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Sep 18, 2013
@ 10:09 pm

"Pop Up" Parks and Why Temporary Urbanism is Amazing

Many of us live in overtly regulatory societies which make innovation difficult. That being said, many of us also live in societies where there is no regulation and the “invisible hand” of the market guides everything, including land use planning. But what the hell does that have to do with pop up parks and temporary urbanism?

Well, public administration can create barriers to innovation and the lack of it can stifle public projects. So, the key, I think, is balance in a world where things move fast. Interests, needs, wants, public focus and dollars for projects. “Pop Up” parks, like pop up shops, satisfy the need to do something fast in an untested, fast changing market, that may or may react favourably. A pop up park is like a litmus test for a broader intervention and, therefore, is more immediate and provides a sense of gratification.

I base this experience based on a recent intervention - a series of pop-up parklets along Toronto’s Church Street. The spine of Toronto’s gay village, Church Street has undergone much change over the past ten years, most recently due to a large degree of redevelopment after a period of relative dormancy. As redevelopment has occurred, new park space has not increased and has, in fact, visually decreased as private green space (claimed by the public by way of use) has been redeveloped into condominium towers and other uses. Parking lots have also disappeared and the area, it seems, was getting “tighter,” at least from an urban fabric point of view.

So what of the parklets?

Organized through the Business Improvement Association, local councillor and community groups, the parklets removed on-street parking spaces and extended the public realm into the street. The parklets were enclosed and, relative to the business they were in front of, provided patio space, seating for the general public and standing room. They were designed to reflect or match the facade of respective buildings, providing a sense of design continuity and were fully articulated; that is, it was clear that while the parklets were temporary, the enclosures they provided were solid, well designed and - dare I say - handsome. During the day full of patrons, teenagers, dog walkers, people watchers and at night crowded with party goers, night owls and the occasional hunched over, hungover … mess.

Was it a successful intervention?

It’s hard to say. The parklets were instituted in August, and two months of usage (that is, June and July) passed them by. They also attracted all sorts of attention: those not occupied by patio furniture provided opportune places for our homeless population to sleep. Without casting judgement, I wonder if this was their ultimate purpose.

However, I will say that this foray into temporary urban interventions has allowed for a number of activities to take place that would have either not happened or been related to another location. It also reminds me, at least, of the value of an expanded and extended public realm and how important it is for the street-based experience. Relative to other uses, like a couple of parking spots, I’ve seen over the past month how exciting, vibrant and fun Church Street can be in the face of massive development and competing priorities for public dollars.

So, what are the lessons learned for elsewhere in the city and other places thinking of doing something like this? In my humble opinion, as pop up parks are more micro-scale in nature, they lend themselves well not only to speed but also function. You can design a pop up park to fit a local condition at a level of analysis that would be difficult with a larger project. The micro-scale lends itself also to innovation, creativity and opportunity with spaces that would be overlooked in a larger project. Oh, that alley? In a larger precinct project, perhaps it would be relegated to a purely functional role. As part of a pop up park project? A sight line of opportunity; a pedestrian rest area; a place for community gathering; an extension of the public realm; a “mews.” They are also politically saleable in the sense that they typically cost less than a larger park project or more fixed solution and are a “feel good” type of intervention. Every politician loves a “shovel ready,” quick project they can stand in front of. A pop up anything, given the recent social media buzz, is on the politicos’ radars. And most importantly, they remind us of the need for public realm in the pedestrian experience and that even in a temporary way, they can help us to creatively assesses our places and space.

Let’s hope the parklets happen again next year and, hopefully, they won’t be temporary.