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Hearth & Home January 2015

Photo courtesy: ©2014 Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. Photographer: Matt Stanley.
Spruce Street Harbor Park by Delaware River Waterfront Corporation.

From Pavement to Paradise

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Joni Mitchell should be pleased; people are transforming urban settings one parking space at a time.

Joni Mitchell, the folk singer who lamented the paving of paradise with parking lots, would be pleased. In cities all across the U.S, parking lots, vacant plots, abandoned properties and other parcels of urban jungle are being transformed back into natural paradises. Unlike the “tree museums” Mitchell predicted, these vibrant, new, public outdoor spaces range from community vegetable gardens, to pocket parks, to large-scale Outdoor Rooms with amenities such as patio furniture, water features and fire pits.

Often referred to as “pop-ups,” these outdoor living spaces are usually temporary and seasonal, open anywhere from one day to several months, with the locations frequently changing. Not only do they beautify their surrounding neighborhoods, creating better places to live and work, but they yield a host of other benefits as well.

For one, these temporary spaces are relatively quick and inexpensive to install compared with permanent development, so they allow cities to test public-space concepts to see what appeals most to the community before investing in permanent construction. The local economy gets a substantial boost thanks to the influx of visitors to the pop-up spaces, illicit activities are dramatically reduced in the area and, in some cases, the parks have attracted the attention of commercial developers who go on to revitalize the once-vacant properties. If a community garden is part of the plan, local food banks are the grateful beneficiaries of an abundance of fresh produce.

So what makes these pop-up spaces important to manufacturers and retailers of outdoor hearth, patio and barbecue products? Pop-up parks help expose hundreds of thousands of people to the concept of outdoor living and show them what is possible in their own backyards. They are an untapped demonstration and education opportunity.

Photo courtesy: ©2014 Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. Photographer: Matt Stanley.
Spruce Street Harbor Park Hammock Garden by Delaware River Waterfront Corporation.

“Pop-up parks are definitely becoming a popular trend,” says Mark A. Focht, FASLA, president of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “Over the last four or five years there has been lots of interest in this concept all around the country. These spaces serve to Green and activate underutilized or vacant lots, and help people reimagine public spaces.”

One of the earliest examples of a pop-up park was in 2005, when a San Francisco-based art and design studio named Rebar created PARK(ing) Day. The designers temporarily converted one metered parking space in downtown San Francisco into an open public space by installing sod, a potted tree and a park bench for two hours – the maximum time allowed on the parking meter. A photo of the miniature park, wedged between two parked cars on a city street, went viral and inspired a global movement.

Today PARK(ing) Day is held annually on the third Friday in September. In 2011, the last year numbers were collected, 975 “parklets” were created in over 160 cities on six continents, with parking spaces converted into the likes of demonstration vegetable gardens, bocce courts, art exhibits, relaxation gardens, picnic lunch spots, and a host of other incarnations featuring all sorts of outdoor living products. The short-lived parks attract millions of visitors worldwide each year.

The program inspired the Pavement-to-Parks program in San Francisco, through which businesses, community groups and individuals can apply for permits to convert parking spaces or other underutilized parcels of land into longer-lasting but still temporary public outdoor living spaces. Dozens of projects have been installed throughout the city to date.

Park(ing) Day in San Francisco, California.

Cities all over the U.S. are following suit and embracing the pop-up park concept. Since 2010, Chicago has participated in the Peterson Garden Project, a nonprofit that converts vacant lots into community gardens. Last year, approximately 4,000 residents tended eight community gardens throughout the city, donating a portion of the harvest to food banks. Landlords loan the lots free of charge until they are ready to be developed, and then the raised planting beds are easily relocated to different properties.

Cleveland’s Pop-Up City program was founded in 2007 by Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative as a way to counter the city’s declining downtown population, and to utilize vacant lots, buildings and other urban spaces. Over the years, the program has created many award-winning temporary outdoor living spaces, including converting a parking garage into a lively outdoor performance venue with concerts, outdoor seating, food concessions, a water feature and gardens.

Its Center for Outdoor Living Design (COLD) Snowball Pavilion showcased a weather-resistant, pergola-like structure that could be enjoyed in all four seasons. The pergola’s curved wood slats created an inviting outdoor living space providing shade in hot weather and shelter from chilly winds and even snow in winter, reminding residents of the possibilities for outdoor living even in colder climates.

