“Experimenting with the Margin: Parklets and Plazas as Catalysts in Community and Government”

“Experimenting with the Margin: Parklets and Plazas as Catalysts in Community and Government” was published this month by the University of Southern California this month.  This graduate thesis from student Robin Abad Ocubillo resulted from interviews with over sixty parklet and plaza stakeholders in New York, San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles.  Parklets and Plazas – besides being novel new open spaces where communities gather – actually play a huge role in bringing neighbors together through the process of planning, fundraising, design and implementation.  From the Abstract:

Two related  typologies  of  small-scale,  experimental  urban  design  have  emerged  in  recent  years  as  a  synthesis  of  community  action  and  progressive  governmental  experimentation:  the  Parklet  and  the  Pedestrian  Plaza. The  Parklet  occupies  curbside  parking  spaces  while  the  Pedestrian  Plaza  reclaims  excess  roadway,  often  at  irregular  intersections. While  the  typologies  differ  in  physical  form,  both  emerge  from  a  common  thrust  of  experimental  action  redressing  the  urban  fabric  and  environment. Together,  these  two  typologies  –  and  the  city  programs  created  to  facilitate  their  implementation  –  begin  to  define  a  process  of  Heuristic  Urbanism:  a  collaborative  practice  that  engages  urban  design  through  provisional  programs  and  projects  that  are  continually  self-evaluating. This  thesis  illustrates  how  the  Heuristic  Urbanism  of  Parklets  and  Pedestrian  Plazas  necessitates  innovation  within  city  government  through  the  assimilation  of  grassroots  initiatives. A  literature  review  outlines  the  theoretical  and  practical  contexts  from  which  Heuristic  Urbanism  emerges;  suggests  the  evolutionary  heritage  of  Parklets  and  Pedestrian  Plazas;  and  examines  the  range  of  assumptions,  expectations,  and  outcomes  engendered  by  the  new  typologies  and  their  relatives. The  thesis  then  leverages  interviews  with  over  65  individual  stakeholders  from  government,  advocacy  groups,  design  and  business  communities  in  four  California  cities  which  are  in  various  stages  of  advancing  Parklet  and  Pedestrian  Plaza  programs…

The  discussion  then  moves  from  overarching  examination  of  program  development  to  circumstances  at  the  site  and  neighborhood  scale;  identifying  common  physical  and  social  conditions  as  pre-requisites  for  Parklet  and  Plaza  viability. This  set  of  conditions  is  generated  from  stakeholder  interviews  and  correlated  with  the  literature  review. Here  the  thesis  articulates  a  coherent  practical  framework  for  evaluating  future  potential  sites  of  intervention;  engaging  the  dialectic  between  action,  research,  analysis,  and  refinement  that  characterizes  Heuristic  Urbanism.  The  study  concludes  with  a  discussion  on  the  long-term  implications  of  Heuristic  Urbanism  for  urban  design  and  planning  practice. Significant  and  recurring  themes  emerge  from  the  interviews;  defining  a  territory  which addresses  public-private  tensions,  the  role  of  design  professionals  in  activism  and  governance,  and  the  catalytic  potential  of  Heuristic  Urbanism  for  re‐adapting  both  the  urban  fabric  and  modes  of  its  management.

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