Parklets, those temporary little spots that repurpose curb parking spaces for street seating or other miniature public spaces, have flourished in University City in recent years due to strong support from University City District and local businesses.
But UCD recognizes that replacing parking spaces with mini-parks can be a tough sell politically in some other neighborhoods though, and they've released a new report providing parklet advocates with some compelling data on "the enormous gains to neighborhoods and businesses that can result from the relatively painless loss of one or two parking spaces."
The essence of those benefits, according to UCD, boil down to the idea from William H. Whyte that "supply creates demand. A good new public space builds a new constituency. It stimulates people into new habits.'"
Studies out of New York and Los Angeles have confirmed this is true for the most part, at least in Central Business Districts, but until now there hasn't been a very thorough study of parklets' impact in lower-intensity mixed residential settings.
Enter "The Case for Parklets" report.
UCD observed conditions at six different parklets located outside neighborhood businesses during the 2013 parklet season, anonymizing the actual business names with stand-ins like "taco shop" and "ice cream shop."
Some of the parklets saw higher levels of turnover or overall activity, and those factors were influenced by the types of businesses nearby. The parklet by "Cafe" saw lower turnover, for example, because more users stuck around for longer to relax with their coffee, whereas the parklet near "Taco Shop" saw more people leave soon after eating.
"At a busy location like 'Taco Shop,'" they write "that translates into well over 150 unique users over the course of a day, all in the 240 square feet that could otherwise have hosted just one or two parked cars at a time."
Not every parklet will draw as many customers as the Taco Shop parklet of course, but with between 8 and 22 seats depending on the parklet, UCD has a point that even the least popular parklets are creating more value for businesses than one or two parking spaces would. The majority of the businesses studied for this report provided sales data to UCD, and reported on average a 20% bump in sales following the introduction of the parklet.
A frequent concern that comes up when parklets are proposed is that they represent a conversion of public space into a private space for a business. But Philly's actual parklet law says that businesses can't exclude non-patrons, and what UCD has observed is that plenty of non-patrons are using these spaces.
Also, since this is Philly, people sitting in the parklets are all the time seeing other people they know walking down the street, who then stop to have conversations at the parklets. The sidewalk lingerers contribute another level of street activity around the parklets, which in turn attracts more people.
The primary benefit for neighborhoods seems to be the creation of more social space for neighbors to meet each other. A secondary benefit, not given much attention in this report but mentioned elsewhere by representatives from the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities, is that creating parklets and pedestrian plazas helps build the capacity of neighborhood organizations.
Moving these mini parks from the idea phase to the physical creations is more involved than it might seem, and the process of deciding on a design, shepherding it through the city's approval process, fundraising, constructing the parks, and coming up with a maintenance plan is an exercise in team building that leaves communities in a stronger position to work together to tackle other neighborhood projects.
That said, not every parklet is meant to be, and there are some factors that make some locations especially strong candidates. As you've probably observed from UCD's charts, there are some real stand-outs that are performing extraordinarily well.
UCD came up with this matrix of characteristics that are strongly associated with success that should help neighborhood groups choose successful locations and layouts:
Read the full report for more fascinating facts about parklets and the people who use them.