In Los Angeles, just 16 percent of the city’s acreage is dedicated to park land, placing it at 34 out of 50 cities ranked in the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore. So earlier this year, the city's Department of Transportation launched a program to address two common complaints: Los Angeles’s dearth of public green space and the seemingly glacial pace of issuing permits to experiment with new forms of public space use. The initiative, dubbed "People St," seeks to fast-track applications from community groups to convert streets into public spaces for one year, with pre-approved design options.
Prior to the launch of People St, transforming a metered L.A. parking spot into a pop-up park, as happens during events like Parking Day, would require multiple city department approvals, laden with paperwork. Now, People St provides a streamlined framework for approvals of three kinds of projects – a parklet, a plaza, and bike parking. Any group that requests one is sent a kit including instructions and incredibly detailed technical specs, as well as choices for plaza colors and patterns, and approved vendors for chairs and tables.
"Anyone can build these," says architect Daveed Kapoor, who helped design the People St kit. "It’s really simple construction, inexpensive to build, and can be removed quickly if it has to be."
For parklets, the initial step requires choosing a model. A parklet can be arranged as a classic café, a landscaped lounge with sloped stadium seating, or a sidewalk extension with simple seating and planters. Each parklet model is modular, offering applicants three different choices of design, or nine total to choose from. The furnishings are mostly movable, so they can be arranged for either small or larger groups.
Once a model is chosen, community partners must select a color scheme for decking, furnishings, painted perimeters and roadbed graphics. The roadbed graphics are typically brightly colored, striped or polka-dotted. The kits also outline required safety features like planters and reflective border posts to make drivers more aware and encourage greater caution.
Wayfinding signage details colors, fonts, height, and mapping requirements to help visitors orient themselves. Standard iconography on the types of activities that are permitted (such as dogs and bicycles) and what is prohibited (such as smoking and sleeping) are also defined.
The technical appendix includes detailed information on each of these components and encourages community groups to develop their own drawings for a parklet, as required by the Department of Transportation. The LADOT only engages with community groups at this point to complete the process.
Applicants, which may include a neighborhood council or business improvement district, are responsible for building community support, raising the funds, and providing ongoing maintenance. Neighborhoods can install approved projects for a year without requiring permits for a permanent structure. Successful installations can then apply to create something more enduring in that space.
Businesses located nearby the pilot parklets have embraced the extra seating. LA Café, a 24-hour restaurant in downtown Los Angeles that has one of the initial parklets located directly in front of its doors, sees it as a boon to his customers and to the community. “It’s extended the restaurant,” says James Finnochio, general manager. “It’s a place for people to enjoy and sit down.”
Choosing locations that are active day and night is important to People St’s strategy to avoid creating a neighborhood nuisance rather than an amenity. “People who don’t have enough pedestrian life or 24-hour usage won’t get approved easily,” says Valerie Watson, assistant pedestrian coordinator at LADOT.
People St’s first round of applications ends this month. The city hopes to install approved projects by November – warp speed for local government. A second two-month cycle for applications is scheduled to begin in October for installation in 2015. A combination of pre- and post-surveys will look at visitor and resident satisfaction levels, usage, behavior and activities as well as the economic and social impact on nearby businesses, in order to gauge the success of the pilot.
The program has already caught the attention of planning wonks outside of Los Angeles. Watson says there have been inquiries from cities all over the country and internationally – as far away as Adelaide, Australia – hoping to create similar pre-approved design kits to community groups. Watson attributes the interest to an overall shift in city policies. “We’re in the era of shrinking governments and budgets. People want to marshal the resources already there,” she explains. “So we have to figure out how we can facilitate quick transformations without going through a lengthy design process.”