Walking down K Street Northwest in Washington, D.C., almost everything is a shade of gray — light gray buildings, darker gray sidewalks, even the windows on the gray high-rises reflect their gray surroundings.
But between 20th and 21st streets, the scene changes suddenly and drastically: At the side of the road, taking up two parking spots, is a brand-new, bright-yellow tiny park. Created by extending the sidewalk, the park is a platform with geometric multiuse modules on top of it. Some are meant to be used as tables, others as chairs and some have purple flowers planted in them.
It’s the District’s first seasonal mini park, or parklet, and it’s available for public use until October. It is a more permanent version of the parklets that crop up once a year for a weekend on Park(ing) Day.
“We want people to feel that they really want to live in this district because there’s so much going on,” says Leona Agouridis, the executive director of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, which encompasses the 43-block area between the White House and Dupont Circle. “We’re improving the public realm and activating the public space,” she says.
From Concrete Jungle To Playful Public Space
The tiny park, named ParKIT because they hope it will be used as a tool kit for building more parklets, was created by Golden Triangle, Sustainable DC, the District Department of Transportation and Gensler design group. Gensler held an in-house competition, asking about 20 designers to work on different pitches for what the park should look like. Laura Carey and Claire Kang came up with the winning bid, drawing inspiration from Golden Triangle’s yellow, triangular logo.
“This part of K Street is a mundane, concrete jungle,” Kang says. “We wanted to bring a playful aspect to this area.”
The pop of color certainly breaks up the monotony — people walking down the street slow down and stare at the yellow blocks and the contrasting purple flowers. Some of the modules can be moved and rearranged, while others are fixed to the platform. On Tuesdays at lunchtime, events under the theme “Making the City” will encourage interaction and engagement with the space. One of the events will ask people to rearrange different elements of the park, making suggestions that the designers plan to heed by changing the park’s layout monthly.
“We wanted people to think about how to make public space, what it means to have public space, and how you can change your own public space,” Carey explains.
For Carey and Kang, these events are just as important as the park’s daily use. ParKIT is right outside their office building, so they’ll be able to see how people interact with the installment.
“In the morning, when I come in, if I see anybody holding their espresso cup and having their coffee there, it would just make my day,” Kang says.
Parkers Vs. Pedestrians
But the parklet isn’t making everyone’s day — David Bowers stands on the sidewalk of K Street, leaning against his white pickup truck and smoking a cigarette. He works for Fire & Life Safety America and he has to find street parking every day for work because his truck is too big for the parking garages in the area. And the parking on K Street, he says, is kind of a nightmare.
“You drive around for a half hour, 45 minutes looking for a spot when you should be upstairs working,” Bowers says.
When asked about the parklet, which occupies two metered parking spots, he scoffs.
“That’s not right,” he says, looking down the street at the park. “I think that’s ugly. I mean it’s bright yellow — I thought it was construction,” he adds.
Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT says that complaints like Bowers’ are to be expected. He urges people to think about the trade-offs — only a few people could occupy the parking spaces during the course of the day, but any number of pedestrians could stop, sit and enjoy the park.
One complication with parKIT is that it is in metered spaces, meaning the city is losing money it could be collecting from people parking. For this pilot park, the city is eating the parking fee, but Zimbabwe says they hope to turn to sponsors for future parklets. Zimbabwe hopes that businesses will see having a parklet as an asset and want to help bring one to their street.
“There’s an opportunity for it to really add to the character and the quality of our neighborhoods,” he says.
Just because one business wants a parklet doesn’t mean that other storefronts will be OK with losing the parking. Luckily, a few of Gensler’s neighbors don’t see the new tiny park as a huge pain.
‘Put Your Mind At Ease’
K Street Bagel is a little lunch establishment, right next door to parKIT. Manager Sue Hopkins didn’t know the park was going up, but when she looked out the window she smiled and said, “Well isn’t that beautiful, though?”
A few storefronts down, patrons mill in and out of Bubbles Salon. Stylist Ana Santanello estimates that only 25 percent of her clients drive, and she doesn’t think the park will have much of an effect on parking. She does think, however, that it will have an effect on people’s mindsets.
“Taking five minutes to sit around in greenery just helps put your mind at ease, you know?” she says as she blow-dries her client’s hair.
The project wouldn’t have moved forward, Zimbabwe says, if there had been a lot of opposition from businesses. As this is just a pilot, they’ll be paying close attention to how people react.
“Other cities have had good success expanding the public space and expanding park space by having more permanent parklets,” he says. “We wanted to see how we could expand that to the District.”
One such city is San Francisco, perhaps the tiny park capital of the country. They’re just shy of having 60 parklets all over the city, in part because of the Pavement to Parks program. According to Robin Abad, manager of the parklet program, tiny parks are about negotiating the public space to cater to pedestrians as much as drivers.
“Parklets in general help everyone understand that our streets could and should be doing so much more for pedestrians,” Abad said.
That’s what Sustainable DC and DDOT are trying to bring to D.C. Though the District is no San Francisco, more neighborhoods are trying to get parklets like K Street’s. Georgetown hopes to have a parklet by September, and other areas may follow suit.
Soon, a parklet may be taking over a parking spot near you.
Paige Pfleger is an intern with NPR Digital News