Create a Parklet to Add New Interest to a Street

Last Updated: June 20, 2024

Are you getting frustrated because no one seems to imagine how much better your commercial street could look?  If so, you should learn about parklets, which allow a city or town to experiment for a day or so.

A parklet transforms one, two, or occasionally several on-street parking spaces into a miniature and usually temporary park. Between about 2010 and early 2020 we estimate that about 200 permanent parklets were developed in America, although we have not found any data yet on how the Covid pandemic has changed that situation.  We would expect that number to have exploded.  As the idea has gained momentum, these function as sidewalk extensions that accommodate additional seating for the restaurant on the other side of the sidewalk.

On this page we discuss possible benefits, some design considerations, and indications for when such a sidewalk extension will and will not be a great addition to the neighborhood.

pop-up event space including picnic tables on parking spots

The American parklet started in San Francisco in 2005 with a two-hour installation of sod, a tree in a planter, and a bench in one metered parking space. This has led to an annual worldwide event called PARK(ing) Day the third Friday of September, with many innovations across the world. Search engines probably will turn up a current or recent PARKing Day in a city near you. The original parklets had a bit of a rebellious, tactical urbanism ´╗┐attitude toward automobile culture and were built on the idea that replacing parking spaces with a park, if only for a day or a weekend, was an inherently worthwhile thing to do.

As you can gather from this introduction, the parklet concept now has been expanded to include permanent installations as well as these pop-up activities intended to spur conversation about public space.

Of course sidewalk extensions or bump-outs, or even permanent structures surrounded by sidewalk, are not a new idea. Neither are they an American invention. Great-looking glass-sided restaurants can be found occupying parts of extremely wide sidewalks in larger European cities including Rome and Paris, and in many small European cities as well. However, here we will be discussing smaller-scale, less costly, and often less permanent interventions to create small public spaces.

Predictably, some American cities have started to create formal processes for approving these bump-outs, based on explicit regulations. On the plus side, often they have allowed anyone from individuals to businesses and non-profits to propose, construct, and maintain them. Other cities still handle requests on an ad hoc basis and improvise an approval process depending on specific characteristics of the proposed parklet.

Benefits of a Parklet

Among possible good reasons to construct a parklet, whether temporary or permanent, are these:

  1. Introducing additional plantings, a feature of virtually every parklet we have seen, provides a pleasant atmosphere along the street, adds visual appeal, softens any pattern of uninterrupted walls and hard surfaces you may have, and may even provide a little shade depending on the size of any trees or tall plants.
  2. The interruption to a predictable street layout may slow traffic in a good way in a congested urban area and encourage drivers to notice the businesses and activity they are passing. Use your installation to call attention to neighborhood traffic issues and potential solutions.
  3. Building on the first point, parklet managers are finding that both pedestrian activity and retail or restaurant activity increase upon completion of the project. More pedestrian activity generally translates to more safety in evening hours as well.
  4. Temporary reductions in the quantity of metered parking may provide a test of how much parking is actually required currently. We have seen a few instances of parklets being installed as a method of trying to break a bad habit of trucks unloading where they shouldn't.
  5. Providing space for pedestrians to check their phones, surf the web, read, have a conversation, sit for a minute, or eat a snack or restaurant food adds to the perceived attractiveness of the neighborhood and block.
  6. When parklets are installed in front of existing restaurants, they often serve as an expansion of the restaurant, although it is important that cafe owners realize that perhaps as many as a third of the people who use the space will not be their customers. It is important not to allow eating and drinking establishments to become too territorial with the space, unless that is the understanding of the neighborhood and the city from the outset. For instance, be conscious of waiters and customers blocking ordinary sidewalk use, and try to prevent that.
  7. Potentially your temporary park could provide a way to test whether storm drainage would be improved if you install some new plantings that love water.  You don't have to wait for a huge storm; just experiment with a hose to see what happens.

Designing Your Parklet

A pragmatic approach would be to find an appropriate location first, since you want and need cooperation from the city's elected officials and staff. Business reaction is critical too, as typically these improvements are constructed along neighborhood commercial streets where there is a relatively low speed limit, such as 25 or 30 miles per hour.

Select a fairly dense neighborhoods with a decidedly younger population where people already bike or walk. Blocks containing businesses or public buildings that do not close at 5 p.m. are most appropriate.

Once a tentative location is chosen and agreed upon, plan a broad range of possible uses of your available space, based on local strengths and interests.  Possible categories to consider include:

