Greater Greater Washington

Public Spaces


Parklets give every block a little park

Residential density in DC is increasing at a faster rate than we can create public spaces for new residents to enjoy. Parklets, like those that have been cropping up in San Francisco, could provide much-needed green space while making our neighborhoods more interesting.


A parklet in San Francisco. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

When I look out my office window in Shaw, all I see are cranes. Planners and developers tell me that vacant land is almost impossible to find. Mixed-use developments being built in places such as the 14th Street corridor are allowed to cover between 75% and 100% of their lots, leaving few opportunities to create new public spaces.

In order to infuse more life into the city, we need to do more than increase population. DC already has amazing public parks, but what if there could be a more intimate outdoor experience?

What if we had a park for every block?

Two years ago, I spent the summer in San Francisco researching my architecture and real estate development thesis in graduate school at the University of Maryland. I wanted to measure the value of quality of life, and San Francisco was attractive since it's a place of innovation that trickles down from tech to urban design.

That's when I discovered parklets, an extension of the sidewalk that turns on-street parking spaces into privately funded public parks. In 2005, San Francisco architecture firm Rebar installed a temporary park in a single-metered street parking space. This intervention evolved into what is now Park(ing) Day, an annual event in which day-long parklets pop up around the world to generate awareness of the necessity and value of public space. Last year, there were several Park(ing) Day parklets closer to home in the District, Silver Spring and Arlington.

San Francisco's Pavement to Parks Program, which began in 2010, says parklets "repurpose part of the street into a public space for people." Today, there are over 35 parklets in the city and more getting entitled.


Diagram of a parklet from the San Francisco Pavement to Parks program.

Parklets often have seating, plants, bike parking and art. Unlike Park(ing) Day parklets, which are only a placeholder intended to start a dialogue for how we can utilize urban space in new ways, permanent parklets are set on a platform raised about 6 inches above the street. This makes it level with the sidewalk, creating a sense of separation and security from the activity of the street and establishing the parklet as a discrete space.

Though they're often maintained by private businesses, residents or community groups, they're open to the public. They're an affordable way to provide high-quality public open space in areas where land is expensive and hotly contested, especially on commercial corridors.

The Pavement to Parks Program has found that parklets also have economic benefits. "Parklets catalyze vitality and activity in the city's commercial districts ... by encouraging pedestrians to linger," notes San Francisco's Parklet Manual, making them more likely to shop and spend money at local businesses, which helps the city's economy.


A parklet with bike parking and a canopy for shade and protection from the rain.

You might wonder how a parklet is different from a wide sidewalk, nice landscaping, and a few benches on the street. The difference is all in the context. Extending the sidewalk into the street creates a sense of being in a separate space, the same way that a bay window feels separate from a large, open room.

Just think how much you cherish the bay window in your home, where you can curl up with a cup of coffee and look out the window, listen to the birds and appreciate the street scene. The parklet is essentially the same idea. It's a small, safe green space where people can curl up and rest, or spontaneously interact with friends and neighbors.

Parklets create intimacy in the street, and that's what makes the experience magical. And that's why people keep coming back to them.


A parklet with greenery and areas for sitting and eating.

Why aren't there permanent parklets in DC? For starters, it's a relatively new concept that not everyone is aware of. As a result, the policy isn't there, and there hasn't been organized demand to put one in place. While San Francisco has found a lot of benefits to parklets, they're hard to measure in dollars.

DC could build just one parklet as a trial, but the policy involved wouldn't make that feasible. For parklets to be successful, the critical mass of a city-wide program needs to be in place. Imagine going to Rock Creek Park and bringing 400 square feet of park space home with you for keeps! A lot of mini-parks would create a noticeable gain in open space. A city-wide program would also allow residents, business owners and policymakers to see different kinds of parklets in action in different contexts.

As DC grows, we will need more places to be outside, to linger, gather, celebrate and rest. Parklets are a great way to provide them. We should follow San Francisco's lead, so mini-parks can start to spring up around the city.

