Every year, for one day in September, people around the world reimagine public space where they live. They roll out Astroturf or sod, arrange potted plants and trees, set out patio furniture, and invite people to stop, sit and interact with other inhabitants of their city. And they do it in what organizers call the “most modest urban territory”: the metered parking space.
It all goes back to a single act of radical landscaping: In 2005, San Francisco art and design studio Rebar created the very first “parklet,” a temporary public park meant to shine a light on urban areas lacking in open, green public space. This first parklet existed for only two hours (the maximum time allowed on the meter), but — thanks to a widely circulated photo of the installation — it sparked an annual event, PARK(ing) Day, that has blossomed into a global phenomenon with one-off parks popping up in cities from Hong Kong to Brisbane.
The contagious success of PARK(ing) Day, which occurs every third Friday in September, got landscape architects thinking about permanent parklet installations. Alex Brown, a landscape designer with Austin rm TBG Partners, says parklets demonstrate “how urban environments can be more welcoming — and it doesn’t take much.” That line of thinking sprouted the Parklet Program in San Francisco and has since made its way to Texas: Dallas has seen semi-permanent parklets appear downtown; Houston welcomed its first parklet in 2014; and Austin parklets are now popping up like rain lilies after a storm.
The parklet or “pocket patio” outside Royal Blue Grocery on Congress Avenue and Sixth Street was Austin’s pilot project. Designed by landscape architecture firm dwg. and developed in partnership with the City of Austin, the Downtown Austin Alliance and BIG RED DOG Engineering, the Royal Blue project literally rewrote the rules for parklets in Austin.
“When we put this in [in 2012], it was pretty controversial,” says Royal Blue’s Craig Staley, who bankrolled the project with co-owner George Scariano. “A lot of people didn’t like it.” Those people included their landlord and neighboring businesses who were worried about customer parking. Despite some opposition, a di cult permitting process and a high price tag (about $40,000), Staley and Scariano felt the risk was worth it. “We knew something better was coming,” says Staley.
They were right. Sales at the Congress Avenue Royal Blue Grocery picked up 18 percent the year after the parklet was installed; that’s three times higher than increases at Royal Blue’s other five locations during the same time period. Daniel Woodroffe, founder of dwg. (which is responsible for six more completed or in-the-works Austin parklets), says, “Prior to the pocket park, two people were feeding the meter all day, relative to three or four hundred people a day using the space [now].” He’s quick to note that all those visitors to Royal Blue’s parklet are also “a captive audience” for nearby storefronts. That notion recalls urban activist and author Jane Jacobs’ concept of “eyes upon the street,” which asserts that a sidewalk must have “users on it fairly continuously” in order to be a safe space.
Besides social change and a solid return on investment, the project’s other accomplishment is making parklets easier for Austin businesses to implement. What once required a license agreement (an expensive real estate contract) now requires a mere sidewalk café permit. For Royal Blue’s parklet, this meant a difference in cost from about $8,000 a year to more like $200. “The whole idea was, we really wanted more of these,” says Staley, so he and his partners went to the City of Austin and said, “Look, no one’s gonna do it unless you make it really easy.”
Staley, who is on the board of bike-sharing program Austin B-cycle, believes that urban space should be “for people rst, cars second.” Woodroffe agrees, saying parklets focus attention on the need for “pedestrian priority” in a city that has “huge issues with over-prioritization of cars.” Which begs the question: What about plant priority? Further, will a shift toward people over parking include a place for native plants?
While the Royal Blue parklet and others by dwg. feature planters and trees, native plants haven’t yet been used to their fullest potential. The Royal Blue parklet began with a mix of native and adapted plants that were donated by a local nursery. “We were looking for as many handouts as we could get,” says Staley. So far, he and his staff have had to plant new things each year because, as he puts it, “[The plants] get pretty beat up down here.” But both Staley and Woodroffe mention natives as being up to the task of surviving in parklets’ oft-challenging circumstances: metal planters with no irrigation situated in places that receive harsh afternoon sunlight and constant heat and pollution from traffic.
One reason native plants might not be a large part of many parklets yet is their image: People don’t often consider them for formal landscaping. But dwg. and organizations like the Wildflower Center are trying to alter that perception. Woodroffe says dwg. is “passionate about retooling the image of native plants to be very clean, very architectural, very colorful, very seasonal.” And their 804 Congress Avenue parklet features Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) and red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), both Texas natives that made our experts’ list of parklet plant picks (see below).
Even if some consider plants “the garnish” on a parklet, these redefined urban spaces are creating opportunities for more green space in cities — spaces that could take great advantage of the drought-hardiness, resource conservation and wildlife habitat native plants have to offer. And, thanks to Royal Blue’s success, those opportunities are becoming more and more ubiquitous in Austin.
Native Plants for Parklets
We asked Wildflower Center Director of Horticulture Andrea DeLong- Amaya and Environmental Designer Michelle Bright to nominate native plants they thought were up to the task of surviving in the extreme conditions parklets often demand. They found several worthy candidates, from “super heat-and-drought tolerant” Gregg’s dalea and “tough and colorful” zexmenia to pollinator-magnet pyramid bush, which Bright says “looks great” in the Center’s gardens and would be a good choice for medians. View these and more of their parklet plant picks below.