Atlantic Cities

From Parking Spot to Public Space

Joni Mitchell bemoaned the loss of green space to a parking lot in her 1970 hit song, “Big Yellow Taxi.” Thirty-five years later, poetic justice landed in downtown San Francisco, where a group of four young urbanites made a statement in November of 2005 by feeding a parking meter for two hours and installing a lawn, tree and bench to make a park out of a parking space.

This act of urban revolution caught the attention of then-Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom. The four prankster-visionaries, all of whom worked at urban design firm Rebar, found themselves not in jail, as they expected, but with an offer to work with the city to create more public space. In 2009 the project took the name of Pavement to Parks, a collaboration between the Mayor’s Office, the San Francisco Planning Department, the Municipal Transportation Agency and the Department of Public Works
The premise is simple. Temporary plazas are created in underutilized roadway intersections using low-cost, environmentally friendly materials. Pavement to Parks is also creating parklets: areas where two-to-three adjacent parking stalls along a city block are converted into inviting spaces with tables, chairs, and planters where anyone can sit down and relax. Depending on how well the public space is received and how much use it gets, some plazas and parklets are made permanent. 
More than 35 of 40-plus planned plazas and parklets have been completed throughout San Francisco, and the response has been positive. “The space is working amazingly well,” said John McDonald, co-founder of the Mojo Bicycle Café, in an interview. The program’s first parklet was installed in front of his establishment. “We’ve been packed every single day since [the parklet] opened. We’ve had probably a 30 percent increase in business already and we’ve had to hire more people.”
Besides a boost to an area’s economic vitality, one of the other benefits of trading parking lots for public space is safety. City officials explained that certain intersections and roadways bring public transportation, automobiles, cyclists and pedestrians dangerously close. One such intersection was 17th and Market Streets in San Francisco’s Castro District. Pavement to Parks’ first trial plaza was created in this chaotic intersection in 2010. Oversized, hollow cylinders brimming with succulents and green plants serve a practical purpose as traffic barriers and lend a natural element to the intersection. Local plant store and garden designer Flora Grubb Gardens made the plants available at wholesale rates, and concrete curbs that were sitting unused in a city transportation yard were brought to the plaza where they were repurposed as benches.
“This is a lesson in things that we can do simply and relatively quickly,” said John Rahaim, director of planning for the city of San Francisco at the Castro plaza opening. “Each case is a laboratory for the next case, so it’s a great model for us.”
It’s also a model that can serve other metropolitan cities around the world. London nonprofit Sustrans launched a campaign in 2009 called DIY Streets. While not directly influenced by Pavement to Parks, the grassroots model implemented by DIY Streets encourages neighborhoods to collaborate with city officials to make their streets safer and cleaner, creating a stronger sense of community. In London’s Hackney borough, the residents of Clapton Terrace collaborated with DIY Streets to add speed bumps and central waste collection areas to both beautify their street and make it safer for neighborhood children.   
The 2005 parking stall stunt by the four Rebar employees not only gave birth to Pavement to Parks, but it inspired a global movement. Park(ing) Day is an annual event that encourages city dwellers to turn metered parking spaces into ‘pop-up’ public parks. In 2011, a total of 975 temporary parks at 162 cities in 35 countries were created, giving the world a chance to enjoy its proverbial day in the park.

Join the Discussion