When Your Parking Grows Up

A photo essay on what curb spaces can become.
This post is 6 in the series: Parking? Lots!

In 2007, I saw this in a residential neighborhood near central Copenhagen:

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

A rack for 10 bicycles had grown where an on-street car parking space had been. In Copenhagen, where 50 percent of residents commute by bike, on-street bicycle parking was a sensible idea—fit 10 bikes where one car could go, thus freeing up the sidewalk from a cluster of parked cycles.

Fast-forward several years, and Copenhagen parking has grown up to bigger and pinker things:

This car-shaped storage unit provides secure, rainproof space for four cargo bicycles in a space equivalent to 1.5 vehicle parking spots.

As Alan Durning will detail in an upcoming article, on-street parking takes up a lot of space in North American cities: 5 to 8 percent of all urban land, according to UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup. If parking reforms—like pricing on-street spaces—reduce the need for curb parking in our cities, what will we do with all that extra space?

As it turns out, Cascadian cities are already trying out some exciting new ideas. In this article, we’ll look at four things parking can grow up to become: bike corrals, international PARK(ing) Day, parklets, and café seating.

In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, this car-shaped bicycle rack creatively reminds people just how many cycles can fit in a space formerly used to park one car:

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, business owners can request an on-street bicycle rack out front, and the city will install one if warranted.

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

Since 2010, San Francisco has created more than 300 bicycle parking spaces—in racks known as bike corrals—in place of 30 car parking spots. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) will consider installing a bike corral in places where demand for bicycle parking exceeds available space on the sidewalk. The MTA prefers to place corrals near intersections, which helps improve sightlines for all road users.

Portland has nearly 100 bicycle corrals throughout the city:

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

Photo by Alyse Nelson.

Streetfilms, an organization with a mission to showcase smart urban planning solutions on film, visited Portland to learn about bicycle corrals:

Streetfilms spoke with Portland Department of Transportation’s Greg Raisman about the appeal of on-street bicycle corrals. “There’s something that’s quite empowering about parking your bicycle on the asphalt. It’s a real equalizer,” he said. “It feels like…when I’m riding my bicycle or I’m driving my car, my community and my city respects me equally.”

On-street bicycle parking is just the beginning. With streets making up a fifth to a third of the urban land area (for example, 27 percent in Seattle, 25 percent in San Francisco, and 20 percent in Portland), cities have implemented a host of creative ways to use on-street parking spaces for other purposes.

One idea that has spread around the globe is PARK(ing) Day, an annual event in September in which curb parking spaces are transformed into people places for a day. It all started in San Francisco in 2005, when a design firm called Rebar turned a single on-street parking space into a temporary public park with sod, a bench, and a tree.

Since then, San Francisco’s PARK(ing) Days have included places to kick back and listen to tunes:

And kick a ball:

Card games, belly dancing, live cello music—these have all been part of PARK(ing) Day in San Francisco, as captured in a Streetfilms video.

Rebar decided to share its idea with the world, creating a free, downloadable PARK(ing) Day Manual as well as graphics and posters for participants to use and a Google Earth map to track all PARK(ing) Day events.

In 2011, the event grew to nearly 1,000 PARK(ing) Day parks in 162 cities worldwide. Participants have adapted the design strategy to include temporary art exhibits, bicycle repair stations, and urban agriculture plots, such as this one in Seattle:

PARK(ing) Day 2010 brought chickens to Seattle’s streets:

An on-street café was part of PARK(ing) Day in Portland:

The mission of PARK(ing) Day is to “call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat… at least until the meter runs out!”  The temporary parks help people see the power of public spaces and imagine a future where less space is dedicated to the private automobile.

The success of PARK(ing) Day has generated enthusiasm for more permanent installations in parking spots. In 2010, San Francisco became the first city in the world to create “parklets”—mini urban parks that typically take up a couple of on-street parking spaces. Platforms raise the parklets to the level of the curb, ensuring ADA accessibility; other features include landscaping, benches, tables and chairs, and bicycle racks.

This San Francisco parklet has café tables:

Photo by Michael Pucci of Pucci Residential Design. Used with permission.

Photo by Michael Pucci of Pucci Residential Design. Used with permission.

