StreetBoxPHL parklet at 10th and Cherry streets in Chinatown. (Steve Weinik)

If you’re interested in turning a patch of asphalt in your neighborhood into a micro-park, StreetBoxPHL wants to hear from you.

The nonprofit organization has funding from the William Penn Foundation to help community groups design parklets and pedestrian plazas on city streets, and to shepherd them through the often complex community engagement and approval processes. The money won’t pay to build the spaces, but will help cover associated fees and costs.

StreetBoxPHL is looking for three projects to start with, oases amid the urban hardscape where people can sit at a table and read a book, sip a coffee, or just hang out, for free.

Philadelphia has had several parklets over the past 12 years, typically small platforms that extend the sidewalk by taking over one or two parking spaces. The city’s first was at 43rd and Baltimore across from Clark Park.

People want more of these spaces, said Ariel Ben-Amos, the planner who heads StreetBoxPHL, as demonstrated by the lasting popularity of pedestrian-only streets and restaurant streeteries created by necessity during the early days of the pandemic.

But various obstacles have prevented the construction of more parklets, including the cost, the need for professional design services, and the complexities of navigating the city permitting process.

“We haven’t really ingested the lessons of the pandemic, which is that people really do need public space outside and that there’s demand for it,” Ben-Amos said.

Billions of dollars of federal funding for street safety and other transportation projects has been authorized under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other measures, and will soon start becoming available to city and states, Ben-Amos noted.

“We’re going to start flooding the streets with money,” he said, “and we’re not [yet] building the capacity of the community groups to figure out a way to participate.”

What should aspiring parklet builders do?

StreetBoxPHL does not have funding to build new parklets, but it is offering to partner with three community organizations to develop designs for parklets, pedestrian plazas, and other public spaces.

The deadline to apply via an online form is Aug. 4. 

Selected groups will be asked to participate in a 6-month design and engagement process and to host at least two community meetings.

The nonprofit Community Design Collaborative will provide designers for the space, oversee the community outreach process, and solicit feedback from the Streets Department to make sure the final design meets city requirements. 

StreetBoxPHL will also start holding monthly lunch meetings in September to teach people about building parklets, and have a roundtable discussion of right-of-way issues in the fall. 

Once the designs are ready, StreetBoxPHL will help the participating community groups look for funding sources to build their projects.

What exactly is a parklet?

When the 43rd and Baltimore parklet was installed in 2011, then-Deputy Mayor of Transportation Rita Cutler called it a “neighborhood front porch.” 

The new space was in front of the Green Line Cafe, which already had chairs and tables on the adjoining sidewalk. But you didn’t have to be a customer or buy anything to use the parklet itself, Cutler noted.

Because parklets narrow the part of the street used by cars, they also make crossing the road safer and more welcoming for pedestrians, a priority in a city with high numbers of traffic fatalities.

The city worked with the University City District, the neighborhood’s economic development nonprofit, to build that first parklet. The William Penn Foundation covered the $10,000 cost.

There was some pushback from people asking why you’d want to build a parklet next to a park, but Ben-Amos noted the new site quickly proved popular. “People socialize differently in a parklet than they do in a park,” he said.

A former parklet at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue in West Philly. (Steve Weinik)

As of 2019 there were 11 parklets and four pedestrian plazas in Philly created by community groups, according to a report from Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. The study also counted ten bike corrals — bike parking on converted parking spaces.

A few parklets and plazas remain in operation, including the popular Grays Ferry Triangle plaza at 23rd and South streets. 

Most parklets are eventually taken down, however. Those include the parklet at 43rd and Baltimore, a former “solar parklet” on Torresdale Avenue in Tacony, and one that was set up at 10th and Cherry streets in Chinatown in 2013.

Why aren’t there more parklets?

The Lindy Institute report identified several barriers to parklet creation

City departments lacked the capacity to do outreach to community organizations that might create parklets, the report said. Community development leaders didn’t have time and expertise, access to construction funding, and the ability to steward or maintain the spaces.

The report mapped out a series of steps and hurdles for would-be parklet developers.

They had to create a detailed site plan, obtain letters of approval from adjacent property owners, survive vetting of the location by the Office of Complete Streets, get assent from a majority of nearby residents, commission a formal design, show proof of insurance, and ask for council support. 

The surge of privately built restaurant streeteries during the pandemic brought new attention to parking spot conversions from city officials, designers, and public-space advocates. But that has not translated into a significant increase in parklets.

A former parklet at 10th and Cherry streets in Chinatown. (Steve Weinik)

Part of the problem is that creating parklets requires the cooperation of disparate groups who don’t often communicate, said Ben-Amos, who launched the city’s pedestrian plaza and parklet program when he worked in the Office of Transportation and Utilities.

Those include street designers and community members on one hand, and people who know how to get building projects approved on the other.

Building on the street, sidewalk, or other public space is “a very unique sphere,” he said. “There’s not been a lot of work out there to educate and build the capacity of right-of-way stewards” to handle the complex demands of that work.

What about the cost?

It may seem easy to rope off a parking space and put down a few chairs, but in reality creating a relatively simple pedestrian plaza protected with planters and painted lines can run $60,000 or more once all the design, planning and installation costs are included, Ben-Amos said.

Even something as small as installing a park bench on a sidewalk — part of the public right-of-way — can cost thousands of dollars.

Recently, StreetBoxPHL helped Bartram’s Garden install a bench at a nearby trolley stop. In order for Council to pass a required “encroachment” ordinance, StreetBoxPHL had to provide $1,000 for an engineering survey, find an expert volunteer to write up the legislation, and put $850 toward the bench itself, Ben-Amos said. 

Those kinds of costs mean many nonprofits can’t afford to sponsor a parklet. The groups in Philly that do create them tend to have nearly twice as many employees and nearly five times as much revenue (including grants, donations, and program earnings) than other nonprofits, according to a 2017 survey and study of tax records co-authored by Ben-Amos.

Those groups spent 15 times as much on placemaking activities and about six times as much on economic development work, “indicating that nonprofits that want to support parklets must have the wherewithal to do so,” the study found.

Correction: A previous version of this article did not indicate the 43rd and Baltimore parklet is no longer in operation.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...