If you’ve visited San Francisco’s South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood in the past year, you may have noticed a few new, cleverly-designed additions to the area’s streetscape. Parklets, or mini-parks, are small, urban greenspaces that typically take up a portion of a sidewalk or jut out into the street in place of a traditional parking spot. These recreation spaces often accommodate seating, bicycle parking, greenery for pets, or public art, breaking up the densely concrete makeup of urban cityscapes.
Parklets were the focus of the spring 2019 Sustainable Environmental Design (SED) design workshop on livable streets and privately-owned public space titled “Revolutionizing the Parklet,” which examined the precedent for and comparative policies behind urban parklets as sustainable design interventions in public space. The SED major was one of the major accomplishments of CED Dean Jennifer Wolch, who worked to establish the interdisciplinary major in 2015.
Co-taught by architecture and environmental design lecturers Emily Pilloton (B.A. Architecture ‘03) and Marcus Owens (Ph.D. Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning ‘18), SED students were challenged to design and propose innovative solutions for future parklets that also address issues such as equity, energy, ecology, and sustainability.
Over the last decades, urban sustainability discourses have in no small part included a critical re-examination of the street as a public space. As cities grow in scale and put pressure on communities and economies, how might the streets become a focal point for more productive sustainable and socially equitable space? Streetscape designs—specifically parklets—increasingly serve as a stand-in for the status of civic life and are often seen as a tool for crime reduction and improved social cohesion. The capstone SED workshop allowed students to examine the urban street through the lenses of policy and design to produce forward-thinking plans for how streets might shape public interactions in the future. And where better to start than San Francisco?
“We used SOMA as a case study because when people talk about San Francisco streets they often think SOMA,” Owens explains. “It’s where all of the city’s tech companies are, and tech is rapidly changing San Francisco’s streetscapes. What does that say about urban transformation? SOMA is an extreme but perfect case that brings out both contradictions and complexities.”
Over the course of the semester, students were tasked to propose a new streetscape concept based on themes such as public health, economic development, ecology, or culture and identity. Supplemented by field trips to parklets around the Bay Area, students’ proposals were also informed by visits to design firms such as Gehl and meetings with community organizations like the Filipino Cultural District and South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN).
Students were challenged to think of solutions while also considering real-world problems in the SOMA neighborhood such as houselessness, the divide between private and public spaces, and issues of social equity.
“This studio has definitely felt more real-world–it’s actually a little bit of a shock,” explains graduating senior Kevin Zamzow-Pollock (SED ‘19). “The work we are doing in this class is real now, and I definitely think the idea behind studios like this are necessary for the SED major and the College.”
The semester culminated with the creation of a “book” of parklet proposals, with each student giving their take on new and innovative streetscapes for the public realm. Chapters of the book are summaries of individual projects that range in scope from a documentary on parklets, a website studying parklets’ international influence, and a mobile parklet business case. The books will be presented to the many stakeholders and community organizations involved with the workshop this past spring.
While Owens will continue to develop student research with SOMCAN as future guidelines for privately-owned public spaces in the neighborhood, both instructors hope that their students’ final work can go on to inform future urban revitalization and decision making in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood.