Reinventing Wellington: How San Francisco turned parking lots into public spaces for pedestrians

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In 10 years, thousands of San Francisco parking lots have been transformed into tiny pedestrian parks. Wellington City Council has also proposed to set up “parklets” across the capital. Today, as part of the Dominion Post’s Reimagining Wellington series, Brittany Keogh examines how the parklet trend took off in San Francisco.

Arrived next to the sidewalk in front of the Rapha Cycle Club bicycle shop is an old Citroën truck.

At least that’s what you can see from a distance going up Filbert St, in the Marina district of San Francisco. But as you get closer, it becomes clear that this is not a standard vehicle, stopped while its driver enters the store.

The interior of the truck has been hollowed out, so that only the front cabin, rear wheels and glass remain. Where the seats should be is a picnic table and high bench, separated from the road by a barrier.

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A San Francisco parklet, hosted by Devil's Teeth Baking Company, has bicycle parking and a covered outdoor dining area.

San Francisco Planning Department / Supplied

A San Francisco parklet, hosted by Devil’s Teeth Baking Company, has bicycle parking and a covered outdoor dining area.

Five miles away, near the west coast of San Francisco, strangers sit side by side eating popcorn while watching a movie on a television that has been moved to the sidewalk outside the Balboa Theater.

Known as ‘parklets’, these quirky and colorful spaces for pedestrians to stop, relax and socialize were once bland asphalt rectangles marked with painted white lines.

Today, around 2,000 parklets are dotted around the compact 127-square-kilometer city, less than a third the size of Wellington.

The trend has since taken off in other North American cities, including Vancouver, Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

Wellington City Council has also proposed to install parklets throughout the city center, including in the parking lot of the Michael Fowler Center.

Wellington's first

Cameron Burnell

Wellington’s first “parklet”, an outdoor space on former car parks, was set up in 2015.

Robin Abad is the Shared Spaces Program Director for the San Francisco Planning Department. For much of the past 10 years, he has strived to make the process of installing parklets easier for local businesses and community groups.

Abad says the benefits are far reaching – they help residents feel more “connected and engaged” to their communities and align with the city’s climate and walkability goals.

“We’re not creating regional destinations here, where people come from all over the Bay Area to come and see a parklet. Parklets really serve the neighborhood.

“If we can get someone to choose to buy produce or shop for groceries or eat at a restaurant in their neighborhood, rather than get in their car and drive to another place to do this essential task? , then we are doing something right. “

Dog walkers stop for a bite to eat at a parklet on Noriega St, San Francisco.

San Francisco Planning Department / Supplied

Dog walkers stop for a bite to eat at a parklet on Noriega St, San Francisco.

The first parklet is believed to have appeared in San Francisco in 2005, when activists powered a parking meter and placed a potted plant on coiled sod above the parking lot.

However, London-based Italian-Brazilian designer Suzi Bolognese (Sb Design Studio) is credited with installing the first official parklet in San Francisco in 2010.

Since then, a grassroots movement has taken off, with cafes, restaurants, art galleries, museums, youth centers and schools “sponsoring” and building their own parklets.

Each parklet occupies only a few diagonal or parallel parking spaces, separated from the road by barriers. Because they are built on public land, mainly roads, they require permits from the Ministry of Public Works. Because a permit only lasts for a specified period, parklets must be portable.

In their application, parklet “hosts” must prove that they have consulted the neighbors. They are responsible for construction and maintenance costs and must ensure that the parklet can be used by everyone.

The San Francisco Planning Department provides advice and shapes parklet policy.

Abad says the movement exploded during Covid-19.

“It was truly an opportunity to increase the use of outdoor spaces to support business recovery as well as psychological and social well-being.”

Before the pandemic, there were about 80 parklets in San Francisco.

While some drivers were initially reluctant to remove parking spaces from main streets, as people saw how increased foot traffic linked to parklets supported local economies, most changed their minds , said Abed.

As the movement grew, it had “radically changed our expectations of what a street can do for the neighborhood and for the city.”

“There are more people outside. There are more families, there are more diverse crowds in public spaces… It means wider sidewalks, it means more transportation and mobility options.

“It’s part of the urban transformation. We work in small increments like acupuncture all over town and all of this acupuncture is cumulatively transforming our expectations of what our streets and sidewalks can do for us.


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