Downtown revitalization can come with a hefty price tag — but it doesn’t always have to.
Many communities across the country have turned to affordable amenities like parklets and pop-up shops to provide a quick jolt of cultural energy to their downtown urban cores. These temporary features help to showcase the benefits of people-oriented downtowns and neighborhoods, where residents and visitors can convene and connect.
To determine the best practices for designing these kinds of provisional public spaces, I caught up with Neil Chambers, the founder and director of chambersdesign, author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future, and the mastermind behind the parklet project in my current hometown of South Orange, New Jersey. As an award-winning green designer, Chambers’s insights on sustainability offer an important roadmap for cities looking to expand and enhance public spaces in their downtown core.
Why are public gathering spaces important to communities?
Public spaces that are designed well and invite people to fill them have tremendous benefits for towns and suburbs. They can make us healthier by creating places that relieve stress while actually filtering the air. They offer places for people to meet, relax, and gather, which helps build a sense of community, civic identity, and culture. Even the acts of designing, raising money, getting permissions, and building a space can unite people with different interests. In my mind, successful public spaces should inspire and attract engagement, breaking down barriers while strengthening shared values.
But public spaces aren’t only about community identity. Projects like parklets are an economic driver for growth. Open and shared spaces bring more foot traffic and visitors into a downtown area. These visitors then become customers at local businesses and have a positive impact on the economy through sales, taxes, and job creation. Public spaces can also give a town character and enhance its design quality. Good design — featuring sustainable and beautiful materials, native plants, carefully selected seating, and an efficient use of space — communicates value to users.
Help us understand Parklets 101. What is a parklet? Are there different types?
The technical definition of a parklet — also called a mini-park or mini-plaza — is an extension of the sidewalk. Most often, they use existing street parking as a platform to transform the automobile-centric asphalt into green space for people to sit, eat, relax, and enjoy their surroundings. Parklets come in different shapes and sizes with an array of programming options. I’ve seen them used as seating areas as well as community garden spaces.
You recently built a parklet in South Orange, NJ. How was it received? What challenges did you experience?
The South Orange Parklet is the latest success in a three-year effort to rethink the urban fabric of the town. With the completion of the parklet, I’ve come to see that I’m not alone in wanting something greater for the downtown character of South Orange because the response has been overwhelmingly positive. People love the design, the materials used, the plants, and the location. My hope is that we build more in South Orange and help to encourage neighboring towns to do the same.
Given that parklets are often temporary, what value do they bring to downtowns? Are they economic development assets?
As a landscape design, I like to think of the South Orange Parklet as perennial instead of temporary. It’s scheduled to stay in place into the fall and then, just like native flowers, spring back up as the weather becomes warmer. And, just like native plants, the benefits of the parklet will come back year after year.
What advice do you have for communities wanting to explore a parklet in their urban core?
My biggest piece of advice is to think big and don’t get discouraged if the idea is initially unsuccessful. The South Orange Parklet took three years to get installed. I had to redesign it over and over, meet with hundreds of people, groups, and committees, create countless presentations, and endure setbacks. But, in that time, I also met some really amazing people who are true allies of the project and its goal of making South Orange more vibrant and creative. By the time it was getting installed, I already had a community of people gathering around the idea.
Beyond parklets, what else can communities do to create public spaces in their downtowns?
I have many examples from my career as a designer of creating projects aimed at a common good. In all of them, I saw the larger community as a vital partner. In 2002, I started a non-profit called Green Ground Zero to advocate for green buildings in the aftermath of September 11. Then, in 2007, I began a seven-year effort in South Carolina that restored oyster populations, created peer-reviewed scientific research, and developed a master resiliency plan for at-risk communities to mitigate the impacts of climate change. I’ve also been working with parents, teachers, and administrators at a local elementary school to bring nature closer to kindergarteners and first graders by creating a green infrastructure master plan. In the spring of 2017, we planted nearly 1,000 native plants with the help of every student, transforming part of the school grounds into a laboratory for outdoor learning.
Since 2015, I’ve realized that we need to transition from the old thinking about landscapes and urban design to a new, more refreshing idea of what exterior spaces can be. Our public spaces don’t spill out from a specific location that’s isolated from everything else. They are a manifestation of what a community needs and who is willing to push for change. Growing a network of like-minded people that want improve the quality of life for everyone around them is how great public spaces are born.
STEVEN PEDIGO is the Director of the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab and a Clinical Assistant Professor for Economic Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies. He is also the Director of Research for the Creative Class Group. Follow him on twitter @iamstevenpedigo.
ARIA BENDIX is a writer for the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, CityLab, Bustle, and The Harvard Crimson, among other publications. Follow her on twitter @ariabendix.