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Monday Mar 14, 2016

Urban parklets reclaim city streets for humans

There's a distinctly subversive ring to the essentials of a small event in California a decade ago, which an ocean and a continent away has found a resonant and wholesome echo in the streets of Cape Town.

Architect Martin Pallman, a key member of the team behind the Longmarket Street 'parklet' - a people-friendly facility for public uses and an innovative element of the drive for a safer, accessible and liveable city.

On the morning of November 16, 2005, staff from Rebar Art and Design Studio fed a parking meter in Mission Street, San Francisco with enough coins to reserve a parking bay for two hours. It wasn't for a car. The team laid down a patch of astroturf, brought in a tree and installed a bench and some bollards and in that fraction of a working day introduced a new noun to the lexicon of urban life.

The "parklet" took off - spreading from the hip districts of West Coast cities to other centres across the US and beyond. Only last month, the City of Cape Town produced the final draft of its own parklet guidelines.

Parklet - even the name itself - attracts associations of novelty and fun, even a certain cheekiness, yet, as a phenomenon, it occurs at the confluence of urban stresses and functions of more serious proportions.

Since 2008, a milestone in human history, more people live in cities than the countryside, but cities which in their mushrooming forms have made more or less unholy accommodations with 20th century technologies and conveniences, primarily the motor car - the sponsor of freeways, suburban sprawl, clogged arterial commuter routes, pollution and subtle but telling forms of social alienation.

The displacement of the car by safe, reliable forms of public transport has become the dominant argument for changing how we live in cities.

The parklet, then, is a kind of reclaiming - taking parking space away from cars and giving it back to people.

It is indisputable that shared public spaces - places where people meet and mix - are safer, help to make urban society more cohesive and stable and create cities that are cleaner, more accessible and more economically and environmentally sustainable.

And what is true of city life in Cape Town is that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with getting out into the open, using public space more frequently and differently. More cafes and restaurants are opening out on to abutting pavements, events in the city increasingly incorporate whole precincts, not merely venues indoors and parklets have become a feature.

They are part of what German- born architect Martin Pallman, an associate at GAPP architects, sees as a way of changing not just the physical shape, or experience of cities, but of public behaviour too.

This has been true of the parklet GAPP built outside its offices in Longmarket Street a year ago to celebrate its merger with urban design company, City Think Space and reflect their combined commitment to "change the built environment in ways that enhance people's experience of it".

The wood- and- steel structure incorporates a tubular crash-resistant frame around which the hard-wood form is built. It features seating, a "coffee counter", bicycle racks and planters.

And it's there for anyone to use. It was designed in such a way - coupled with a reconfiguration of parking - that meant not a single parking bay was lost.

But it introduces life to the street in new and unpredictable ways, acknowledging pedestrians and other road users and "illustrating the permutations and possibilities" of sharing public space and creating a more hospitable city at street level.

This meshes with the steady shift towards public transport and particularly the growing impact of the MyCiTi initiative. "Parklets help to change minds and behaviour and that changes the city," Pallman said. All over the city, "life is spilling out on to the pavement".

The essential requirement was to "design for people, not against them".

That included an acknowledgement of homeless people who might use a parklet to sleep at night. "That's the nature of Cape Town," Pallman said. "It's important that we see it and not blank it out. We need to grapple with social issues, but that means seeing them, being conscious of them. Overall, our approach is that the more people using the parklet, the better."

Last year, a GAPP design was selected from five bids for another parklet, in Regent Road, Sea Point, commissioned by property developer Blok and created in partnership with the GAPP team, custom furniture designer and bui lder Cameron Barnes and digital urbanism platform Future Cape Town.

This parklet occupies two parking bays and features triangular blocks of seating and planting that can be moved around to accommodate different purposes. It has bicycle racks, too, and even has wifi.

Pallman said: "We handed it to our young designers and told them to run with it... and it's turned out to be a stunning public installation."

Blok's managing director, Jacques van Embden, said in a feature published by Future Cape Town: "We want to provoke conversation around public space, who can manage and participate in co-creating it and essentially to redefine the way that people view public spaces in an urban environment."

Future Cape Town's Rashiq Fataar sees the parklet as "a provocation as well as a gift", an offering to the public as a place to pause and rest and a "provocation to the car-owning public to consider alternative ways of using and enjoying city space".

In an interview in 2012, Lyndall Maunder, owner of central city eatery Clarke's, described the rationale behind what became Cape Town's first parklet, on Bree Street. "It is creating a public space where there wasn't one before.

"This is not a trading space and it is not exclusive to the restaurant. We can't do table service there, so if you want to eat you can buy take-aways and take it away to the parklet... It is very much about bringing people out on to the streets. We want to encourage people to relax and connect in the space."

Four years ago Maunder speculated: "If the test goes well we might get the opportunity to put it up for a longer period, from November to March 2013."

The privately funded Bree Street parklet - also built by Barnes and maintained by Clarke's - is still there, a daily hub of conversation, an attractive feature of the street line and a symbol of the possibilities of living differently in cities.

michael.morris-AT-inl.co-DOT-za

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