Postcard from San Francisco: How not to build a parklet

Postcard from San Francisco: How not to build a parklet

bad parklet lead

A parklet on Powell Street in San Francisco.
(Photos by Michael Andersen/BikePortland)

I spent a few days in San Francisco last week, learning and sharing stories at the NACTO Designing Cities Conference. It’s not my favorite city (obviously) but it’s a lovely place.

Once in a while, though, they definitely screw up.

A lot of downtown SF has reached the point that its sidewalks are pretty much crowded all day. Nowhere is that more true than Powell Street, a Times Square-tier tourism zone that runs alongside the thrumping cords of the city’s historic cable car.

crowded sidewalk

In 2011, with these crowds in mind, the city accepted a donation from Audi that paid for a row of aluminum parklets bumping out from the sidewalk along Powell.

Unlike with Portland’s “street seats,” there’s no pressure to buy a drink to use this public space. That’s nice. But the weird thing is that a bunch of this new “pedestrianized” space offers nothing at all to do.

bad parklet revisited

You can’t walk on it, except sort of as a right-side passing lane, because it ends after 20 feet. You can’t sit in it, because there’s nowhere to sit. You could lean; people occasionally leaned. You could park a bike; a few folks did this. But in general: there is no way to use large swaths of these parklets.

The obvious missing ingredient here is seating. And seating is not entirely missing from these parklets. Indeed, on almost every occasion that the parklets made seating available, it was being used:

seating 1

seating 2

seating 3

seating 4

I’m sure there are lots of things that people occasionally use this space for. I saw several cigarettes being smoked. On Friday night, I saw a man laying out artwork for sale, using this otherwise empty space as his display area.

And there’s little question that these parklets are doing Powell Street more good than they would as a few extra car parking spaces or a pair of additional travel lanes. Also, the plants look nice.

But for most of the day, these parklets are just pockets of dead real estate in the bustling, seating-starved city around them. I’m no landscape architect, but the lesson for cities couldn’t be clearer: if you build public parklets, put stuff in them.

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