “people = people with a car.”

            Speak for yourself. Many people on the hill do not have cars, and do quite well without them.

          • “Speak for yourself. Many people on the hill do not have cars, and do quite well without them.”

            That’s not particularly relevant to this discussion, since locals probably aren’t the ones parking directly on Broadway or Pike/Pine. Those are generally used by people from outside the area.

            But thanks for the superiority lesson!

          • No, people > cars, just like he said originally. The business owner gives not one bit of a damn whether the people have cars stored somewhere or not, whether that’s at home, in a parking garage, or whether they don’t have them at all. It’s the people that matter to the business, and to the neighborhood. The better a ratio of people to cars we can achieve, the more vibrant the neighborhood.

    • I wouldn’t hang around these parklets either. They are right next to roads and you are breathing in fumes. But then, I don’t understand why anyone would want to sit outside of restaurants on Broadway either.

    • We did some research a while back. A study of New York parklets found that they receive regular use, both from pedestrians and from bicyclists. Also, businesses next to parklets tend to report higher foot traffic as a result of a new parklet, and since typically businesses are the ones paying for them, that’s a good sign that parklets work. We explain in further detail (and provide links to the studies) here: http://realestategals.com/why-we-love-seattle-parklets/

      • I for one am very tired of the bullsh** “science” from New York. Yes, they work in New York because in the businesses district and most urban neighborhoods THEY HAVE FEW IF ANY OTHER PARKS!!!

    • that’s EXACTLY what they’re for in this city. Bars and small restaurants sponsor the build-out cost of them and then try and prevent the public from using it if they’re not a customer. I’ve run into that several times on Olive. Suck it, bitch, you’re in a public space on city owned land. It’s bad enough you’re forcing yourself into 2 parking spaces, but don’t think you can take over the public space and demand I patronize your establishment as well.

    • Wow, you’d really prefer parking to an attractive and functional parklet? I don’t care if they only become doggy bathrooms and not a single human ever actually uses them; I’d still prefer parklets to parking. And if it means that less people drive their cars to/on cap hill, then AWESOME. Put them everywhere (I own a car, too, don’t even go there).

      • Do you really mean we should have parklets even if NO ONE uses them? That seems like kind of a ridiculous point of view.

        And, to state the obvious, parklets will have absolutely no effect on whether or not people own and use a car.

    • Totally agree. They appear to be smoking areas for a lot of bars and restaurants. I think a poll would help determine if the public benefit is really there.

      • Welp, it’s on the Hill, where parking doesn’t exist anyway. Let ‘em have their bicycles and parklets, you obviously don’t want disabled people who NEED parking to shop on the hill, so I’m stuck shopping @ corporate chain stores who DO have parking near their front doors. Not that Capitol Hill ever cared about the disabled, children or the elderly anyway, but if you folks start turning hospital parking into parklets, the Feds are gonna wanna know why…

  2. A lovely idea and one that might provide much-needed respite from our (almost) concrete jungle swirling with near-constant car exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. I have two concerns, though: will people trying to enjoy a healthy moment in a parklet be bombarded by cigarette smoke from those smokers who refuse to follow the “25-feet-from businesses” rule? It’s already a problem around most businesses on the Hill. And will they refrain from lighting up in the parklet itself, which is also illegal? Even though these rules are in place, they are not enforced and those of us who want to avoid the smoke (due to its toxic ingredients) for ourselves and our little ones have to frequently put up with it in areas where smoking has supposedly been regulated. My second concern is about dog waste. Will these parklets simply be a place for dog owners to let their dogs relieve themselves? There are a lot of dogs in the neighborhood and any patch of grass becomes a toilet for any dog in the vicinity. The grass or kids’ sandbox will inevitably become filled with dog feces and urine, I’d guess…How can we regulate these things so that people in search of a healthy moment, a little break from the business, can actually have one in a parklet?

    • Your concerns are real. I would guess that the bar/restaurant that sponsored/financed the parklet on E Olive Way did so in part to provide a space for their customers to smoke. Yes, it’s illegal….but as you say, very unlikely to be enforced.