This one in the Mission District is hosted by three businesses: Revolution Café, Escape From New York Pizza, and Loló Restaurant:

This parklet on Noriega Street in the Outer Sunset neighborhood is hosted by Devil’s Teeth Baking Company:

This parklet on 9th Avenue near Golden Gate Park is hosted by Arizmendi Bakery:

Parking spaces at Haight Street Market in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood have grown this parklet:

The city accepts applications for parklets once a year. Selected proposals go through a vetting process that includes public noticing and construction review. Parklets are built, insured, and maintained by private property owners but must be open to the public and subject to city inspection.

Even though parklets take up on-street parking spaces, they are placed in neighborhoods that are busy with pedestrian and bicycle traffic. That helps businesses see them as a boon. According to Andres Power of the San Francisco Pavement to Parks Program, “it’s the businesses that are clamoring for this most. There’s a nexus that helps us move beyond the concern over parking loss.”

Three years after the program’s inception, 40 parklets have grown in San Francisco, with 40 more in the planning and permitting stages.

Other cities are following suit. Vancouver has a pilot parklet program in place to turn streets into community gathering places. The city’s first parklet, Parallel Park, was built in 2011 in the East Vancouver neighborhood of Mount Pleasant:

The parklet takes the place of two parking spaces and includes a wooden deck, bench seating, and tables. Parallel Park was voted “Best Place to Park Your Butt for Free” by the city’s Georgia Straight newspaper, and it even has its own Facebook page.

VIVA Vancouver, the city program in charge of the parklet program, pitched the idea to business improvement districts across Vancouver. The South Hill Business Association submitted a proposal for the Hot Tubs Parklet, which opened in September 2012:

In Portland, a pilot program called Street Seats grew three parklets in 2012. This one, outside Wafu noodle bar, was the first:

Unlike the parklet programs in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Seattle, which require that the converted parking spaces remain open to the public, the Street Seats pilot program built only private café seating that business owners restricted to their own customers.

The 2013 program allows public Street Seats sites and accepts applications from any businesses, neighborhood associations, and nonprofit groups.

Seattle is in the process of creating a parklet pilot program through its department of transportation. Although the exact locations have yet to be announced, several parklets are being planned for Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Belltown, and Chinatown/International District neighborhoods.

As UCLA’s Donald Shoup points out, “The upside of the mess we have made [with overabundant parking] is that we have an accidental land bank readily available.” From on-street bicycle parking to café seating, creative ideas for using public streets are spreading. Temporary oases such as PARK(ing) Day parks are inspiring people to think differently about on-street parking spaces, and permanent modifications such as parklets are providing welcoming gathering spaces in dense neighborhoods. As successful pilot initiatives blossom into long-term programs, we may yet see more vehicle parking spaces growing up to become people places.

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  1. Jennifer Wieland says:

    Thanks for the great article about creative uses of parking spaces! Last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation did announce the locations of the three parklets in Seattle’s pilot program, and we also launched our new Pilot Parklet Program website at http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/parklets.htm. We are encouraging people to let us know what they think about the program and the proposed parklets. Stay tuned for much more in August!

    • Mary DeJong says:


      I’m thrilled to know of this pilot program and I ABSOLUTELY have suggestions for other proposed parklets: the SDOT owned, chain-linked fenced off parcels all along MLK Jr. Way in the Rainier Valley.

      We are long time residents and have watched these parcels with diminishing hope over the years. After the light rail was running, we assumed Sound Transit would do something useful with the land. However, these parcels all along the MLK Jr. Way corridor remain vacant, weed-filled and unattractive statements to a community that would hugely benefit from transforming these fenced off parcels of land into beauty.

      We understand that SDOT now has ownership of this parcels and would love to see something happen here in the Rainier Valley! The majority of these properties are condensed around the Columbia City and Othello Light Rail Stations.

      I would be happy to put forward a more formal proposal if that is available.

      Thank you for the work you are already doing on behalf of our City!


      Co-founder & co-chair, Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mt.View

  2. Earthdave says:

    Anyone know if this has happened in Paris (France)? anyone interested in doing it?

  3. Alyse Nelson says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for the update on Seattle’s Pilot Parklet Program. We’ll look forward to seeing parklets spring up in Seattle.


