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Column One

Tiny parks are on a roll in San Francisco

Two dumpsters full of greenery, with four more to come, add a bit of nature to the streets of a paved-over downtown neighborhood. Some scoff, but others are willing to give the 'parkmobiles' a go.

September 02, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Dave Vetrano takes a coffee break at a "parkmobile" in San Francisco's South of Market district.
Dave Vetrano takes a coffee break at a "parkmobile" in San Francisco's… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Francisco -- The greatest park in San Francisco arguably is Golden Gate — 1,017 sweeping acres studded with playgrounds and windmills, lakes and museums, a Shakespeare garden, a brew pub and its very own herd of bison.

No one could argue that the latest green spaces to grace The City are a far more modest proposal. The two bright-red dumpsters, 16 feet long by nearly 6 feet wide and filled with greenery, have been placed in a busy downtown neighborhood where they throw a little shade, elicit regular double-takes and fill curbside spots that otherwise would go to cars.

The grandly named "parkmobiles" were rolled out earlier this summer, the first in a fleet of itinerant oases in one of America's densest cities.

"The more crowded a city is, the more new ideas come squeezing out of the ferment in a combination of need and opportunity," said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land. "New York and San Francisco are two of the most innovative places."

In the last two years, San Francisco — 17,505 people per square mile, compared with Los Angeles' 8,087 — has seen a proliferation of tiny parks carved out along sidewalks and streets. They have become progressively smaller: from plazas and promenades to parklets and now parkmobiles.

When parking spots began turning into parkland, retailers and drivers groused: "So where do we put the cars?" Those who advocate for more green space in the city worried that the miniatures would replace traditional parks. Even former Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. got into the fray, deriding in a recent newspaper column the "overgrown flower boxes" that he said were a magnet for the homeless.

"The first one I came across had obviously been used as a bathroom," Hizzoner carped. "The second one I visited, a guy and gal were 'socializing' in the bushes."

But proponents argue that even the tiniest of green spaces squirt a little nature into miles of otherwise unfriendly concrete, particularly in a city where only a fraction of the downtown is open space and 70% of the streets are dedicated to private vehicles.

So what do San Franciscans, those pavement pounders who actually have a parkmobile in their own patch of the public realm, think of the beautification effort?

It depends entirely on the day.

One recent Tuesday morning, the urban refuge near 5th and Mission streets beckoned those navigating the gritty sidewalk beneath gray skies. It was bright, perky, hard to miss. The meter beside it flashed "expired." Its long bench and discrete sign proffered a welcome: "All seating is open to the public."

Trucks and buses rumbled by. Sirens wailed. Pedestrians shot the custom dumpster curious looks. Thirty minutes passed, then 60, then 90. No one sat down.

A heavyset, elderly man with a cane eyed the little refuge and hobbled on by. A panhandler clutching a white trash bag turned his back on it as he asked passersby for a quarter, "for my laundry. I'm telling you the truth!" A leashed mutt sniffed but did not deign to christen its shiny walls.

"Sort of ridiculous" was San Francisco native Jerry Adams' assessment as he ambled past the parkmobile, with its hard, narrow inset bench (the better to deflect sleepers) and Arbutus trees and Cotoneaster shrubs (the better to attract birds). "You can't just go plunking them down anywhere."

Wednesday was a completely different story.

The parkmobile had been rolled a bit south to block the mouth of Minna Street, home to a weekly lunchtime collection of food trucks called Off The Grid where diners can buy, among other treats, a Korrito (Korean burrito) at Seoul on Wheels or a Shoyu pork slider from Eat Curbside, a rolling kitchen in an Airstream trailer.

By the time the sun had burned off August's fog, the folding tables had filled and local funk band Bohemian Knuckleboogie ( its motto: "good music for hard times") had launched into a particularly soulful version of "Days of Wine and Roses," the parkmobile was becoming an integral part of the South of Market street scene.

Victoria Jeffries whipped her iPhone out of her purse and focused on the bright red dumpster. She'd just devoured some garlic noodles and a five-spice pork skewer from An the Go when she came upon San Francisco's newest green space.

An attorney with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., Jeffries said her "backyard" is the stately National Mall. The micropark "managed to pack such joy into such a small, little parcel.... I thought it was quirky and interesting and worth a photograph."

Elsa Kim wasn't so sure. The 25-year-old project manager for a high-tech start-up plunked down on the bench, stretched her legs out and methodically made her way through a salted caramel cupcake.

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