As we saw Monday, parklets could be an interesting model for thinking about encouraging innovation even in areas where we have lots of government rules. Not even rabid anti-”big government” types want to go back to the days of virtually no rules, when anyone was free to dump whatever they wanted into city streets. But creating some flexibility, some room for experimentation and innovation within the system of rules makes a lot of sense.
Parklets are also an interesting way of thinking about how we can allow for different levels of input or say. Democracy is a good thing, but sometimes it can be a bit… frustrating. Andres Power of San Francisco’s Planning Department, this looser structure made it possible to make progress where they hadn’t been able to before.
Cities like New York have a strong hierarchical structure. We don’t have that in San Francisco. And so when there are differences in opinion between groups or agencies, it can be almost impossible to get things done. The first plaza that went in, at 17th and Castro, had a history going back almost ten years of the community talking about using that space. But making it temporary made it happen.
That doesn’t mean we want to get rid of democracy. Sometimes long, hard deliberations are necessary. And we don’t want the kind of openness we saw in Chula Vista. Letting an oil plant owner ignore regulations and spew toxins into neighborhoods and onto school grounds is not the kind of innovation we are looking for. But we need some balance – some lightness, some airiness, some room for a handful of individuals to just try something out and see what happens.
In fact, parklets worked because they gave people around them other forms of having a say aside from voting (or attending endless meetings). They were done in a way that treated other folks’ needs with respect. And, like markets, they allowed individuals and businesses to essentially vote on whether to keep these projects going via pitching in with their labor or money.
And parklets acted as feedback loops. People got to see the results in action, on a small scale. There was less risk than with the big rule change – if important issues were missed, odds were decent that someone would catch it. I think that’s why Rebar’s latest experiments with walklets have smart touches like leaving the rain gutters unimpeded or being designed so that street sweeping machines can easily maneuver around them. These are the kind of issues that are easy to miss and that feedback in the real world are likely to help you with.
The other smart thing about parklets as a model is that it starts very small and then scales up. In San Francisco, it started with just one group creating a parklet. Then other groups did another cities. Then the city of San Francisco tried creating parklets. And now they are attempting to enshrine the process of experimenting with parklets by providing permits year-round for these experiments.
Obviously, this model won’t work for every project. You probably don’t want to use it to design something as massive and vulnerable to collapse as a bridge. But I think that with experience, we might find there are a lot more types of projects where this approach might work very well.
In short, the experience with parklets is a very different way of thinking about how to encourage innovation and creativity within the rules that we all agree we need to provide security.
Up next week: parklets, race, and inequality.