SF Parklets: Is this the best they could do?

Started several years ago here in San Francisco, the Pavement to Parks projects have been an interesting experiment. Now numbering over 20 strong, they were originally a take-off on similar street reclamation projects in NYC and were designed to take advantage of our wide streets and underutilized public right-of-ways.

According to sfpavementtoparks: ‘Each Pavement to Parks project is intended to be a public laboratory where the City can work with the community to test the potential of the selected location to be permanently reclaimed as public open space. Materials and design interventions are meant to be temporary and easily moveable should design changes be desired during the trial-run. Seating, landscaping, and treatment of the asphalt will be common features of all projects.’

As a SF resident I’m genuinely happy that the initiative is making some positive changes in our community landscape.  I also applaud the people and organizations who have donated time and materials. I’m also surprised that they’re able to get approved and built, given the city’s red-tape, budget deficits and not in my backyard attitude.

But as a designer who was taught to question, I’m left wondering how well thought through and reviewed the individual projects really are. Granted they’re experiments, intended to be temporary and derive from donated resources. But there are plenty of details that, for the observant eye, make you question why simple and effective options weren’t chosen.  

One specific example I’ll outline here is the Powell Street Promenade, designed in collaboration with the City & County of San Francisco, The Union Square Business Improvement District (BID) and Audi of America. Again from sfpavementtoparks.com: ‘Over an average weekend, up to 100,000 pedestrians walk along this portion of Powell Street, contributing to a highly animated yet often congested sidewalk experience. The Powell Street Promenade will provide extra space for people to walk, sit at a table or on a bench, chat with a friend, or just watch as thousands of people pass by. Wood, stone and metal trim will provide a rich visual quality to the space, softened by landscaping and pedestrian scale lighting.’

The Powell Street Promenade was installed in July 2011 and the pictures below from this past weekend show a bit of wear.

First some positive points: 1. The addition of new and needed pedestrian space adjacent to the existing sidewalk for which to step aside, pause and safely enjoy the area, 2. Added greenery and a touch if visual interest with the combination of wood and metal over the existing concrete and asphalt surfaces. 3. An interesting and artistic expression of curves that swell from the ground, twist and contort and parlay themselves into tables, benches and planter sidewalls. All in all, it is a respectable design effort from a visual standpoint.

However in reality, functionality doesn’t quite develop successfully from the form. First and foremost there are the multiple trip points that exist as result of tines gradually rising up from the ground. This is not an area for the blind or elderly. Secondly, the grates are magnets for debris including cigarette butts and used chewing gum. Another perplexing choice is the width of the planter rim. Where proper benches are absent, it is just wide enough to taunt people to try and sit yet too narrow to really be comfortable. After a few seconds with your back-end extending into the moist planter dirt you’ll certainly have second thoughts about sitting. At the locations where there are benches and tables that rise from the slats, they’re a bit wobbly and offer pinch points for young fingers. There are also odd ramps of sheet metal that arc from ground to planter rim. Not only are these dented and oddly disjointed after a month or two, they’re also another trip point (or skate board ramp).

Finally, what appears to be the use of galvanized metal for the planter boxes is showing quick aging through dirt and corrosion. And although not technically a design flaw, there are several towers topped with solar cells that are not even connected to anything. It is as though they were put there to show homage to green technology, but the wires are clearly exposed and unconnected under the grate. However the towers do proudly display the Audi name and logo (they have a solar cell above their name, therefore they must be a green company).

The accumulation of dirt and debris coupled with poor seating, trip points and gratuitous logos culminates in a space that does not particularly contribute to the beauty and functionality of Powell Street. That’s not to say that the merits of trying are not warranted and that the next iteration won’t succeed. However, I hope that those who will be evaluating the permanency of these installations take note of not only how the designs look on paper, but also how they are functioning in real life.

In fact, this is perhaps a valuable takeaway for anyone evaluating designs primarily on paper: you also need to imagine yourself in the space and how it will function over time. And of course, just visit similar sights and see what time and elements do to a space. Thoughtful design will not only create something new and interesting, but will also include functionality and consider extended use and maintenance.

For a map of San Francisco Great Streets Projects:


Trip points morphing into pseudo seating. Gratings that catch debris:

Unused solar collector:

Planter with trip points:

Pinch point seats with odd metal ramp into planter:

Wobbly table with pinch points and planter with trip points:

Gratings that catch dirt, debris and cigarettes:

More dirt and rusting metal plant box:

Audi’s nameplate mounted on the post under the solar collector :

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2 Responses to SF Parklets: Is this the best they could do?

  1. Jeni Quigg says:

    Bravo! (ah, but it looks pretty 😉 ha. but seriously that is the least person friendly concepts I have ever seen!

    • David says:

      True! There are a lot of great concepts hidden in the projects. My two frustrations though are 1. keeping them clean and 2. saftey – especially since cars and buses tend to be pretty crazy here in the city. The temporary railings and bollards are not the safest way to keep users and vehicles apart.

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