Nooni Reatig is a Project Designer and Director of Development at Suzane Reatig Architecture. She specializes in feasibility analysis, community outreach, planning, design and delivery of residential urban infill projects. Nooni is a board member for Shaw Main Streets and lives in Mount Vernon Square. She has masters degrees in Architecture and Real Estate Development from UMD. 

Comments

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Cue outrage for taking parking/road space away for people who don't pay road taxes.

by Jasper on May 24, 2013 12:25 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Teddy on May 24, 2013 12:28 pm • linkreport

This is the stupidest thing I have ever seen.

Really? I just think you should do it for the whole block. Then you have wider sidewalks and places to hang out.

by drumz on May 24, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

While its an interesting concept, I think the immediate adjacency to traffic and and lack of shade extract from the benefits/escapism tha true park provides. And each one would immediately become occupied 24/7 by a hobo anyways, thus becoming a location to avoid rather than seek out :-(

Best save all the political will required to build this and ensure future development reserves space for parkland and attractive public spaces.

by Adam on May 24, 2013 12:40 pm • linkreport

Why do you need a critical mass? Seems like this is the kind of thing where each one would add its own benefit.

by George on May 24, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

@drumz, yes really, its completely absurd...A park/parklet in the middle of a street with no shade and no real barrier to protect the people driving, seems a little crazy

by Teddy on May 24, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

Cool idea. Nice concept for the few parts of DC that are truly lacking real parks or 'pocket parks'.

I'm more interested in seeing this kind of $$ invested in the upgrade and maintenance of DC's existing parks. We have so many parks and squares as it is; to borrow from GGW, many of these parks are great, but they could definitely be greater. This idea has been addressed in previous GGW posts.

by nativedc on May 24, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport

Clearly an idea poached from Parks and Rec. (http://parksandrecreation.wikia.com/wiki/Smallest_Park)

by Non-LongTermResident on May 24, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

I think this could be put to good use in a very coordinated fashion in a limited number of places like Adams Morgan, U St., Chinatown. I'd be inclined to leave it up to BIDs or other neighborhood groups to propose and implement since it wouldn't happen without local support.

by Alan B. on May 24, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

It's a novel idea, but would people really want to hang out on hot asphalt parking spaces? I guess it would work better in San Francisco, where the climate is milder and there is far less public park land than in DC.

by Ron on May 24, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport

Is lack of parks really that much of an issue in DC? This town is swimming in parkland.

by Potowmack on May 24, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport

I think conflating it with parks is a bit misleading. It's more like localized public plaza space. A lot of busy areas of town have sidewalk space but not a lot of public seating or have it all clustered in a few areas.

by Alan B. on May 24, 2013 1:14 pm • linkreport

In areas that are bereft of parks, like NOMA, this may be something to consider. Not sure that having a park like this on every block is reasonable. Also, not sure how the nanoparks would interact with things like cycletracks or bike lanes.

The second image could work because it offers protection for people, preventing them for slipping into the travel lane.

by Randall M. on May 24, 2013 1:16 pm • linkreport

SF's weather does make a difference

@Teddy, ideally you have concrete road stops that prevent you from getting run over by anyone not deliberately sacrificing their car to try and hit you.

by Richard Bourne on May 24, 2013 1:26 pm • linkreport

I saw a couple of these type of parks in Brooklyn a couple of years ago and thought it was a neat idea. People were definitely using and enjoying them.

by sk on May 24, 2013 1:38 pm • linkreport

Considering the high homeless population in SF, one can't help but wonder how long before they become urine and feces strown eyesores.

by Pigbath on May 24, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

I'd be happy with using some parking spots for CaBi stations.

by Tom Coumaris on May 24, 2013 3:02 pm • linkreport

How is this different from the ill-used and oft-derided pocket parks in Silver Spring (search GGW for "pocket parks")? Indeed, the Silver Spring pocket parks are built, and I presume maintained, by the developer. And, I'm not sure how inviting hanging out on the edge of, say, 19th St (to mention nothing of a road like Connecticut) would be in the middle of July. Unless maybe if there were some tall vegetation (think 30+ foot trees) to provide shade, but to provide the necessary space and trampling protection for the roots would require more extensive space and reconstruction than some repurposed parking spaces here and there.

