Car-free urban public space is in short supply in American cities, where a clear demarcation frequently separates parkland from streetscape.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though, as a few sites in Philadelphia have begun to show. There are parking spaces on South Street given over to bicycle corrals. A stub of a street converted into a plaza in Grays Ferry has become an outdoor dining and play-date destination for the community.
Plazas and parklets — parking spaces repurposed for other uses — remain a relative rarity in Philadelphia, and a new study has determined that a lack of staff, funding and leadership, and a convoluted bureaucracy contribute to keeping neighborhoods from embracing these improvements.
“The amount of barriers to entry even at step one is huge,” said Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, an urban anthropologist at Drexel University and author of the study for the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.
City officials, who were consulted in the report’s research, agreed that change is needed to make parklets and plazas easier to create.
“From an internal sense, we knew that the process needed some ways to be more efficient,” said Angela Dixon, director of planning for the city’s transportation office. “How we make it be more efficient, or where the pain points are? This report is really helpful.”
These public spaces can be makeshift, perhaps just a few planters or a deck on the street flush with the curb, or can be a reinvention of the street, with repaving and a total shutdown of what had been a driving thruway. They are often in front of businesses, and it’s likely the community, not the city, that’s responsible for maintaining them. Business owners and community organizations have taken the lead in creating them, and take responsibility for buying furniture and organizing events like monthly cleanups to ensure they stay welcoming.
The reward is a gathering place and social nexus for neighborhoods that hadn’t had one.
“As you see that plaza, you really feel like, hey, you’re somewhere,” said Marcus Ferreira, a member of the South of South Street Neighborhood Association, which was instrumental in creating the Grays Ferry Triangle plaza. “You really feel like you’re hitting a place of distinction.”
The study found that, compared with other cities, Philadelphia’s use of rights of way as public pedestrian space was about average. The city has 11 parklets, compared with 14 in Portland, 16 in New York City, and 43 in San Francisco. Its four pedestrian plazas were more than Boston had, but far fewer than New York City, which has 73.
Citywide, though, the study found people consistently didn’t have enough information about how to apply to build a parklet or plaza, lacked money to invest in one, and were confused by the city’s processes. A flow chart of the city’s application to create a parklet or plaza showed an eight-step odyssey through city agencies and public approvals that offered no clear sense of cost or specifics about what was needed for a site to gain approval. Reviewing an application could take days or a year, depending on how busy the relevant agencies are.
The Fishtown Neighbors Association ran into the confusing application process last year in an effort to create a plaza in a triangle at Norris, Susquehanna, and Cedar Streets, said Shannon Wink, the organization’s outreach committee chair. The group found itself forced to repeatedly update the insurance quote as the city’s measurements of the site changed, and faced community backlash even obtaining the signatures from neighbors needed to go forward with the plaza.
“The most confusing part about it,” she said, “and the reason this particular project fell apart, was because there were no real set guidelines on community outreach.”
A year of volunteers’ work planning the plaza came to nothing last summer after the city received complaints from residents who lived near the proposed plaza, Wink said.
The need for community buy-in can be controversial. Johnston-Zimmerman believes the city weighs residents’ opposition too sensitively.
“It’s like if you wanted to put a planter in front of your house, you’d have to get your neighbors’ permission,” she said.
City officials, though, argued that these projects won’t succeed if they’re divisive.
“We don’t want to create something that could become a neighborhood flash point,” said Kelley Yemen, the city’s Complete Streets director.
Cost considerations also make some communities better equipped to propose and maintain these public spaces than others. The report notes that insurance alone for the spaces can run from several hundred dollars to $3,000. The initial cost for the Grays Ferry Triangle, Ferreira said, was about $8,000. The expense of insuring, furnishing, and maintaining a public space can be beyond the means of poorer city neighborhoods.
Philadelphia must streamline its application process and make its approval standards consistent and clear, the report concluded. It also should be working to make parklets and plazas easier for the city’s poor neighborhoods to develop, and add staff who can steward efforts to create public spaces.
The city is looking at ways to make the application process cheaper and is seeking to hire a communications staffer who can assist with outreach to communities. Philadelphia’s transportation plan includes the goal of creating a public space stewardship program by 2025.
Johnston-Zimmerman said the city would be well-served by a coordinated partnership, with the city providing the initial support to create a new public space, and then allowing the community to take over maintenance.
“The city will install all the initial elements: planters, big trees,” she said. “They give them the knowledge and the means, but it’s community-led, so that way it will succeed.”