A UCLA urban planning professor who devises strategies to turn characterless, unappealing urban streets and sidewalks into inviting, pedestrian-friendly environments is hoping to bring downtown L.A. its first active-recreation parklet.
A parklet — a micro-park created along urban streets from underutilized strips of roadway, on-street parking spaces and traffic triangles — can be as simple as a wooden platform, built over three parking spaces, on which umbrella tables, chairs and planters suddenly appear.
Popping up in the nation’s densely populated cities — where public open space is scarce and asphalt and concrete pavements rule — these tiny parklets now dot New York City (Times Square, no less), San Francisco, Philadelphia and Vancouver, to name a few of the metropolises that have “taken back” the streets for the people under city-backed “pavement to parks” programs.
The parklet movement “is just mushrooming all over,” said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of urban planning and associate dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs. This growth is prompted by the practical reality that developing multi-acre parks in dense, urban areas is no longer financially feasible for cities.
Cities are jumping on a bandwagon that initially got rolling in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, turned a single parking space into a temporary public “park” by feeding a parking meter continuously for a day. Since then, a growing number of advocates have participated in PARK(ing) Day, an annual global grassroots event. Last November, individuals and community groups put up 975 parklets for a day in 162 cities in 35 countries.
Locally, the City of Long Beach opened its first curbside parklet last January, with more to come. And Silver Lake boasts of the Sunset Triangle, a one-year, eye-catching pilot parklet paved in green polka dots.
While most parklets offer people places to sit and relax, Loukaitou-Sideris wants to create an active-recreation pilot parklet in downtown Los Angeles. The parklet would be basically an exercise zone with a couple of outdoor workout machines similar to those found in conventional parks, but, in this case, bolted down to a platform built over the street.
Through the UCLA Complete Streets Initiative, Loukaitou-Sideris is working with the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Complete Streets Working Group to find a site for the exercise parklet. The group is working with Councilmembers Jan Perry and Jose Huizar, the Department of City Planning, the Historic Downtown Business Improvement District and other organizations to install parklets on Spring Street between Sixth and Seventh streets.
“It is very likely that we will use one of those sites on Spring Street for the active recreation parklet, but a final decision has not yet been made by the L.A. Neighborhood Council,” Loukaitou-Sideris said. The council, which includes architects and landscape architects as members, is willing to design the parklet for free, she said.
The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation awarded UCLA’s Complete Streets Initiative a $75,000 grant to fund the demonstration parklet, as well as the creation of a parklet toolkit that gives how-to advice to cities. The Luskin School of Public Affairs initiative is a joint effort among UCLA's Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, the Institute of Transportation Studies and the Luskin Center for Innovation.
A parklet, which typically costs $20,000 to create, must be set up on publicly owned land and have a private sponsor, such as a local business owner, who is willing to maintain it and also cover it under the business’s liability insurance policy — despite the fact that parklets cannot be used as extensions of the sponsors’ businesses. What’s more, to prevent theft at night, sponsors may need to bring into their place of business the parklet’s tables, chairs and anything not bolted down.
These requirements have not discouraged business owners from wanting to construct a parklet in front of their stores.
“In San Francisco, the city has received so many applications from businesses that want to create parklets because they bring more people into the businesses’ area,” Loukaitou-Sideris said.
Parklets also need to be located in high-density residential areas with low traffic volumes and slower traffic speeds. Philadelphia, for example, will only allow parklets on streets where speeds are no higher than 25 mph. Locations near bike and walking paths, bookstores and coffee shops that encourage browsing and pedestrian traffic are also considered parklet-friendly.
Because they are classified as temporary structures — in Philadelphia, they are dismantled for the winter — parklets do not have to undergo the more complex permitting process that a permanent structure would, said Loukaitou-Sideris. But since many parklets are on streets, the process can still get plenty complicated. One challenge, she said, is to coordinate all the different agencies involved — the Department of Transportation, police department, city building department, planning department and neighborhood councils.
While she works on the pilot parklet for downtown L.A., Loukaitou-Sideris is also talking to other sponsors and foundations about funding a second fitness parklet that would be geared to youth in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, where obesity-related chronic ailments are disproportionately high. She’s hoping to work with students from a local high school, one of only three in the nation with a focus on urban planning.
“There’s definitely much more interest in walking, biking and exercising in the city,” said the urban planning professor. “People realize the value of living active lives. And cities no longer have the resources to purchase acres of land for public open space. That’s why the idea for an active-recreation parklet has become more powerful.”