Spotlight: Urban & Regional Policy Fellow Steve Wertheim’s "European Cities through San Franciscan Eyes"

Steve Wertheim is an urban planner with the City of San Francisco.  In spring 2011, Steve was awarded a GMF Urban and Regional Policy Fellowship to study how European cities determine which industrial areas to redevelop, what kinds of new uses to promote, and how they regulate the built environment. The following is the final post in a series of three that detail some of the wider observations that Steve made during his travels. Look for his forthcoming policy brief entitled “Capitalizing on deindustrialization to sustainably address the demands of growth and modernization” on the Urban and Regional Policy Fellowships webpage soon.


Torino: A City of Parklets

In San Francisco, we’re very proud of our parklet program. What’s a parklet, you ask? It’s a parking spot (or three) that has been converted into a mini-open space, typically with seating and some greenery. I’m a huge fan, and not just because of the cute diminutive name (although I prefer parkito). I like it because it’s just one more way we’re clawing back our streets for use by people, and not just their cars. After all, streets have always been meeting places and market places in addition to conduits for movement – until the modern car era. And in San Francisco, streets make up 25% of our land. Which means a lot of opportunity, with just a little capital investment, to create community space. Plus, these public spaces are built and maintained privately (typically by a adjacent restaurant or shop), diversifying the expense.

San Francisco’s parklet program is about a year old, and we have about two dozen parklets – out of 280,000 parking spaces. It’s a nice start. By comparison, Torino is a virtual city of parklets. While I didn’t count (and it seems no one has), my observation is that pretty much every Torinese restaurant has their own parklet. And it’s not uncommon to see multiple parklets in a row on busy commercial streets. From mid-morning until after dinner streets are alive with dining, laughing, drinking, smoking, smiling Italians.

The San Francisco program and Torino developed independently of each other (and about 15 years apart) – and yet they have many of the same characteristics. In both cities, parklets need to be permitted by the municipality. In both cases, the applicant (typically the adjacent business) is charged a fee basically equivalent to the amount that would have been collected had the parking meter been occupied at all times.

However, there is a fundamental difference between Torinese and San Francisco parklets, in that in Torino, these spaces are, for all intents and purposes, private. And I’m not a fan of privatization of our collective resources. But what Torinese parklets provide – and now SF parklets as well – are publicly-visible meeting spaces. This is something that American cities lack, and is endemic to our whole society’s lack of community and connectivity. By way of comparison, as well, let’s not forget that parking spots are basically privatized public space. So privatizing space for dozens of people a day is still an improvement from privatizing for a couple of people.

In San Francisco, the parklet program shows a willingness of the society to forego a substantial amount of parking for some other social good. It’s something we’re just re-learning, and another way to take our cues from the European societies who didn’t lose sight of this goal in quite the same way.

Picture Credit: Architect’s Newspaper Blog

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