Street life

Could “parklets” be coming to Chico?

The author’s son in a whimsical parklet on 22nd Street in San Francisco.

The author’s son in a whimsical parklet on 22nd Street in San Francisco.

More information:
Go to to learn more about San Francisco’s innovative (and contagious!) parklets program, Pavement to Parks.

“Like a cutlet?” asked Bob Summerville, senior planner with the city of Chico, when asked if he’s heard of the new urban design trend called “parklets.”

“That’s a new one to me.”

Summerville might be hearing a lot more about parklets in the near future, though.

Parklets were first rolled out—quite literally—in 2005, as an art-activist project by the San Francisco based Rebar Art & Design Studio. By simply feeding the meter and then rolling out sod and putting out a bench and a potted tree, the Rebar folks transformed a single parking space into a temporary public park. It was a two-hour slot, and at the end of this very short-term lease, they simply rolled their park back up.

They dubbed the project “Park(ing) Day,” and the date—always the third Friday in September—has since become an open-source New Urbanist holiday of sorts, during which people in cities across the world implement people-, plant- and bike-centric designs in public spaces previously dedicated to cars. Park(ing) Days have seen metered parking spots morphed into art installations, free clinics, bike-repair shops, yoga classes, and even a place to have a wedding.

Rebar’s project was intended to question why so much of San Francisco’s public space was dedicated to the storage of private vehicles, and to help reimagine the possibilities of these tiny spaces that, if one thinks about it, add up to a considerable fraction of the commons.

Instead of issuing Rebar some sort of infraction, the forward-thinking city of San Francisco paid attention. In 2009, the city launched its innovative Pavement to Parks program, and in 2010, unveiled the first officially sanctioned parklet. In the intervening years since Rebar’s original prank, the concept of parklets grew into a vision of semi-permanent spaces with considerable investment in design and construction.

Parklets have since taken off. There are now some 40 in San Francisco alone, and hundreds in cities and towns around the world. On Oct. 22, the Sacramento City Council approved its own parklet program. Could Chico be next?

“I think there are places where they would work well in Chico,” said Ruben Martinez, the city of Chico’s general services director. Martinez said that if a business wants to develop a parklet, the city will begin to look at how to implement them. “We’d just have to figure out what the process would be.” (San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks website includes a spiffy “Parklet-O-Matic” infographic and a manual that “also serves as a resource for those outside of San Francisco working to establish parklet programs in their own cities.”)

The popular parklet in front of the Blue Fig restaurant, in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Martinez, who has been familiar with parklets for some time, is particularly drawn to their private sponsorship. Parklets typically are built and maintained by the businesses they are in front of—frequently cafés or restaurants—which often also pay a small fee to use the space.

“We favor reducing maintenance [by the city], because maintenance costs go to the taxpayer,” he said. “But parklets can add to the walkable downtown without any large infrastructure changes and with minimal costs, so they may have their place in Chico. I like the idea.”

Of course, converting parking spaces to public parks brings its controversies, too. The idea poses fundamental questions about what our public spaces are for and who should control them. “We also need outdoor toilets in the parklets and cooking facilities for the homeless,” one anti-parklet poster wrote in the comment section of an otherwise glowing article about parklets online at neighborhoods/real-estate blog Curbed SF.

Some worry about the impact of parklets on the availability of parking.

But in San Francisco, several owners of restaurants with parklets out front, as well as people sitting in the parklets themselves, shared opinions that verged on the messianic, the lapel-grabbing. They talked about sales going up immediately after installation of a parklet in front of their businesses, and about increased community spirit and pedestrian traffic.

“It’s kind of like advertising,” said Shirene Massarweh, owner of the Blue Fig, a restaurant on Valencia Street, in San Francisco’s Mission District. “They see the parklet and they wonder what this really cool space is, and they look to the business that it’s in front of. It’s added a sense of community for everybody here. … And they’re packed when the weather is nice.”

“The streets are the vital civic organs of the city,” Claudia Stuart said, paraphrasing a quote by urban-studies author and activist Jane Jacobs (who wrote the influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities). Stuart—now a principal planner with Butte County’s Department of Development Services and a professor of community and rural planning at Chico State—first got interested in parklets about eight years ago while doing online research for her then-job: managing the Downtown Access Plan as a senior planner for the city of Chico.

“They need to serve this multiple purpose,” she said of city streets. “Not just for people in their cars, but for people on foot. For people to meet with other people, for people to get to know new people, for people to be part of civic life. [Parklets] are a great opportunity to envision how to use this space that really belongs to all of us.”

And, let’s face it, parklets are cool. Early adopters have included Portland, Ore., and Olympia, Wash., and these places get a combined total of approximately 32 minutes of sunshine a year (all right—an exaggeration, but not by much). Parklets are precisely the sort of thing that attract and retain today’s young creative, entrepreneurial class, that make people think, “This town is awesome.”

“The students I’m teaching now are not going to want to be using the streets in a way that people are today or yesterday,” Stuart noted along those lines. “They want social spaces.”

She plans on designing and implementing a parklet with her students next semester.

This writer, for one, hopes to be celebrating next Park(ing) Day in a Chico parklet, solitarily enjoying the new social space by tweeting on a smartphone: “I’m in a parklet! #parklets #socool.”