      If you think about it, Capitol Hill has quite a few real parks….both large and small…and more to come (Broadway Hill Park). Therefore, parklets are unnecessary and take up much-needed parking.

    • Aura –

      You make some great points so I’d like to answer them in regard to our parklet at 25th & Union (other parklets may cope with these matters differently).

      Regarding the issue of smoking inside the parklet and within 25 ft of businesses, this is an issue which we’ll be sure to bring-up with SDOT as we proceed with our design process. If it’s as simple as posting a “no smoking” sign, that may make it easier for parklet users, the cafe and surrounding businesses to discourage its use for smoking. That being said, this particular parklet is in front of a small community cafe within the Central Area and has yet to attract the large numbers of smokers which seem to often accompany bars.

      Regarding the parklet becoming a place for dog feces & urine, this is an issue that actually came up at the first community meeting hosted by our parklet team and we have since revised the design to accommodate that concern. Our team has no desire to see the parklet become the depository for doggy what-not so rather than placing the sandbox in the ground, we’ve chosen to elevate it to be a ‘sand table’ where children can easily stand at it. By elevating this play space to a sand table, it should be significantly less convenient for pets to use it for relieving themselves. As for the other green areas of the parklet, many of them will also be elevated within planters and those which are not will be planted with plants which are more robust than grass. As our sketch illustrates, we’d like the area around the existing street tree to be lush with low-growing plants so we will be choosing plants & shrubs that can survive in these areas.

    • “Concrete JUNGLE”?!?! Jeez, man, when my legs worked I could WALK from the Central District to Lake Washington in like a half-hour. You have no clue what a “concrete jungle” IS. But why stop with street parking? Why not turn all the bar parking spaces into parks? It’s illegal to drive (anything, including bicycles) drunk, so the parking lots shouldn’t be there anyway. Do it citywide, make a REAL public health statement…

  3. I think they should be names smokeletts. If they are in front if a bar the patrons go out and smoke in them. I provided some feedback to the city about that issue. The response was the rules dont allow it but u never found that in the rules. I was also told that no smoking should be posted but
    I have not found any.

    I think is it a nice way to have smokers hang out and since it is so small others may find it hard to share that space.

  4. I’m a fan. I’ll leave it to the businesses to assess the parking situation.

    Pot vs. Parks: Do parkletts count as parks? If so, is there any issue with proposed parkletts being within 1000 feet of a marijuana dispensary? And following that logic, will the coming pot shops at 23rd and union restrict our neighborhood’s flexibility when it comes to advocating for new park spaces?

    • Ryan –

      Thank you for your thoughtful response – I’d like to take a moment to address this question since it has been one that’s come up quite frequently within the Central Area. After doing some research into this issue, the 25th & Union Parklet team believes it is very unlikely that parklets will be considered “parks” and here is why:

      1) The Washington Liquor Control Board is the regulating body which would place limitations on the location of future pot stores in relation to public parks. However, if you look at Definition #17 of the WAC (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=314-55-010) for “Public park”, you’ll see that a park is defined as, “…an area of land for enjoyment of the public, having facilities for rest and/or recreation, such as a baseball diamond or basketball court, owned and/or managed by a city, county, state, federal government, or metropolitan park district.” The key information here is that a space is only deemed a “public park” when it is “owned and/or managed” by a municipal agency. And even though SDOT is the municipal body leading the parklet pilot program, part of the stipulation for installing a parklet is that it be regularly maintained by its host(s). Given that the parklets are being hosted by community orgs & businesses, it is highly unlikely that parklets could be deemed as “public parks”.

      2) If you follow that logic through by considering a bench & planter adjacent to the sidewalk BUT installed by a business, that bench & planter are also unlikely to ever be considered a “public park” because they are neither owned or maintained by SDOT.

      3) It is important to note that parklets are in no way affiliated with the City of Seattle Parks Dept. because parklets are entirely maintained by the associated parklet hosts (in our case, Cortona Cafe). We’re all just lucky enough to have host businesses/organizations that are willing to foot the cost of regularly maintaining the parklets for the public’s enjoyment.

      In summary, we believe there is not a conflict with the location of parklets vs. pot shops because they do not fit the legal definition of a “public park”. I hope this helps to clarify some of the questions/concerns you and others have had on this matter.

