Parklets have changed the way we experience San Francisco.
They’ve also also been something of a free-for-all during the pandemic.
Some are highly designed, thoughtful extensions of a restaurant’s interior. Others are shoddy and ramshackle, made of materials that might not survive the next big rainstorm. Regardless of the cost to build, droves of parklets violate safety and accessibility rules.
“Our design guidelines had to evolve over time. We do acknowledge that over the course of the pandemic, some of the older parklets don’t comply with newer rules that were responsive to the newer science,” said Robin Abad, program manager of Shared Spaces. “Moving forward, our set of guidelines are fairly established.”
The debate over parklet design comes at a time when The City is trying to emerge from a pandemic, halted by variants and economic uncertainty. But the discussion over aesthetics and process could have a lasting impact on how San Francisco sees itself and presents its image to the world.
Applying to build a parklet during the pandemic was easy. All fees were waived, design guidelines were minimal and there was no required public review process. It was all part of an effort to allow struggling business owners to take advantage of the pandemic program and stay afloat.
It worked: More than 2,400 merchants have applied for a parklet permit since June 2020. Of those, nearly 2,000 received approval.
Believers in the Shared Spaces program — of which there are many — say that the recent legislation making parklets permanent allows The City to more effectively craft design and safety guidelines, regulate parklets to ensure they’re meeting them and, if needed, dole out enforcement measures for bad actors.
It also represents the first step towards re-imagining San Francisco entirely, they say.
“The last two years have changed our lives forever,” said Michelle Huttenhoff, policy director at Bay Area think tank, SPUR. “One of the significant things we saw was a repurposing of our streets.”
San Francisco’s existing parklet program has long garnered praise in urban design circles for creating public community space. As of June 2020, there were 59 of these public parklets active across The City. Most are sponsored by groups of merchants or community organizations, all of which are open to any member of the public.
They’re also pleasing to the eye, typically made of wood or other natural-like materials, devoid of roof structures and filled with built-in seating.
With the proliferation of commercial parklets — which give businesses a chance to serve customers outdoors exclusively — as well as sidewalk activity enhanced by the Shared Spaces program, consistent and thoughtful design has been lost in some cases.
This can be a good thing. Merchants can exert creativity on their spaces. But in areas where dozens of parklets line commercial corridors, it can also lead to clutter and chaos.
San Francisco officials don’t want to stifle the playfulness and creativity that have come to be an integral part of the program, so initial rules will focus on safety and accessibility rather than “subjective” measures.
Merchants built the structures during a period of crisis, so it’s likely they will invest more deeply in them now that the program is permanent. Already, there’s reason to believe there will be higher quality of design, materials and maintenance on the parklets as businesses slowly emerge from the economic crisis that accompanied the pandemic.
“As their economic recovery commences and more people are back in their jobs and serving their communities, I think we will see the urban design and the quality of experience of our neighborhoods also improve commensurately,” Abad said.
Other cities have considered taking more concrete steps to address aesthetic inconsistencies.
Los Angeles has experimented with modular builds. It created a kit of pre-approved, pre-vetted parklet parts that meet a certain design threshold. The process helps ensure businesses meet guidelines, but Abad said it’s trickier in San Francisco, where the topography is so varied.
Jacob Wessel, who runs Boston’s parklet program, is reluctant to impose design review on merchants, but would consider standardized guidance on durability.
“I think it’s really nice that these spaces often speak to the neighborhood that they’re in or reflect an interior aesthetic or facade in the enclosure itself,” he said.
San Francisco agencies are currently finalizing design guidelines for the permanent Shared Spaces program, which includes parklets.
Accessibility will be a primary focus. Perhaps the shakiest ground for the success of the program has been parklets’ impact on how people with disabilities navigate streets and sidewalks.
Guidelines will require a clear, continuous six-foot-wide path on the sidewalk, though some permit holders might be required to bump to eight feet. Abad said the stipulation is “slightly more aggressive” than the original program started a decade ago, and more demanding than typical state or federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
Decks must also provide wheelchair access via a ramp.
Other cities facing similar challenges are experimenting with alternative solutions. In Boston, officials are considering incentivizing constructing patio decks that are flush with the sidewalk and giving technical assistance to establishments with fewer resources to do so.
Then there’s the ability of first responders to access certain corridors in an emergency. If height restrictions, sight-lines or access points to a building are compromised by outdoor dining, it can have literal life-or-death consequences.
Abad said this tension has been most evident around roofs intended to stave off San Francisco’s misty rain and wind. The permanent program mandates that for every 20 feet of curbside parklet there be a three-foot gap on the ground level and the roof to allow for emergency access. It also sets height maximums.
The City took some heat during the pandemic for failing to hold merchants accountable for their outdoor setups. It will continue to adopt a preventative approach that puts the onus on business owners to do the right thing and follow the forthcoming program parameters.
Officials believe a strategy that empowers residents to report violations via 311, a mobile customer service center, as well as provides technical and financial assistance to merchants to come up to code will be more effective than simply doling out citations.
“It’s not just policing and ticketing,” Abad said. The legislation does account for fines and potential permit revocation if a merchant continues to violate the permit, though.
There’s been much talk about how global cities have capitalized on an otherwise tragic moment in order to change what’s possible on a single street.
Paris implemented over 400 miles of bike-ways during its numerous lockdowns. Barcelona rapidly expanded its network of “superblocks,” which only permit vehicles around the perimeter of a grid of city blocks and create pedestrian plazas. New York City made 14th Street, once one of its most trafficked roads, a permanent busway.
These cities have made the streets themselves a destination, rather than thoroughfare to get from one place to another, and they provide a road map for what San Francisco could achieve using parklets and Shared Spaces as a starting point.
They capture the imagination of the public, but also of those tasked with envisioning The City’s future.
Asked to think about the San Francisco streetscape a decade from now, Abad calls on the idea of the 15-minute neighborhood, a place where basic needs are accessible within walking distance and where carbon neutral mobility becomes possible.
“Parklets in the big arc of transformation in our cities have helped people understand it’s possible,” he said. You’re out in your neighborhood more, you’re valuing it more, connecting with your physical environs and wanting that to be safe and successful.”