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L.A. aims to green up city streets with mini-parks

Parklet at Freewheel Bike Shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco
Parklet at Freewheel Bike Shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco

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Mini parks are popping up around the country, from New York to San Francisco. Now, Los Angeles is about to join in. These "parklets" take advantage of small spaces in urban areas. They're often set up in what was once a parking space and include benches, trees and sometimes a patio. Last week the LA City Council introduced a motion to build several parklets through the city.

That's good news to Valarie Watson.

She's an urban designer and a member of the Downtown L.A. Neighborhood Council. She loves city life, but admits it gets crowded.

“You know the sidewalk spaces are mostly populated and kinda hard to walk down," Watson notes as she sidesteps cafe tables and parked bikes on a bustling sidewalk. "There are so many people that want to enjoy the public realm, right? Parklets offer a little eddy in the stream.”

Valarie Watson is heading to one such parklet. It's a little patch of grass laid down along Spring Street in what’s usually a metered parking space. A handful of people are there. Some lounging in lawn chairs or walking dogs, others are just sipping coffee.

“You usually get some confused looks because there is usually a car here,” Watson says as she steps off the curb onto freshly placed sod.

This pop-up park is temporary. It materialized for Park(ing) Day, a national event that encourages people to set up green spaces in urban areas.

“It’s just taking that 8 foot by 20 foot space that would usually have a car and making it a place for people.”

But Valarie Watson and others are working with the Los Angeles City Council to make this particular mini-park a permanent fixture. It would be one of a handful of parklets installed around the city on public land.

Watson imagines this space one day having a deck, plants and benches.

“I mean – this is pie in the sky but how cool would it be to have a ping pong or a foosball table out here for people to enjoy after they've had their lunch or if they are walking down the street? You know, bring your own foosball or something like that….”

Tiny sports for a tiny park.

In the meantime, Watson and the Neighborhood Council need to raise around 10 thousand dollars in money and supplies. And they’re seeking the support of local businesses and loft dwellers.

Most visitors on this day seem to dig the temporary set up on Spring Street. Reactions range from bemusement to outright adoration for the little grassy parking space.

But not everyone is feeling the love. Gronk Nicandro sits to the side of the parklet eating lunch.

“I think what happens is a white middle class has moved down here from suburbia and tries to reinforce their suburban sensibility onto an urban environment,” Nicandro said.

Nicandro is an artist who’s lived downtown for more than 30 years. He shares a sidewalk table with his friend Ed Sanchez. Neither of them wanted to use the parklet.

“I drive… I need a spot to park,” chimes in Sanchez, who works as a contractor. “I got a commercial truck and that is going to take away from me being able to do my business.”

Nicandro and Sanchez think downtown LA is just fine as it is.

And while the mini-parks would give the restaurants who help maintain them more room for outdoor seating, at least one survey in San Francisco suggested they don’t bring in much new business.

But for neighborhood activist Valarie Watson, that’s not the main reason for the parks.

“It’s a really wonderful experience to walk down a street and see someone you know.”

She hopes that once people see what a little park can offer, grassy spaces will start to sprout up all over the city.