The epicenter of the country’s pop-up park movement might just be Philadelphia, where a host of different groups manage multiple installations throughout the city. The nonprofit Delaware River Waterfront Corporation revitalized unused waterfront property with the Spruce Street Harbor Park, a pop-up open from June through September, 2014. Amenities included Adirondack chairs, picnic and bistro tables, 50 colorful hammocks, umbrellas, fire pits, cooling misters, outdoor lighting, a floating restaurant and a beer garden. The park’s water fountains, unused for the previous 15 years, were even reactivated.

Association for Public Art, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and Fairmount Park Conservancy create and launch Magic Carpet at The Oval.

The Oval, one of five pop-up parks developed by Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department last year, turned a 130-car parking lot near the city’s art museum into a vibrant, interactive outdoor living space with a colorful carpet mural painted on the pavement, a performance stage, free movies, ping pong, beer garden, food trucks, sandboxes, seating and lighting. On fall weekends, six wood-burning fire pits were installed, offering visitors the opportunity to cozy up by the fire and make s’mores. Over 70,000 people visited the Oval in 2014, twice as many visitors as in 2013.

Four years ago the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) created its first Pop-Up Garden on a vacant lot in the shadow of City Hall in downtown Philadelphia, turning it into a Green oasis with flowers, raised vegetable gardens and activities such as yoga and tai chi classes. That first garden attracted 5,000 visitors, as well as the attention of a developer who later went on to breathe new life into the long-neglected property.

The scope of the project and the visitor count has climbed each year since. In 2014, the fourth annual PHS Pop up Garden transformed a vacant lot on South Street into a tropical-themed outdoor living paradise. Over 52,000 visitors relaxed among the palm trees on a patio dotted with outdoor furniture, hammocks, lighting and plantings, while enjoying outdoor movies, music, fitness classes, game nights and refreshments from the onsite beer garden and a rotating array of food trucks.

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Pop-Up Garden.

While all fundraising proceeds support the PHS City Harvest program, which creates community gardens to raise fresh, healthy food for more than 1,200 families each week, surrounding businesses were positively impacted, as well. According to Alan Jaffe, PHS director of Communications, the park stimulated local businesses, with many reporting revenue up 30 percent over the previous summer, thanks to increased foot traffic.

While the creators of The Oval purchased the outdoor living products featured in its park – literally buying out the orange, green and yellow Adirondack chairs from all the local Target stores — PHS partnered with a number of sponsors on their project. The Pop-Up Garden’s outdoor chairs, tables and umbrellas were donated by Ikea, lighting by Coastal Lighting, and the patio pavers by hardscape manufacturing company EP Henry.

According to Marianne Anzaldo, director of Marketing for EP Henry, the company invested about $20,000 in permeable paver hardscaping for the 2014 Pop-Up Garden. Although its involvement is part of the company’s long-time commitment to supporting projects that beautify, improve or restore community spaces through its Hero-Scaping program, Anzaldo says it’s a bonus that many of the park’s visitors leave with inspiration to create similar outdoor living spaces at home.

“We sell through distributors and contractors so it’s hard to know if there is a definite cause-and-effect result of our participation, but a lot of people who come to visit the garden are from nearby suburban communities or might have a patch of garden behind their city rowhouse, so we hope they take these ideas home to their backyards,” she says.

“We are considering holding classes or learning experiences for visitors next year that would teach them how to create residential outdoor living spaces with permeable pavers,” Anzaldo adds. “Philadelphia’s storm-water management program offers incentives to convert pavement to permeable surfaces to control storm-water run-off, so it would be timely.”

San Francisco Parklet by Pavement to Parks.

Pop-up parks attract visitors across all demographic lines, with Millennials, young families, Baby Boomers and empty nesters all reacting very positively to the experience, according to Focht. “It brings to life what they’re seeing on HGTV,” he says. “We suspect people are taking back design inspiration to their own homes, and the temporal nature of the pop-ups is exciting. There is always something new every year and it keeps bringing people back.”

“There are lots of benefits to this,” says Jaffe of pop-up outdoor living spaces. “Horticulture is a very powerful tool. It can feed a neighborhood, add beauty, increase property values, and improve the local economy by bringing people into the area to shop, eat and visit. The goal is to have these temporary spaces become permanent.”

How can hearth, patio and barbecue manufacturers and dealers tie into this movement as a way to showcase patio furniture, modular outdoor kitchens, fire pits, patio heaters, mobile pizza ovens or other outdoor living products? Here are some resources for ideas and information on creating a park in your community, or sponsoring an existing program.

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