by EMD on May 24, 2013 3:21 pm • linkreport

Actually, we already have this in DC and first implemented this idea over 140 yrs ago ... making us forerunners in this concept. The area between the sidewalk and the property line (ie the front of the building in the older part of the city) is called 'public parking' and designated as such in 1870s laws whose objective was to 'park' the city. Yes, people living adjacent to this space tend to think of it as 'theirs' and yes some of them do 'unparklike' things with these spaces such as paving them over, but they're still 'parks on every block' ... Just as you are advocating. What's that old saying about the more things change the more they stay the same?

by A neighbor on May 24, 2013 3:52 pm • linkreport

For those saying it wouldn't work, I lived in SF for a year and it works better than you would think. There's a real sense of separation between the parklet and the street, and lots of people use them frequently. SF weather is definitely more suited to them, but with appropriate facilities (for instance, umbrellas for shade during the summer) these would make a great addition to the DC streetscape. They work especially well outside businesses that do a lot of carry-out sales--places like ice cream shops, lunchtime restaurants, and others can benefit from parklet space.

by Dan Miller on May 24, 2013 4:03 pm • linkreport

I'm taken aback at the negative comments in this thread. Have any of the people hating on the idea been to a parklet? I've been to a few in New York and New Haven, and most of them are pretty good. The classic examples of small parks, the ones that inspired Silver Spring's pocket parks, are more like these than like the grass patches in SS.

Like Nooni mentions, they're really just extensions of the sidewalk, like a bay window or an eddy, where you feel like you're a few feet back from the bustle of the city, but still able to observe it. It's a place for lingering, not a place for taking your kid to play. The sidewalks of Bethesda Row and Friendship heights, with their bench clusters and street furniture, basically work like this. They also can have the side effect of being a bulb-out or a neckdown for a road diet. It's a good deal.

I am sure they wouldn't work everywhere; based on where they were in Brooklyn, tight, dense, and busy areas benefit the most from them. Georgetown would be perfect, near southwest, less so.

by Neil Flanagan on May 24, 2013 4:22 pm • linkreport

It does seem kind of a stretch to call a parking spot with potted plants and cafe tables a park. Looks more like out door cafe seating a little too close to the street. There's nothing wrong with this concept except if it becomes an actual substitute for "high-quality public open space".
"What if we had a park for every block?"
Why not...except that good urbanism is urban, which means not every block needs a park as great cities demonstrate.
Those greened traffic nodes in the San Francisco picture are nice, but designing good and adequate green public space is more of an art than giving every block its "park" quota. Many of DC's streets have wonderful street trees unlike much of San Francisco, and many side streets have beautiful yards that really make a difference, but if we want to encourage good public spaces for our increased population, we should learn from the past and design well scaled and activated public spaces like Columbia Heights Plaza. I'm all for street furniture and plantings as long as we don't neglect the larger public spaces that bring together the larger community.

by Thayer-D on May 24, 2013 9:16 pm • linkreport

I'd suggest first taking back out existing public space for short term recreation and relaxation. Too many of our public spaces are just 24 hour drinking/drugging/sleeping spaces. I especially think about Franklin Park and The Starbust near H Street- where on any given day two, 2 dozen drunk people hang out, throw their empties on the ground, and defecate in the corner.

by Tom A. on May 24, 2013 9:25 pm • linkreport

Interesting. There was an attempt to incorporate something like this in the recent rebuilding of 17th St NW, in the widened sidewalk space in front of the McDonald's at 17th & Corcoran. However, it was rejected, and the sidewalk was widened but is without amenities. My understanding is that the rejection was at least in part due to a concern that it would become a gathering spot for street people, but I do not have the details. This is not my concern but it is sure to arise in future implementations of parklets. How would one address this concern when it comes up again?

by DC20009 on May 25, 2013 12:25 am • linkreport

This is a really neat idea. It could be a nice place to hang out for those who don't have a stoop or patio or just want to enjoy some street life for a bit.

by Greg on May 25, 2013 12:46 am • linkreport

Great Idea, reminds me of Viennese "Schanigärten", extensions of restaurants that feature outside dining.(the concept is known all over europe)

And why not take your kid to play there? If the traffic on the street is not too fast(30km/h), there's nearly no danger. Children simply have to learn using the street and can't be kept from every danger until they are 18.

