An Oral History of the Parklet

Designers, urbanists, and activists dive into the past, present, and future of the idea that saved dining out during the pandemic.

With a wooden bench, a strip of sod, a hastily purchased tree, and a handful of quarters, three designers from Rebar, an art and design studio with a bent for activism, took over a nondescript parking space in downtown San Francisco on a busy weekday in 2005 and turned it into a tiny park. 

Passersby on their lunch breaks stopped to look at the oddity. Many rolled their eyes. But people came. They sat. Ate pizza. Talked to each other. Squished their toes in the grass. Beyond its inherent peculiarity, this mini park accomplished something truly punk rock—it dared to reclaim a public space previously intended for private automobiles.

The idea was so brilliant and yet so obvious it sparked an annual event called Park(ing) Day, when people around the world take over parking spots to create mini parks on the third Friday in September. San Francisco took the idea further than most cities and established an official Pavement to Parks program that allows businesses, nonprofits, homeowners, and other entities to permanently convert parking spaces into "parklets." 

Too few were ever created to radically transform the streetscape, but the idea undermined the primacy of the automobile to the point that, when the pandemic struck, city officials knew where to look to find more space for socially distant outdoor dining. Suddenly, the vision of a city with more street-side real estate for people than for cars seemed not only possible, but potentially permanent.

Illustration by Junghwa Park

We spoke with designers, urbanists, and activists about how San Francisco’s parklets have reframed the way we see urban space—but also provide a cautionary tale for a post-pandemic streetscape. 

It Started Out as Art

Blaine Merker (cofounder, Rebar): Park(ing) Day as we know it came out of Park(ing), a one-off art performance piece that Matthew, John, and I carried out in the fall of 2005. 

John Bela (cofounder, Rebar): The idea was to view it as an experiment, to see if people would actually use it. We wanted to explore environmental signals and how they guide our individual actions.

Matthew Passmore (cofounder, Rebar): John got hold of a map that showed where in San Francisco there was a lack of park space. We picked First and Mission, which is across the street from where the new Transbay Transit Terminal is now. 

Merker: We paid for two hours, which was the legal limit for using a parking space. So we weren’t breaking any laws; we actually paid for the space. 

Passmore: Once it was all set up, we left. We very intentionally went across the street to the roof of a parking garage, where we watched from afar. We wanted this thing to be like an authentic park, open to people. We didn’t want to be there to help people interpret what it was.

Bela: One guy came with a slice of pizza, another person sat by the tree, and then they started chatting. We thought, "This is great, this is a success. We created a space for interaction between two strangers."

Merker: When the meter’s time was up, we went over and packed up everything. 

Bela: What we triggered was not just a change in land use there—mixing a typical urban park into a parking space—but actually a rethinking of what the possibilities were for urban space. That was the greatest outcome for us.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make San Francisco even more magical and full of wonder. If we do this right, it will be the most transformative event for public space since we rebuilt the city after the 1906 earthquake," says Sharky Laguana, president, San Francisco Small Business Commission.

Illustration by Junghwa Park

The Idea Catches On

Passmore: My wife at the time, Andrea Scher, had a very popular art and design blog. She put up some pictures and said, "Look at what my husband’s art collective just did." And then it started appearing on some larger blogs.Bela: We started getting calls from people around the globe, asking, "Hey, can we do this over here?" 

Merker: We trademarked the name Park(ing) Day and then created a manual that explains exactly how to create an installation, including how to do it safely.Bela: I remember one of my favorites was a parking spot by Interstice Architects that used a lot of balloons and helium to create a three-dimensional space. It was very playful. 

Andrew Dunbar (principal, Interstice Architects): We used helium balloons to make a mass that appeared both arboreal and airy, but also like a parked truck. It had a lot of visual momentum—it undulated in the wind.

Zoee Astrachan (principal, Interstice Architects): The fascinating part for us was that when cars drove by, the breeze they created became part of the art. We were trying to get to this experience of fluidity and lightness.

Andres Power (San Francisco director of policy): Back then I was a planner with the city and had partnered with Rebar for their Park(ing) Day activities. I decided it would be cool if we could come up with a permanent program. We started with six installations as sort of a pilot, and there are currently around 60 parklets throughout San Francisco. 

There is also a detailed parklet design guideline manual, which encourages applicants to be creative while at the same time ensuring that key characteristics such as drainage, ADA access, and structural integrity are maintained.

Illustration by Junghwa Park

See the full story on Dwell.com: An Oral History of the Parklet
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