Every Day a Picnic: Pop-up Parks

I am a member of IEDC (International Economic Development Council).   IEDC has started to recognize placemaking as a way to help revitalize communities and to advance the economic development of an area.

In a recent issue of ED | NOW, there was an article entitled “Making Small or Unusual Spaces into Great Public Places”.   Here is a re-post of a project detailed in the article discussing pop-up parks at vacant lots in Philadelphia, PA.

This would be a great idea for any community trying address vacant properties.

By Lawrence Houstoun, AICP

What to do with a half-dozen vacant lots with residential and commercial potential but no immediate takers? The south end of Center City has been slowly adding new households, with signs of new residents and fresh paint. However, the vacant lots, taken together, were too large for a small firm to redevelop.

Enter the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), which took the initiative to convert this underutilized urban space into a temporary “pop-up park.” Once-foreboding empty lots were transformed into vibrant places for neighbors to meet, chat, and enjoy food and drink together. PHS found sponsors who provided tables, chairs, and planters in exchange for advertising rights. Organizers also produced a food counter staffed by local small businesses and secured legal approval to serve beer.

The PHS park is one of several popular, small, sometimes seasonal parks, usually less than an acre in size. Once landscaped, otherwise disused, bleak spaces become welcoming environments. The PHS pop-up park soon became the newest place to be. Pop-ups can serve as an antidote to the fear that often plagues urban revitalization; a lack of activity, generally, generates more empty places. The temporary beer garden generated its own success.

A typical pop-up is carved out of surplus parking spaces. Some pop-ups are composed of as little as one curb parking space plus two or three seats; others have enough seating and tables to serve as many as 30 people. The spaces are made more popular by allowing food trucks and beverage dispensers to sell food and drinks. Sponsors have been successful in convincing business to donate tables and chairs, often with opportunities for advertising and promotion. These seasonal enhancements are typically active from April to October.

Business improvement districts (BIDs) are a popular, reliable tool to encourage pop-ups to pop up. A typical BID begins with a group of businesses coming together in an effort to improve the image and vitality of the neighborhoods in which they operate. Property owners in a BID agree to pay higher taxes in exchange for specified neighborhood improvements. A BID must engage private investors, have a defensible plan, and set a reasonable assessment rate in order to be successful.

In Philadelphia, University City and Center City each have applied business improvement district powers for these purposes. Another BID took over a parking lot alongside a major train station, providing an additional landscaped place to pause in the midst of a densely built environment. There are approximately 2,000 BIDs currently operating across the country.

Regardless of whether they are year-round or seasonal, pop-up parks fill vacant real estate with activity that draws happy crowds, creating community meeting spaces and projecting a welcoming atmosphere that lessens apprehension of certain neighborhoods. The resounding popularity of these pop-ups underscore the utility of thinking small, fun, and frequent in planning leisure spaces in dense, highly pedestrian urban centers.

Photo Credits: Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk: Montgomery County Planning Commission, Philadelphia Concourse: Jason Paris, South Street, Philadelphia, Pop-Up Park: Lawrence Houstoun