  5. It seems like the big winners in an increased use of parklets will be for-pay parking lots. Remove all or most street parking from the area and you have little option but to pay $9 to park. Which may be fine for locals, but isn’t so good for businesses that are relying on more than locals for their business. It’s yet another reason to avoid this area and go some place else.

    • And don’t get me wrong, they’re a lovely idea in theory, but in practice this write up is a wee-bit too polyanna-ish. In a dense urban area, they don’t really seem like they’re for kids to play in–are there really that many kids here, and aren’t they better served by Volunteer or Cal Anderson?–or for neighbors to socialize; they’re for additional outdoor seating for bars and restaurants.

      Also, who keeps them from getting too mangy? The winters here are harsher than those in San Francisco. And what about overnight tenants during the summer? (I imagine San Francisco has solutions for this perceived issue.)

  6. And I recall the earlier story saying that businesses near to Chuck’s proposed parklet opposed it due to concerns over loss of parking. I cant imagine letting my kids play in a parklet located on a busy urban street- too close to moving cars- so not relaxing at all. If they are located on a quieter street then maybe…but arent those the locations most likely not to need a little green space? I think these are cheap and otherwise unavailable outdoor space for supporting businesses. Is that a good thing for the rest of us? Well, not as good as the original article describes.

  7. I think we need to define the terms of this debate as not parking vs. parks, but rather how we allocate the entire publicly-owned right of ways between buildings. Remember, the public owns the entire strip of land between buildings, which we have divided into more narrowly-defined strips of land we call streets, sidewalks, and medians, and these allocations are not legally set in stone.

    These allocations are value judgements, not constitutional rights, and are often reflective of social values in decades prior (when the right of way was allocated) rather than our current values. These values can and do change, and the results can be things like removing parking to speed up auto traffic flow, adding bus bulbs to improve transit service, reducing travel lanes to add turning lanes, squeezing in bike lanes, etc.

    What I don’t understand is how people get so worked up when the city reallocates a tiny little bit of publicly owned land away from subsidizing parking spaces, which are a private good, and toward park space, which is an actual public good. After all, subsidizing a parking space, for which the benefit of parking one’s car goes almost entirely to that individual and any business he or she patronizes, is a form of socialism, and not a very efficient form of it. There is no compelling reason I can see for the government to be in the business of running a parking lot that mostly gives away space for free and inefficiently manages the spaces it does lease for money.

    Personally, I think the parklets are a great experiment. More importantly to me, they bring up the issue of how we allocate so much space for car parking, and way too little space for sidewalks and pedestrian gathering areas. Our current street/sidewalk/parking allocation is based on a much smaller volume of foot and vehicle traffic, when both street and sidewalk space was not so scarce and there could be virtually unlimited free parking.

    I think we should take away one side of parking on the entire length of Broadway, Pike, Pine and E Olive, and make the sidewalks wider. Drivers can shell out a few bucks for a parking spot at a private lot if they really want to drive to the hill. Why is it more valuable to subsidize parking for 15 cars on one side of each block than it is to allow hundreds of pedestrians the ability to freely walk around?

    • Can you please explain what you mean by saying that on-street parking is “subsidized?” Do you mean that the parking rates are lower than at private lots? If so, isn’t that a good thing?

      And don’t forget, paid parking is a big money-maker for the City budget……which is also a good thing.

      • The city has public land it acquired at some point and is giving it to people for free or lower cost than a private parking lot for the purpose of storing a private vehicle. Obviously the market rate for parking is higher than what the city is charging (which in many cases is zero) as evidenced by the fact that it is often completely occupied.

        Certainly parking does make money for the city, but if it were being run in the style of a private operator it would be making a lot more. Therefore the city is in the business of providing a subsidy for people to park their cars for lower than the market rate.

        In what world is this a good thing? Why are we paying the way for people to take their private cars into a dense urban area? What is the social utility of providing this subsidy, as opposed to the benefits we already know about park space and pedestrian walkways?

