Boston’s First Parklets: Applying the Lessons outlined in “Places in the Making”

Boston’s First Parklets: Applying the Lessons outlined in “Places in the Making”

An article in the Sunday Boston Globe 11/17/13, “Parklets a work in progress after an underwhelming debut,” discusses the first two parklets in Boston (in Mission Hill and in Hyde Square in Jamaica  Plain) and describes their “uninspiring inaugural season.” Installed earlier this year, the reclaimed parking spaces in two commercial districts have not attracted the users expected by officials at the Boston Transportation Department.  Both spaces are in local commercial districts and the spaces were created “at the cost of between $15,000 to $25,000 each.”

So why the disappointing role out? Lessons from my MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning white paper on Placemaking, “Places in the Making” (found at http://dusp.mit.edu/cdd/project/placemaking ) can be applied to the Boston parklet program to identify some possible reasons for the lukewarm reception.

One of the case studies highlighted in “Places in the Making” is the NYC DOT Plaza Program in Corona Plaza, Queens.  In that program, the NYC DOT re-purposes unused asphalt spaces by focusing on neighborhoods that have limited open and green space.  By contrast, the Mission Hill parklet in Boston is adjacent to an existing park which makes it a bit redundant. In NYC, local residents and business owners are participants in the planning, design and maintenance process and a temporary kit of parts is used to create low cost solutions that can be adapted over time.  Debuting parklets with “designed” elements is a risky business, as these two Boston spots illustrate. Often, a professional designer’s idea of what elements will work, or the desire to design away comforts that will attract homeless people and loiterers leaves a place inhospitable for all. These curved benches in Boston do indeed look uncomfortable and it seems the desire to provide an innovative design trumped the basic human need for comfortable and moveable seating.

Brendan Crain of Project for Public Spaces has it right. He says of the parklets, “the mark of a good public space project is not whether it is immediately successful, but whether the project coordinators listen to residents on the best way to fix it….The most important thing is that you have a dialogue and that you’re actively involving people who use these spaces, and learning from them.”  Yes, patience is needed to determine long-term success of new ideas.  And often times the best approach is to meld patience with flexibility.  Unfortunately, it seems these fully designed parklets in Boston leave no room for learning and adaptation of the spaces.  And at $15-$25k per spot, it’s a tough sell to scrap elements of the design and reconfigure the spaces.

It’s dangerous to make assumptions based on a short news story but some points about community engagement seem important here. As placemakers know, involving locals in the decision-making and design process is a natural generator of excitement and local buy-in.  I bet that if these parklet locations had been chosen and created during a Park(ing) Day event or through an active and exciting community engagement process where locals organized into teams, chose the locations, and gathered materials and comfortable seating to create their own spaces, successful temporary parklets could have been created for a fraction of the cost.  And those parklets would have had a home-grown base of users and advocates who would have ensured their relevance, use and care over time.

We have to be careful that tactical urbanism, translated into official planning interventions, doesn’t lose the essence of what makes it so damn appealing in the first place – user driven, inexpensive, flexible, responsive placemaking that delights us and serves real human needs.  It’s all a learning experience though…let’s not throw out the concept simply because this is a rough start.  Vineet Gupta and Boston’s DOT should be applauded and encouraged for taking these first steps.  We should however, learn from other placemaking projects around the world and then do it one step better!