Land Grab: Novel Adaptations of Public Space

My mom’s cousin lives on a houseboat in Portland’s Columbia River. Like most houseboats everything is small, including a deck that’s just large enough to hold a table for four. If it were a normal house, extending the deck would be a multi-day project possibly involving permits, demolition, and construction. On the houseboat they simply tied on a floating pontoon and doubled their deck space. I remember having a small “Aha!” moment when I saw that – on the water, structures don’t need to be as fixed as they are in the “real world”. Recently I’ve been seeing similar adaptations of space happening closer to home.

The Kogi BBQ truck and its long line of adoring customers. (astrobuddha @ Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The first space adaptation is the rise of the food truck. Once sources of cheap and barely edible chow and nicknamed “roach coaches”, the food truck has recently re-emerged as a mobile source of hip, innovative street food. In 2009, the success of LA’s Kogi BBQ truck ignited this trend , serving “korean bbq tacos”, tweeting its location as it drove around the city, and attracting block-long lines of hipsters and hipster-wannabes curious to see what all the fuss was about. While novel at its outset, this innovation quickly spread and there are now many of this next-generation food truck serving a diversity of foods in many metropolitan areas. It has become such a fixture in San Francisco that there are events like Off the Grid SF, in which a group of trucks gather in fixed spots on a weekly schedule and provide common seating, like an outdoor food court.

The food trucks’ creative reappropriation of space is not without side effects. The SF Chronicle recently described how some restaurants are having trouble competing with food trucks that drive into their neighborhoods and steal their business. The article and its heated comments pulled at my sympathy for local businesses who are more heavily taxed, regulated, and rent-burdened than food trucks and who are struggling in this difficult economy. It also stoked my appreciation for what the food trucks have to offer and general disdain for businesses that are unable to adapt to changes in the market. This food truck-restaurant tension left me feeling conflicted for a day, until a possible solution hit me.

A second space adaptation that’s going on in San Francisco is the emergence of Parklets, reclaimed parking spots with public seating and/or vegetation, approved by the city of San Francisco and erected/maintained by private parties. It occurred to me that Parklets can be a key weapon for restaurants to fight back against their mobile invader counterparts.

An SF parklet turns street parking into a comfortable lounging space. (sfbike @ Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Parklets range from functional spaces to artistic expressions. In Noe valley, there are several multi-spot parklets with tables and chairs to enjoy snacks from the local eateries. In Mission, my favorite parklet contains dinosaur topiaries lovingly maintained by a resident:

A triceratops topiary in the "Deepistan Parklet" on Valencia St in San Francisco.

Parklets are the urban version of the houseboat pontoon-deck. They are quick to set up, novel, and create attractive community space, drawing people to the business district. What’s more, they take away parking spots from food trucks!1 🙂

One catch is that Parklets are public space, so there is always a possibility that a food truck can benefit from the Parklet phenomenon even more than the restaurant that sponsors it. Imagine a strategically placed Parklet sponsored by a food truck… local restauranteurs would flip!

Either way, it’s exciting see these trends in transforming public space and am heartened by everybody involved: both on the side of businesses for making this happen and city government for encouraging it. I’ve previously lamented the lack of progress among US local businesses, especially compared to the ultra-competitive Korean market, where everybody is constantly angling to make a buck or carve out a new niche. Food trucks and Parklets are a breath of fresh air and will hopefully lead to further innovations and improvements in the US local business landscape.

Like an ice cream truck for neat freaks, this shop on wheels cruises around Seoul, selling brooms, toilet plungers, and other household supplies, broadcasting its wares by loudspeaker.

Know of any other good examples of public space adaptation? Share in the comments!

  1. They also take parking spots away from drivers, which sucks for drivers when parking is already at a premium, but is great for pedestrians. []

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