Sacramento prepares to launch its parklets pilot program

Small patios in the street to take over parking spots

Small patios called parklets overtook regular car-parking spots on 20th Street near the MARRS building on September 20. A coalition of local architects and Uptown Studios partnered on the event.

Small patios called parklets overtook regular car-parking spots on 20th Street near the MARRS building on September 20. A coalition of local architects and Uptown Studios partnered on the event.


Sidewalks are for people. Streets are for cars.

But this traditional interpretation of urban mechanics is getting kicked to the curb as Sacramento and other cities across the continent introduce a new type of public space called the parklet.

This is essentially an extension of the sidewalk that provides public seating for pedestrians in what was previously space reserved for vehicles. San Francisco innovated the concept several years ago and now has almost 40 parklets, where people gather as they might at a sidewalk cafe. New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal, Vancouver and other cities have followed suit with similar programs. Davis, too, has a parklet on E Street.

Now, it’s Sacramento’s turn. City officials are talking about giving parklets a test run sometime this fall as pedestrian and cycling advocacy groups, as well as downtown businesses, beat drums of support.

Rob Archie, the owner of Pangaea Two Brews Cafe in Curtis Park, is a parklet advocate and believes such open-air-seating sites will have a net benefit on the environment and economy by motivating people to leave their cars.

“[Parklets] are an awesome, creative way to use space and encourage people to walk and ride bikes,” said Archie.

A few people have raised concerns that parklets will needlessly steal parking places from drivers and would-be shoppers—but Archie feels that simple math squashes such naysayer arguments. “If you can satisfy 20 people and give them a place to sit and hang out in a space that fits one parked car, it’s just common sense,” he said.

In other cities, parklet programs are working well through a system that has private businesses pay for the parklet while allowing the space to be used by anyone—whether or not they patronize the adjacent business. This has had dramatic effects on streetscapes in some cases, creating thriving gathering spots in locations that were previously relatively dead.

At least one parklet in San Francisco was paid for by a homeowner, who now uses the furnished space as his not-so-private front yard, sharing with neighbors and passersby what was once a precious parking spot. Another parklet at Union Square was paid for by an Audi dealership, cost $890,000, is two blocks long, and offers free public Wi-Fi. Long Beach in Southern California is generally named among the cities installing parklets—except that there, parklets are the private property of the supporting business, for the sole use of restaurant patrons.

While Sacramento’s stance on parklets does not seem, at first glance, to be a cycling-related issue, Jim Brown says it most certainly is.

“By turning a parking space into a public space, you’re reinforcing the point that the street is not only for cars,” said Brown, the executive director of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates. “This is a very important philosophical concept that can increase the safety of cyclists, reminding people that the road isn’t only for single-occupant vehicles.”

On October 15, the Sacramento City Council will officially take up the matter, according to Councilman Steve Hansen, who hopes to see parklets become a part of the Sacramento streetscape.

He says the first step will be to launch a pilot program, which would allow six to eight businesses to temporarily cordon off a small space of pavement in front of their properties and fit it with seats and tables for public use. If the concept proves beneficial to the environment, economy and community, the council would consider granting long-term—though revocable—permits to allow the parklets to remain in place.

Whether the drinking of alcohol will be permitted in the parklets is yet to be discussed, Hansen said. San Francisco, for one, does not allow drinking in its parklets.

Matt Winkler, with the city’s parking division, is helping lead the parklet push. He says that parklets will need to meet several criteria, including not significantly impacting an area’s parking capacity and also not discouraging people from visiting an area. Winkler expects benefits to far outweigh costs.

Business owners, he points out, will pay for the venues, though city planners are talking about offering small grants to support the projects. Parklets will create destination points in locations that people currently may walk, pedal or drive right by. They will also serve as a traffic-calming measure, Winkler said.

Ali Youssefi, the vice president of CFY Development Inc., is among those ready and willing to install a parklet outside a business—in this case, in front of a 116-unit apartment complex on R Street between 11th and 12th streets, that Youssefi expects to be opened late next year. He notes that anti-parklet campaigns should not, in theory, be a problem.

“Parklets are community driven, supported by residents, local business owners and property managers, so it’s hard to have any opposition,” he said.

But San Francisco has encountered a few parklet problems. Officials revoked the permit entirely of a parklet on Haight Street after the space fell into disarray, tarnished by vagrants, trash and overall neighborhood dissent. In other areas of San Francisco, parking-starved drivers have cried out against parklets.

In Sacramento, Brown believes city planners will increasingly heed the voices of nondrivers. He says Americans are still emerging from an era “where we were obsessed with cars and the efficiency of moving things around in cars.”

Parklets could mark a significant turning point in city management and design. Surveys and studies have shown that American adults age 30 and younger increasingly wish to live in bicycle-friendly cities, and there is evidence that people navigating an urban area on bikes or on foot spend more money at neighborhood businesses.

What’s more, Americans are spending less time at the wheel—a downward trend that started about five years ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Parklets are going to accelerate this change,” Brown said.

WalkSacramento is also in favor of a future with parklets. Teri Duarte, the pedestrian-advocacy group’s executive director, says parklets will bring life and vitality to streets, create destinations for visitors, promote commerce and cash flow and help to reclaim the streets as public space. She says that allowing individual businesses to fund, create and manage each parklet will ensure that the spaces are creative and colorful.

At Pangaea, Archie said he’s ready to make parklets a reality.

“If it was just a money issue, I’d pay for [a parklet] myself right now,” he said. “This doesn’t need to be overthought. I’ve seen the city overthink too many good things based on what they’re afraid of happening rather than what they want to happen. This is a simple idea. Let’s do it.”