The provided momentum for rethinking how to make more room for public life in our public spaces and streets is one of the few positive impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The grandiose experiments to transform iconic squares, like Helsinki’s Senate Square, into vast pop-up terraces have hardly gone unnoticed by anyone. The interventions have quickly turned often-empty plazas into places where there are constantly people about to socialize, dine, and enjoy life.
The conversion of on-street parking spaces into outdoor seating areas for bars and restaurants – the spread of parklets – has, in contrast, increased “people space” in a more subtle and organic way. For example, on Helsinki’s Vaasankatu, the street at my corner, the number of parklets has seemingly doubled during the pandemic. And you could say the same about the number of people that flock there. At least there’s little difference compared to the pre-pandemic days.
I’ve been following this incremental shift towards more human-centric streets with great interest and delight. It wasn’t very long ago when the space between the sidewalk and driving lanes was strictly car territory: Helsinki’s first parklets were introduced in 2016.
The concept itself is of course an older innovation. Its roots are in San Francisco where three activists, the Rebar design collective, got an idea in 2005 to draw attention to the quality of public space in the city by occupying a metered parking space for a couple of hours. Not to park a car, but to change it into a DIY miniature public park. The project was an instant success and it gave birth to the PARK(ing) Day event which encourages people to do the same in their city.
A few years later, the idea was institutionalized by San Francisco’s city hall. The city made it possible for businesses to apply for permits for converting parking spaces in front of their premises into small parks, public seating areas, or outdoor dining areas – calling them parklets.
Fast forward to 2015, and the Finnish parklet is born. It was initiated by Helsinki’s city council member Hannu Oskala who, inspired by the experiences from San Francisco, suggested that Helsinki could also run a similar pilot program. This eventually happened during the summer of 2016, opening the door for the parklet to slowly become a familiar sight on busy streets and around restaurant districts.
The pandemic has, however, provided a real breakthrough for the parklet. People have discovered new value in spending time outdoors and the capacity restrictions imposed on the restaurant sector have been lighter for open air seating areas. This has been fertile ground for putting parking spaces into more efficient use than storing cars. According to the city’s database, there are currently 132 active parklet permits in Helsinki. (There are slightly fewer of them on the ground because some areas are affected by construction activities and some restaurants haven’t installed their parklet).
The concept also found its way to the streets of Finland’s other major cities Tampere and Turku during the pandemic. Both have initiated similar pilot program as Helsinki earlier did. At least in Tampere, the idea of replacing cars with people is catching on fast: last year there were two parklets (according to my observations), and now you can already find 8.
For inspiration and interest, I compiled a selection of the innovations, designs, and features that define the Finnish world of parklets.
Most parklets are found on regular side streets, but they also thrive in the so-called Summer Streets of Helsinki, Tampere and Turku (short street sections with reduced driving speeds and more space for pedestrians and cyclists).
On flat and sloping land
Most parklets sit on flat or nearly flat surfaces, which obviously is favorable for designing and furnishing them. Hills have, however, not proven to be any obstacle for businesses who want to set up a parklet. The ones sitting on sloping land are usually divided into two or more levels.
Varying levels of enclosure and protection
The typical parklet has sturdy wooden boxes at both ends and a lighter wooden or metal fence that separates them from the driving lane. There are many exceptions to this “rule”. Some parklets are very enclosed from all three sides, and some don’t really have edges at all – just an area separated by rope. Some businesses provide extra protection for their customers by having back-to-back parklets with their neighbor. In car-centric environments, parklets are protected by concrete barriers.
Asphalt, wooden decks, or carpets
There’s asphalt under every parklet, and some businesses have chosen to leave it as their parklet floor. The most popular option is, however, to add a wooden deck to ensure the floor is leveled. Some roll out a carpet on the asphalt or on the wooden deck to add some extra comfort. The most popular carpet color is green.
The majority of parklets have individual chairs set up around their tables. This set-up obviously allows for most flexibility in accommodating groups of varying sizes. Some have benches and therefore a more static (and often sturdier) seating arrangement. Interestingly, you can also spot some seating arrangements that are designed to foster interaction between patrons by having them sit face-to-face or in some other engaging way.
Protection from the sun
A feature that clearly defines Finnish parklets is whether they provide any protection from the sun or not. This summer has been very warm, leaving many parklets empty that don’t offer any shade during the day.
Plantings and decorations
Plantings of varying sorts and sizes are by far the most popular decorative element with parklets. Many businesses are committed to taking care of real plants but there is also plenty of plastic “green” out there. There are of course also those who have chosen not to include anything green or otherwise on their parklet. Besides all things green, some parklets include decorative lights or their own branding.
Parklets typically offer patrons nothing more than tables and chairs. But there are a handful of exceptions out there that (at least occasionally) provide something more. One additional service you might come across is an outdoor bar or service point. Another is bringing the TV out for entertainment.
Level of completeness
Another defining factor is how much effort and businesses have (seemingly) put into the design, materials and furnishing of their parklets. Many are like small pieces of art, others appear as something that was created and pieced together overnight.
Uses beyond dining and drinking
Finally, while the Finnish parklet concept is first and foremost designed to serve the needs of bars and restaurants, it can also benefit other types of businesses. And in one case (as far as I know) it already does. Inside Helsinki’s Summer Street project there is one parklet that has been set up by a furniture store!
What comes next?
The triumph of the parklet is proving to be a great asset for making streets in urban Finland more sociable places and for reducing the impact of the car on cities. Its backstory is also terrific proof of concept for the idea that active citizens can truly shape the future of cities, no matter how small you start.
I think that Rebar’s original parklet scheme is also something that especially Helsinki should revisit. The streets of the inner city all too often have very little green infrastructure along them. On-street parking is, however, ample. Helsinki’s planners could easily begin to use the parklet mechanism themselves to create more public space and green patches by converting parking spaces into small pocket parks.
It’s well worth another pilot program.