By Jennifer Wieland, Public Space Program Manager, Seattle Department of Transportation
Parklets. “Parks” in parking spaces. Taking away parking to create places to sit in the street.
It sounds crazy, right? Who would want to sit on a deck in the street next to moving traffic? What neighborhood business district or (worse yet!) downtown association would agree to give up a parking space? Surely that would create a huge backlash and destroy small businesses…at least that’s what the pundits would have you believe.
But that’s not at all what we’ve found to be true in Seattle. In fact, similar to the experiences of cities across the country, Seattleites are finding that parklets enhance our streets, build community, support businesses, and create new places for people in one of the fastest growing big cities in the nation.
The Chromer Building parklet in downtown Seattle converted five on-street parking spaces into the city’s biggest parklet. Its December opening included games and live music. (Credit: Seattle Department of Transportation)
Naturally, we didn’t know for sure that parklets would work in Seattle. As people here are fond of pointing out, “Just because it works in San Francisco (or New York or Chicago or whatever other big city you want to name), that doesn’t mean it’s right for Seattle.” Because c’mon, this is Seattle. And we’re different, of course!
And therein lies the beauty of our Pilot Parklet Program. We kept hearing from businesses and community groups that were interested in parklets and other types of new public spaces, but we didn’t have a way to support them. So in 2013 we developed a pilot program to see how well parklets would work in Seattle and to create an approach that makes sense for our city.
The city’s first pilot parklet was the Montana parklet, which opened in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in September 2013. (Credit: Capitol Hill Blog)
We included three businesses in the first phase of the program, and we learned a couple of important lessons: 1) It takes a longer to design, permit, and build a parklet than you might expect; 2) Broad outreach and community engagement is critical to success; and 3) Not everyone who has a parklet dream is able to make their vision a reality.
At the end of our first six months, only one of the first three pilot parklets was installed. One parklet does not a pilot program make, and we needed more data to evaluate the success of the program. So we extended the pilot program through 2014 and released a call for applications to get more folks involved in testing parklets. That generated an enthusiastic response, and we accepted 12 more applicants into the program in March.
An astroturf slope, swings, and edible plantings are all part of the Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream parklet in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. (Credit: Seattle Department of Transportation)
We now have five parklets around the city with another 10 in design and permitting. And we get requests every day from people who want to see a parklet in their neighborhood. Based on the data we’ve collected over the last 18 months—including pedestrian and bicycle volumes, business surveys, parklet observations, and parking studies—we’re ready to turn our pilot program into a permanent program. In early 2015 we’ll start accepting more parklet applications, and we can’t wait to see the creative ideas that come from our residents and businesses.
All Seattle parklets are public open space, free for use by anyone. Parklets are an easy way to build new places for people and allow businesses and community groups to exercise their creativity. (Credit: Alex Garland Photography)
So what does all of this mean for you and your community? It means it’s time for you to take action! If you don’t have a parklet program, contact your department of planning or transportation. Think about the areas around town that have a lot of people walking but not enough space for people to spend time. Talk to the business owners and residents on the block. Tell them what other cities have experienced, and get them excited. And then try something…remember that “pilot” is a magic word.
If you’re not ready to test a parklet program, that’s ok. Ease into it by participating in PARK(ing) Day in September. Show people that creating places for people in our streets and along our sidewalks makes a better, richer, more interesting city for all of us.