        • When I park on First Hill on street to see my doctor, it’s 4 dollars per hour (higher than many NYC meters). The lot at Swedish – a private lot is a dollar more. Your idea of subsidized street parking has some holes in it. Add in the ever increasing car tabs (proposed on property this fall) and one of the highest gas taxes in the nation – the parking in this city is hardly subsidized.

    • What a great idea about widening the sidewalks. I have lived in a couple different cities that closed downtown streets to cars entirely, and although people objected before the fact, they came to really value the pedestrian zones, which improved business and general livability in those areas. I fantasize about Broadway from Pine to Roy becoming a pedestrian zone. I think it would become such a relaxing place to hang out.

      • I think this would work a lot better on Pike Street between Broadway and 12th. The problem with Broadway is that there are few alternatives to divert car traffic, so everyone will be sent up Thomas to 12th, which will just be a huge bottleneck.

    • “Drivers can shell out a few bucks for a parking spot at a private lot if they really want to drive to the hill. ”

      In this case, a few bucks is $8-$15 for like 2-3 hours, which is prohibitively expensive for a lot of low- or medium-income people in this city. Maybe they should spend $6 to take public transportation instead; sure, assuming they have bus access in their neighborhood or have no other reason to bring a car into the city.

      The rich people from Bellevue won’t mind, though. They’re already spending the money in private lots.

      • And your point is what? If your concern is for low income people, then give low income people a voucher to subsidize parking that works in parking meters or lots. Or just give them cash every year to compensate them for what they would have to shell out. They can then spend that money anyway they see fit, for parking or for something else that may be of higher value to them.

        This is not complicated stuff. This is Econ 101 foundations of microeconomics material. If you want to help low-income people, they don’t subsidize parking for everyone including the person coming in from Bellevue. Land is a very scarce resource especially on Capitol Hill. Let’s not waste it so much on ubiquitous low-cost parking, shall we?

  8. Parking seems to be a blind spot for many people. We do not expect free gasoline as our birthright. so why do owe expect free parking? There is a high cost associated with ‘free parking’ – it is a subsidy that actually cost cities and municipalities a lot of money – businesses too. Someone actually wrote a treatise on this topic, and all of the costs to our society. “Shoup argues that free parking has contributed to auto dependence, rapid urban sprawl, extravagant energy use, and a host of other problems. Planners mandate free parking to alleviate congestion but end up distorting transportation choices, debasing urban design, damaging the economy, and degrading the environment. Ubiquitous free parking helps explain why our cities sprawl on a scale fit more for cars than for people, and why American motor vehicles now consume one-eighth of the world’s total oil production.”
    It is now available in paperback.
    http://www.amazon.com/High-Cost-Parking-Updated-Edition/dp/193236496X

    • When I lived in Providence RI there was no on street parking allowed between 2am-5am anywhere in the city. It made many front yards into parking spaces but it also prevented long term storage and abandoned cars cluttering up the city. It also meant you had to have a plan about how to stash your car if you were going to own one.

  9. No need to widen the sidewalks, just prohibit free advertising in the form of sandwich boards and other privately-sourced obstacles which routinely impede foot traffic in the public right-of-way. There’s more than one way to gain space for foot traffic, but increasing a business’s footprint on public land under the mistaken and veneer-thin guise of equal-access-to-non-patrons is not a good solution for anybody except the private business.

    • In L.A. they turned 6th Street into one huge open-air market, complete with cigarette & beer vendors and “hot” food stands and outdoor groceries (fruit stands a block long). Just the kinda thing Cap Hill residents want. Fine, as long as no one needs to use the sidewalk, emergency transport or breathe clean air. But once the sidewalks and parklets are taken over by street vendors – you don’t really need stores, restaurants nor the taxes they generate, do ya?

  10. At the recent Madrona Community Council meeting, the entire room of about 25 people spoke against the idea of a parklet on 34th. The only people that were for it were the 6 people designing it which included an SDOT employee. The overriding concern was losing 1 or 2 parking spots. Unfortunately, the city is only mailing notifications to houses within 200 feet of the proposed parklet….people who obviously don’t drive to the businesses on 34th.. I have a feeling that the parklet is going to happen in spite of overwhelming neighborhood resistance. The lack of true community outreach has been appalling.

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