“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts… Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all.”
― Jane Jacobs
Parklets are an extension of the sidewalk that takes the place of one or more parking spots in order to create more public spaces in urban neighborhoods. Depending on their design, they are used as an area for people to sit and relax outside or possibly take lunch or coffee break. The concept was first tried in San Francisco, California and has since spread to urban areas all around the Country.
For the work we are doing to bring Parklets to Bethlehem, PA, we want to partner with a local business or restaurant for each Parklet. By connecting Parklets to local businesses, we foster a mutually beneficial relationship: one where the parklet offers additional outdoor space for the business while the business takes on a portion of the costs, legal requirements, and day-to-day maintenance. Unlike traditional patio seating, however, these parklets remain open to the public and do not require its users to make purchases from the partnering business, thus benefiting both the patron and the public.
The Beginnings: 2017
During the summer of 2017, a group of students funded through Lehigh University’s Mountaintop program constructed, installed, and tested a variety of different parklet designs. The team placed these designs in eight locations throughout Bethlehem, building relationships with local businesses and piloting parklets in the Lehigh Valley. By the end of the summer, the students received feedback on various aspects of the project, including the use of parklets in these locations, design styles, and construction materials.
Throughout the Fall 2017 semester, a new group of students took over the Parklets initiative with the goal of researching and designing a Parklet that can be left in one location for the entire season (June – November). In response to the summer 2017 feedback, this design would use higher quality materials and semi-permanent features such as greenery and light fixtures in order to make the parklet more aesthetically-pleasing.
The goal of Lehigh Valley Parklets is to design and install parklets in places where they will be used by the community in a productive and positive way. After meeting with Jackie Parks, a designer with experience building parklets from Alloy Architects to discuss the benefits of using materials like cedarwood, the team came up with a design incorporating chest-height walls and topped with flower-filled planter boxes. The team also met with Missy Hartney of the SouthSide Arts District to discuss plans for partnering with existing community projects and initiatives. At a meeting with Darlene Heller, the City of Bethlehem Director of Planning and Zoning, and her team at City Hall, the team was reminded of a few safety features that the city would like to see, including the use of reflective tape on the corners and parking blocks on either end.
By Spring 2018, the parklet team decided on Joe’s Tavern as the summer-long partner due to their sustained interested in the project and the enthusiasm the business revealed as one of the 2017 partners. As the primary business partner associated with what would now be known as the Broad St. parklet, Joe’s is responsible for the costs of renting the parking space for the season, legal fees, extending their insurance, and any costs related to liquor license adaptations. Joe’s is also responsible for maintaining plants to fill the exterior planters and encouraged to supply any additional furniture or decorations appropriate to the space (tables, lighting, umbrellas etc.).
As the Spring design team wrapped up their semester, they passed their design and materials to a this summer’s Mountaintop team. Summer team members constructed the parklet based on the Spring team’s design, making minor modifications to the color and exterior treatment of the parklet to stay on budget while still creating an attractive design. The team finished construction in late June and worked with Joe’s, the City of Bethlehem, and Bethlehem Parking Authority to install the parklet in a metered parking space at 12 W Broad St, Bethlehem (directly in front of Joe’s Tavern).
In an effort to systematize and expand the feedback collected last summer, the Summer 2018 team conducted a summer-long study on how the Broad St. parklet impacts the surrounding neighborhood (see our methodology here). In short, our data collection process consists of surveys and on-site observations. The survey consisted of 24 questions that ask participants to describe their perceptions of Broad Street and record what brought them to the area. Observations recorded pedestrian behavior within the ½ block observation zone surrounding the parklet. The team hosted a series of events (such as game nights and live music) in the parklet to generate hype and participate in our survey.
After two months of collecting Broad Street parklet data, we published our findings in an annual report, available online. The data we collected offers city planners, business owners, and community members insight into how parklets impact local neighborhoods, allowing city councils, planning committees, and local businesses to work together to improve pedestrian comfort while strengthening the economic activity in the area.
Students continued to analyze and distribute data throughout the fall semester, adding depth and clarity to the annual report and ensuring all parklet stakeholders had access to that information. We printed an updated version of the document and set it to city hall, business leaders, community partners, and dozens of others who had expressed interest in the project over the years. During this time, Joe’s Tavern confirmed that they would be interested in participating in the parklet project for another summer, thus securing our first multi-year business partner in the area.
A new group of students, including members of Lehigh’s Engineers Without Borders club, confirmed a second 2019 business partner, Roasted, thereby expanding the parklet project into South Bethlehem. The team worked closely with the owners of Roasted to develop a parklet design for the space immediately in front of their storefront on 4th Street, which would serve as a seasonal outdoor extension to their restaurant. The team worked with Roasted to file all of the necessary forms and licenses to the City and finished parklet construction right at the end of the semester.
Moving into the summer, we installed both the 4th Street parklet and the Broad Street parklet in early June, where they will remain throughout the summer as an extension of the partnering businesses and as a space for the community to enjoy outdoor seating and shade on city blocks where public benches are few and far between. With these early installations complete, the summer team has turned its attention to event planning, streamlining the application process, and sharing the Lehigh Valley parklet project with a broader audience, allowing other mid-sized city the opportunity to learn from our experiments and research.