The Report

In San Francisco, the business of temporary parks

Posting in Architecture

In San Francisco, temporary parklets add urban language that subtly tells residents where they really live.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The 800,000 residents of San Francisco have access to 220 different parks, which comprise 30,000 acres -- 18 percent of the total area of this City by the Bay. A new movement here seeks to add even more green, public spaces by reclaiming city streetscapes for pedestrian use. These temporary parks are obviously designed to benefit residents, but there are other beneficiaries. Among them: local businesses.

On September 18, the Center for Architecture + Design hosted a panel discussion called Design: It's About Time, about the concepts and development of temporary spaces -- or, "interventions" -- as they are often called, as part of the month-long Architecture and the City Festival.

Temporary spaces include the 35 (and counting) parklets that have cropped up in metered parking spots and unused corners around the city over the past couple years as part of the Pavement to Parks program. As in most dense urban areas, searching for street parking in San Francisco is an exercise in frustration. Installing a parklet, each of which takes a couple or few parking spots out of commission, seems like it would be a hard sell. It likely would be, were it not for the fact that parklets are developed with the cooperation of -- and partial funding from -- their adjacent business or businesses.

"The parklet attracts business and in that way it feeds itself," said Jane Martin, an artist and designer whose firm Shift Design has helped develop parklets. Still, businesses have to be invested in the upkeep and maintenance of the parklets they host. "If it gets graffitied," she said. "They have to deal with that the very next day."

In some places, such as the Powell Street Promenade, a series of parklets along a busy, tourist-heavy shopping area near Union Square in downtown San Francisco, eliminating parking isn't such a big deal because the businesses rely mostly on foot traffic. The more ways to keep pedestrians on the street, keep them engaged and in the area, the better. (Curiously, the Powell St. Promenade is partially sponsored by Audi, which critics say led to the parklets being overly industrial and uninviting.)

Temporary, fast and nimble
Walter Hood, a landscape designer whose firm Hood Design developed that promenade, said that once Hood Design became involved, the concept was already well planned and had garnered the cooperation of many different agencies and parties. "It was a four-month process for us," he said. "That's like light years faster than most projects."

Hood, Martin and the third panelist, Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, all agreed that the process for establishing temporary spaces has been relatively fast, as well as creative. "Temporary programming allows us to experiment, it lets us test ideas without making an indelible mark on the civic landscape," Ginsburg said. "Designing and planning civic spaces takes time, especially in resource-constrained environments. Temporary spaces let us enjoy it more quickly." They feed our desire for instant gratification.

While parklets are officially temporary and consistently being evaluated to test materials, gauge their use and configuration, the intention is to turn them into permanent public spaces.

"Any designed landscape is never permanent," noted Martin, because it always need to be maintained to a certain degree and is therefore changing.

Reclaiming streets
"Temporary projects allow us to dream again," Hood told the crowd. "And San Francisco is a city of dreamers." Hood Design has been designing and developing public open space since 1992, so its proprietor knows a thing or two about the process. "In the mid '90s, it was hard to do anything. Everything had to be standardized. But when the money dried up, people got creative."

Parks, he said, fail us when they come into disuse or become crime dens, but they can be brought back to life through programming -- he pointed to New York's Bryant Park and Pershing Square in Los Angeles as successful examples of this. The same can be done with city streets, which largely have evolved into the domain of cars rather than pedestrians. "People are on the streets again, and that gives me legitimacy to redesign streets and mix together people and cars. That will change us," he said. For one thing, it will make traffic slow down.

The parklets are an attempt to redesign how sidewalks are used. Sometimes, as I walk or bike past a bustling parklet full of people eating and drinking and taking in some sun, it seems quite obvious that this is a smart business move. But beyond those benefits, the parklets add green -- each is comprised of large planters -- and social elements to otherwise sterile throughways.

"I notice people stop and look around" as they pass parklets, Martin said. And this often leads them to ask people using the parklet what it's all about.

"It's a physical manifestation of change," Ginsburg quipped. Going further, Hood said that parklets and other temporary spaces can reflect aspects of the city as it changes. These landscapes "create a grammar to tell use where we live," he said.

Photos: (first and third) Mark Hogan; (second and fourth) courtesy of Urbanists

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure