Hacking the City

Episode 3: Hacking the City

There are over 60 parklets in San Francisco, and as far as I can tell, everyone has a favorite.

Mine is on Judah Street, way out in the Outer Sunset, almost at the beach. The “seating” is entirely made of a beautiful, gnarled tree trunk laid sideways, creating almost undulating spots for sitting. It doesn’t hurt that it’s outside Trouble Coffee, which has the best cinnamon toast in the city!

I wanted to talk to today’s guest, Robin Abad Ocubillo, because he is the person who runs San Francisco’s Pavements to Parks program, and thinks all the time (and I mean all the time) about this design form and how to make it successful.

Robin and I talked about the origin story of the parklet, San Francisco’s choice to streamline their role as public space by officially making them a part of city code (!!), and how Robin’s personal experiences impact his work.

Of all the urban design elements I can think of, I think parklets are – for lack of a better word – the sexiest (ahem). And I think it’s because they’re so personal, these custom designed expressions of the people who come together to create them.

As Robin says in our interview, “they emerge from a lot of love, and a lot of care, and a lot of careful thought.”

I hope you enjoy the episode (and don’t forget to catch all our past episodes here).


PS: If you want to share your favorite parklet with us on Twitter, we’d love to see what it is! Just tag us (@remarkableshow) or use #remarkableobject.



TRANSCRIPT: Hacking the city
GUEST: Robin Abad Ocubillo, Urban Designer and Planner, San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks (parklet) program

I really look to the 1970s here in San Francisco, and I relate parklets, and the other work that we do, to a lot of the avant garde performance art that was happening in San Francisco during and after the summer of love.

There was an artist-practitioner named Bonnie Ora Sherk who in the late 70s got a grant to do these installations on freeway off-ramps and in downtown alleyways. And what Bonnie did was import materials from the countryside like turf and hay bales and plants and even farm animals, and created these elaborate installations right off of the freeway, right around the corner from where the planning department has its offices now.

I really look at them commenting on the auto-centricity or auto-centric mode of planning that’s really reshaped our cities through the 20th century, and probably for the worse. I also think that Bonnie was making a comment about the public space and public commons and what that means for a city on the cusp of a new century.

My name is Robin Abad Ocubillo, and I’m an urban designer and planner at the SF planning department. Most of my work is in a program called Pavement to Parks, and I’m the lead policy planner.

This is Remarkable Objects, a podcast from DeepRoot about the intersection of nature and urban design. Each episode, we speak to someone in this space to learn about their work and experience, and to talk about what it means for the future of cities. I’m Leda Marritz.

I sat down with Robin Abad Ocubillo of the San Francisco Planning Department because something really, really exciting is happening in San Francisco around parklets.

Parklets are reclaimed parking spots for cars that are transformed into small, temporary public spaces where people can gather to eat, drink, or just spend time outside. Although they often have a footprint of just two parking spaces, parklets have a big impact, bringing a sense of play and community to the sidewalk.

They’re initiated, designed, and maintained by citizens, and there are dozens of them throughout the city. But parklets have never been a part of city code, and there was no clear, easy-to-follow roadmap for creating them. The process of permitting, authorization, and design was confusing, expensive, and time consuming.

But as of this year, San Francisco is working to finally codify the parklet, bringing a new commitment, rigor, and seriousness to this lively design form. This legislation is significant for citizens because it will make it easier for them to apply for and create parklets. And it’s significant for the city because it has prompted them to develop new, more productive ways of working together and responding to citizen needs.  

A quick note: this conversation was recorded relatively early in the process of proposing legislation, so you’ll hear us discussing it in the future tense. But let’s get back to Robin’s description of the origin story of the parklet.

And so a little bit later in San Francisco we see this strategy replicated by the folks at what was then called Rebar Group. I think it was in May 2005 they stealthily took over a curbside parking spot in downtown San Francisco using the same material vocabulary, you know, turf, a tree, a bench, it was very basic, and they created this installation that I think really resonated with a lot of people. And so this image of this piece of turf and a bench, you know, surrounded by concrete, it really electrified people. So there’s, that’s a clear and I think direct antecedent to the public space experiment that we see and we call these days the parklet.

The first parklet was installed in 2010 on Divisadero in front of a bicycle shop and café. Since then, we’ve seen the population, the parklet population, grow to upwards of 60 in all different neighborhoods. Which I think demonstrates that it’s a viable and effective and relevant solution for all kinds of different communities.

That versatility is an essential feature of parklets, because each one is different – a one-of-a-kind expression of the preferences, tastes, and personality of the neighborhood. Partly because of its location in the public right of way, the process of getting a parklet created has always required intense, sustained cooperation between neighbors and businesses. In a way that is completely different from other urban design forms, a parklet is the product of literal and metaphorical conversations between citizens and their city.

They each have their own story, they each have their own narrative, they each have their own unique history of how they came to be and which neighbors came together to create them. Whenever you sit in a parklet it can sort of reflect that it probably took a year or more of community fundraising, a year or more of careful design, and engineering, and implementation to get that into place. So even though they’re temporary, they emerge from a lot of love, really, and a lot care, and a lot of careful thought.

A lot of love and a lot of perseverance, because it wasn’t exactly an easy process. Up to this point, citizens who wanted to get a parklet on their street had their patience and determination tested by the confusing application process. The various steps didn’t happen under a single framework or program. Instead, multiple departments were involved in uncoordinated, unsystematic ways.

Could you briefly summarize the experience someone might have, and the challenges they might face, if they wanted to go through the process of creating a parklet today?

If you were a neighborhood group or a merchant’s organization, and there was a little dead-end cul-de-sac. And you wanted to, say, take this cul-de-sac and turn it into a mini park for six months or a year, just to see what it would be like.

Well, you’d probably poke around the internet and poke around the city a little bit to try and maybe call up public works and call up the MTA and call Planning and try to figure out who is going to take your idea and help vet it and coordinate sort of review and comment by all the other agencies and bureaucracies that would need to be involved. Hopefully you find your way to Planning and the Pavement to Parks program, and we have a little proposal package, it’s an 8 or 10 page form where we ask you for some information that will help us understand what you’re proposing, help to give form to your idea.

What we then do as the planning department is shop that idea around to all the different organizations and city departments and try to get the right staffer to review it, and look at circulation, and look at geometry, and look at design, and look at hours of closure. At different points in the process you might be asked to provide letters of support or you might be asked to provide other kinds of documentation.

Meanwhile three, maybe five, six months go by, you know the warm season in San Francisco, which is so short, ends, because the city doesn’t have a streamlined internal process for making these things easier. So it’s convoluted and right now in the city as well it’s not that easy in terms of the sort of financial and fiscal reality of these projects.

You said before that parklets are private investments in public space; so they’re paid for and maintained by the private entities that propose to install them. For larger public space tests like pedestrian plazas, who has been responsible for the capital costs, and will legislation change the current model?

Up until very recently we, and by “we” I mean the city government, really relied on sponsor groups to really pay for everything – generating a design, installing these reversible treatments whatever they might be, maybe you want to paint a mural on the ground and you want to put some container plants around the plaza to create a space, to buy furniture, to take on daily maintenance and the capital repair and replacement. We also expect you to program these spaces so they don’t sit idle all the time, there’s some kind of activation and free public programming, we’re asking you to take on liability insurance.

So this legislative effort is really going to help not only clarify that process and also really clearly define what you will really be responsible for and also clearly make the city responsible for things, like the capital buildout, providing basics like the planters, tables and chairs, ground surface treatments, and any other treatments associated with reconfiguring traffic and automobile flow.

Because community involvement is such as elemental part of this effort, do you run the risk of favoring communities with the resources of time, energy, money, or whatever it may be?

I think when you have the open invitation format, which is what Pavements to Parks is, it’s really important that the idea to either take over a parking space; it’s really important for that it emerge from the neighborhood and the community, not to impose it.

So we have thought very carefully about this in the last couple of years as part of the strategic plan. And equity and inclusion are a huge component of that work. There are a number of ways we’ve tried to fold that into our approach and to the structure of our program.

One of them, for example, is being very deliberate about who we help. At one time we had 60 applications in one season, and there’s just not enough capacity in the city to review all those proposals and see them through, we had to do them in smaller batches. So we pick a selection of them and ask all the other applicants to reapply next time. And so, in that screening process we’ve started to be very deliberate about who’s coming forward and asking for our help, which neighborhoods, which communities, which demographics are coming forward and asking to help them create a parklet.

That’s all part of the strategic planning effort and the legislation, is lowering barriers to inclusion and participation in the program. Those are process-based barriers, like permitting and review, the requirements for design documentation, but they’re also financial resources.

I’ve been thinking a lot about parklets as a city hack and like as a way in which a city, which is by its nature not a very nimble or fast-moving space, can transform really quickly. And I feel like one could look at a program like parklets and think, “these are necessary because the city is not meeting a need.” OR you could look at it and think, this is the best parts of the city expressing themselves in this confluence of design, and community and people being outside and in nature.

You know, I think both things are true. The city is a canvas that is painted upon and repainted upon over and over every moment, every day, things are changing. And parklets are one feature in the landscape right now.

I think parklets will be around in some form forever for all time, but maybe what will change is its meaning and significance and our expectations around them.

What has been the significance of parklets, as you see it?

I think part of the point is that the way that we allocate space in our public realm is unbalanced, and we need to rebalance the way our streets are configured, so people can walk comfortably, and go about their business safely. And also encourage other modes. In San Francisco, encouraging other modes is really viable and important. In other cities and suburban conditions it’s harder to make that case, but we should be doing here and that is what we’re doing.

But I think part of the point that parklets are making too is that there are ways that everyday citizens can be directly engaged in shaping how their neighborhoods, that they inhabit every day and transact business in every day, look and feel. And that their neighborhoods are working for them from the point of view of public space.

Maybe we can end by talking a little bit about why community’s important for you, because that’s really come through in the purpose of this work but also just from you and the way you speak about it. I mean, it seems like the community element of this is very personally meaningful to you.

Speaking personally, it is. It really is what drives me as a professional and a practitioner in the landscape architecture and urban design fields. You know, I guess I do have a sense, a personal sense of civic duty and responsibility. I think that’s why I’m drawn to civil service and working in the public sector, you can be really part of the solution. Equity is very much part of that.

You know, I’m a queer person, and I’m also the child of immigrants, you know, I’m a brown person. And I think that those personal experiences really inform my practice, and what I hear when people speak and what I see when I look around me. So, you know, moving us all towards to equity is a really important personal value for me that I bring into my work.

As of this taping, the process of codifying the parklet is still underway. To follow the work of Robin and his group, visit parklets.org. And if you want to see some photos of Bonnie Ora Sherk’s original parklet installations, as well as some of our personal favorites from the streets of San Francisco, we’ll be sharing those on Twitter.

Remarkable Objects is produced and edited by me, Leda Marritz, with editorial assistance from Aylara Odekova. You can find us online at remarkableobjects.com, and on Twitter (@remarkableshow).  This podcast is a production of DeepRoot Green Infrastructure. DeepRoot provides landscape solutions and technical support services to promote mature tree growth and sustainable stormwater management in the built environment. Find out more at deeproot.com.

If you want to let us know what you think of this show, we’d love to hear from you. Just head over to SoundCloud or iTunes and leave a comment, rating, or review.



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