  4. Aimee says:

    I love the nature strips and seating areas and bike parking use, but really hate when restaurants expand their seating out into former parking spots, because anyone walking down the street now basically has to walk THROUGH a restaurant and it makes you uncomfortable if you need to stop as you’re walking down the sidewalk (and imagine the glares of customers if you took a call!). Portland has a few of these and it pushes customers right out next to traffic – I love outdoor seating but would hate to be sitting right up against cars going by that fast. Other than that, the rest of the ideas and pix are great!!!

    • mike eliason says:

      in many carfree districts [fussgaengerzonen]in german/swiss cities, cafes spill out into the [former streets]. in some cases, tables are set in middle of the open space, people still walk adjacent to the buildings (sort of like here, only wider: http://www.merkur-online.de/bilder/2010/06/25/817724/251561378-4223137_530-1r09.jpg), it never really feels that uncomfortable. oh no! you have to interact with people as you walk down the street – isn’t that the point? better yet, leave the middle of the street for feet, bikes, streetcars, and the shops spill onto the sidewalks (like here. oh how i miss this: http://www.loewen-freiburg.de/images/freiburg.jpg)

      hopefully we’ll get there soon. baby steps are better than no steps, i guess.

  5. Darby Cowles says:

    Make sure to stop by and see our parklet and bike corrals if you’re ever in downtown Bellingham, WA!

    • Brian Mulligan says:

      Darby – I’m in downtown Bellingham all the time but don’t have a clue. Where is the parklet? Thanks.

      • Michael Lilliquist says:

        Bellingham’s parklet is currently in front of Dashi Noodle on State Street. Last year it was on Railroad Ave in front of La Fiamma.

  6. Sharon Betcher says:

    I love all the creative use of space, but I admit that my stomach tightens up whenever the discussion moves to reducing parking spaces as that seems inevitably to reduce access for persons living with mobility disabilities, which includes me. Notice that there’s no persons on crutches or wheelchairs moving through any of the photos? often handicapped parking, thus access (unless more bikes are built for some of the rest of us), is correlated with auto spaces–like 1 handicapped spot for every 25 autos. So as we move into renovating these urban land holdings, let’s think about how these can be opened to those of us who move in diverse ways and by diverse means, those of us who may be no less physical, but whose physical exertion doesn’t take us as far.

    • Alyse Nelson says:

      Hi Sharon,

      Thank you for your comment. It is important to make sure we’re developing inclusive communities – cities that work for people of all ages and abilities. The public parklets I highlighted here are required to be ADA accessible. However, it is important to consider the issues you raise – maybe if in the future on-street parking becomes less prevalant, the ratio of ADA stalls may have to increase.

  7. emiel arends says:


    Love your article. It sums up nicely all the 1st steps being made to reclaim space for the pedestrians/cyclists in city centres. In Rotterdam (the netherlands) we have an mobility strategy which does exactly what is in the pictures and more. We have so much bikes in the city that we do not have enough parking spaces inside the city centre. The last 2 years we created room for antoher 1.000 bikes, but it is far from being enough. There is a bare necessity to make more room (and keep in mind that bike owner are lazy! They do not want to walk for more then 50 to 100 meters after they are done cycling. So waht to do?

    What you do not want however is that you keep in mind that those parking spaces were there for a reason. Attractivity for a city centre is also being car friendly to get in/out. To manage this we build 4 park and walk gargaes (roughly 2.500 places) around the main padestrian routes. This helps for 2 reasons. 1 – less cars at the places the most people walk and 2 – for every parkingspace made under ground we took one away above ground.

    In short: We have some of the same examples as you posted in your article, but some streets were actually redesigned and the room it gave without park spaces is now used by pedestrians and cyclists.

    • Alyse Nelson says:


      Thanks for your example from Rotterdam. I remember that Copenhagen also had parking garages at the edges of their central core. This helped to create places for people to park, but still create the pedestrian-oriented spaces in the central core that make it a great place to visit and live.

  8. Daniel Amstutz says:

    This is a great set of articles, thank you for highlighting the overabundance and reuse of traditional vehicle parking.

    I live in and work for a city in the SE United States and am aware that you are located in the NW and focus on examples and issues in that area. However, are you aware of cities around the southeast that are experimenting with bike corrals and parklets? It’s a totally different mindset down here (do not ever expect someone to walk more than 5 minutes from their parking space) and parking is always a contentious issue. I’d like to know if other cities in my region (North Carolina) have been successful in these kinds of activities.


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