A great plus for urbanity would be the freedom to drink alcohol in public, as this means you don't have to stay in a dark pub, but can take your drink outside with you.

by K. Piscedelli on May 26, 2013 3:29 am • linkreport

Probably very expensive to maintain--lots of small relatively high maintenance spots--street furniture, plantings. DC does have many spots that are a variation on this--the little bits of park around Kalorama Triangle and some of the smaller circles. Some work and some don't. NYC has traffic islands on Broadway on the Upper West Side that are a bit like this--they were badly neglected in NYC's bad years and one reason why I suspect the concept wpould be difficult to maintain. SF lacks the big green spaces of DC, once you get past Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, and is more densely developed which might create a somewhat better environment for this, esp. in residential areas away from the major "built" public gathering spaces like North Beach. This probably wouldn't work in the Tenderloin.

by Rich on May 26, 2013 9:21 am • linkreport

Another concern would also be where they're situated. In front of a commercial space would probably be fine, but in front of a residence might not make sense given that the people living in that residence have a right to relative peace and quiet, and having a crowd hanging out in font of your house or apartment can be noisy and infringing on privacy.

by A neighbor on May 26, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

Why does there need to be public space for new residents and not all residents ?

"DC is increasing at a faster rate than we can create public spaces for new residents to enjoy."

If you wanted park land near your residence you should have thought about that before you moved there. There are plenty of areas in DC with parkland nearby whether it is inviting or not is another matter. If a person is so concerned about parks they would have checked it out before they moved in.

Take DC east of the Anacostia River, DC near Rock Creek Park, DC near Ft. Totten Park etc. if you move downtown and then want a park you should just suffer there were other places.

by kk on May 27, 2013 12:46 am • linkreport

This seems like a solution in search of a problem. What about all of the pocket parks created by the state streets? I haven't seen any of them that are well used, for that matter many circles (Scott, Thomas) are underused as well. Instead of taking away parking, which I am not opposed to as long as it is put to better use, why don't we put chairs and what not in these parks, which are much more pleasant environments and can be enjoyed by more then two or three people at a time.

by nathanie; on May 28, 2013 9:44 am • linkreport

Seems a bit ridiculous, not to mention hazardous. Better to put city funds into protecting and maintaining the nice parks DC already has.

by Chris S. on May 28, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

To those asking about pocket parks and circles - remember that many of these are federal parkland, and DC has no ability to install anything in them, or even maintain them properly if NPS won't. Some of the smaller slices around Mt. Vernon Square are a good example. DC has apparently been trying for a while to put a playground in, but is mired in federal red tape.

by Ms. D on May 28, 2013 5:19 pm • linkreport

These can be very nice but are not for everyone. One is being removed in the Haight Ashbury because it's outside a pub, but can't be used to serve beer due to zealous enforcement of the ABC laws - and in the Haight, extra seating immediately becomes a blight if it's not used by customers of the establishment in question.

by Andrew on May 29, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

I now live in Paris and see the benefit of tiny terraces everywhere. Though of course they are oh so slightly different cities, small outdoor spaces become a living room in which you meet people you may not otherwise. It also becomes a living room for students and artists to collaborate and share ideas. It reminds me a bit of being in university and being able to hang out on campus. It allows you to be outdoors but still right within your community. You can wave at the people you know, talk to the post man and generally engage yourself more within your community. Also, the proximity to the street is the same as the sidewalk in most places, the only difference being you are sitting down instead of walking. It also doesn't only have to rely purely on city funds. In my opinion, it is better if it doesn't. Get people together to help build it. Get businesses to donate materials and volunteers for labour, add a commemorative sign with the peoples names on it who donate. This way, the community is already invested in the space and therefor proud of their neighbourhood and happy to spend time there.

by MET on Jul 17, 2014 10:25 am • linkreport

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