  • Seating. Particularly if one of your aims is to encourage interaction and conversation, or lingering in front of a particular business, you will need seating. In fact, we would go so far as to say that without seating, you don't have a parklet; you just have a bump-out, regardless of how attractive it may be. Park benches, residential or restaurant style chairs, lawn chairs, and picnic tables all will work, as will walls or built-in benches.
  • Activities. Chess, checkers, and other board games require little space. On a more occasional basis, finger painting or face painting can attract kids; adult and child coloring is a possibility. With a large space you can do croquet. An artist may design a way for the public to participate in painting tiles or undertaking some recurring task that will result in a sculpture.
  • Performance. Music, dance, poetry, or theatrical vignettes may work in some spaces and should certainly be encouraged, especially for the temporary space.
  • Shade/plantings. Potted trees are common, as are various types of planters. Of course you may find a location where a street tree already provides great shade. Live grass is discouraged for temporary installations, but obviously a great perk in permanent ones if it can be maintained.  
  • A more interesting surface. Instead of leaving plain concrete underfoot, you may want to install some pebbles, sand, rugs, or painted floor canvasses as pavement or surface covering where you don't want to use artificial turf. If the neighborhood or business district has discussed using ornamental pavers as part of a revitalization strategy, surface the sidewalk area with one, two, or three paver choices and ask your visitors to vote on which one they prefer. Sales staff from paver companies probably will be glad to provide you with a small quantity for a temporary installation.
  • Food and drink. A lemonade stand, popcorn machine, or ethnic street food stand might be offered. Alternatively when there are plenty of restaurants and places to purchase snacks nearby, simply place some picnic benches on the parklet as in our photo for this page.
  • Civic activity. In some places an aim could be voter registration, or a petition drive, especially one connected to the location, more variety in public space, or rethinking parking needs. (See our page on how to start a petition if you are unsure about what to do.) Maybe your city would like to design a simple survey about a topic of citywide or neighborhood interest, and ask visitors to complete the poll by cell phone while they pause at your parklet.
  • Demonstrating new ideas or technology. A local entrepreneur may be able to show a new invention, use solar energy in a novel way, or show off the latest virtual reality application. Gardeners may want to show worms composting, and scientists may have any number of engaging processes to suggest.
  • Information. Social service, health, schools, and business groups often are eager for new ways to engage the public. If they fit your concept, they may bring additional foot traffic, especially if they have time-sensitive information for which the public is eager.

Notwithstanding all these ideas, seating and shade are the most important parklet features in most instances. If you plan activities, those will dictate the design. For space planning, measure your space and all items you need to place in the space. To sketch out how everything will fit, use graph paper or your word processing program with the rulers feature turned on.

If at all possible, enlist a landscape architecture firm to help you with a temporary space, although it is unlikely that they will design a permanent space without compensation.   

Be sure that you have barriers around your space. You could borrow concrete barriers from your city, as shown in our photo for this page, but even better would be a wooden structure or fencing that allows some view into the area. Or use fabric, rubber exercise bands, and rope to improvise your own artsy "fence."

If not readily available nearby, you probably should provide a bicycle rack. You might choose to work with a local bike share or scooter company, or you might try to keep the scooters out, depending on the nature of your block and community culture.

Be sure to recognize any financial contributors or businesses that contribute materials or services with an appropriate sign and on all publicity. Remember public officials or city offices that have been helpful as well.

Finally you will need to provide for accessibility for people with limited mobility. Thinking about visual or hearing impairments could lead to some innovative approaches as well.

What If a Mini-Park Becomes a Problem?

Like most good ideas, this one has its limitations.  Most of what we are about to say applies only to permanent parklets, but repercussions are possible even for the one-day event.  What seems like a great community asset at first could turn into a liability. This might occur if maintenance arrangements for permanent parks are inadequate or unclear. If more than one business or organization is responsible for maintenance, or if your city government only reluctantly agrees to maintenance, you need to have clearly spelled out written agreements as to who will do what.

Even for temporary parks, trash must be anticipated and handled, providing for recycling to the extent possible. Recognize that whenever people stop, they will toss unneeded items.

Anticipate anti-social uses of the parklet, and decide how you will address them, involving neighborhood associations and the police as necessary. Most cities, but not all, will want to ban alcoholic beverages. You might want to think about how to deter after-hours usage and vandalism as well.

Certainly you will need some municipal permits to undertake this project. A temporary use permit might be required, or any of a a variety of permissions to block off one or more parking spaces. We are not encouraging you to do anything illegal.  During that permit process have a thorough discussion of the likely automobile traffic concerns, and anticipate how the city and your group will handle them. Even if you and your friends all bike, walk, or take transit most of the time, don't underestimate the influence of two or three irate drivers who sense their territory is being invaded. If you have a good understanding with your municipal officials ahead of time, you will be in a good position to weather the storm.

Some of the potential activities we mention above require ongoing attention to programming. If you design your mini-park for live music, poetry, and such, you will face some problems if the person responsible for finding talent is no longer available. Versatility is key.

Lastly, one potential problem is too much popularity. For instance, you do not want to block a sidewalk at the dinner hour by having a very popular musician perform in a parklet only two parking spaces long.  Anticipate the likely crowd, and gear activities to available space.

Most problems resulting from a parklet can be resolved if you have taken the time to build a positive relationship with municipal officials, neighborhood leaders, and the immediately impacted businesses. 

Maybe You Don't Have to Start from Zero

We want to suggest that you consider converting some existing bump-outs to parklets. Once an interruption to metered or time-limited parking has been established on a street, your bump-out that now features greenery or public art could be expanded by another one or two parking spaces to add seating. You might ask why.

Our answer is that seating encourages lingering, which in turn may result in increased patronage of the nearby businesses, as well as gains in social capital as people expand their networks of acquaintances. While we don't think parklets should be considered a significant economic development activity, we do think that many viable new neighborhood businesses are barely making a living and could use a few extra customers each day.

Below are just a couple of examples of current bump-outs that now serve a beautification function. Both might be suitable for expansion to create the seating opportunities that encourage community-building. Think about it.

large whimsical sculpture and planter pots take over what otherwise might be on-street parking
parking spaces converted to attractive greenery