Designers Dream Up City’s Next Sidewalk “Parklets”

Lucy Gellman PhotoYou’re walking past El Tapatio on Grand Avenue and need a place to rest your feet. Outside. The options are slim: sitting on the sidewalk, or trying to snag one of the limited spaces by nearby Christopher Columbus Family Academy.

Just as you’re ready to give up, you spot a new, pint-sized urban oasis: tables and chairs, tree-like sculptures, long wispy grasses and a dainty fence around the outside. All small enough to fit inside two parking spaces.

There’s no place to do that. Not yet. But a year from now, there may be.

That’s thanks to New Haven’s first official Parklet Design Competition, a collaboration between GoNewHavenGo, the Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking and MakeHaven.

Tuesday night, city transit chief Doug Hausladen, GoNewHavenGo rep Abigail Cheskis, and MakeHaven Director J.R. Logan hosted a parklet design open house at MakeHaven’s State Street digs to discuss the competition. Ten people came for the 90-minute session.

Due to a dearth of submissions,  GoNewHavenGo has extended its deadline to Sept. 30. Winners will be announced during closing ceremonies for GoNewHavenGo’s “CarFree Challenge” in early October.

Here’s the idea behind the competition: Following a series of rules set by the city (ADA accessible, no moveable parts that people can walk off with, and nothing larger than 40 x 8 feet), one can design a seasonal parklet, or a sort of public, green extension of the sidewalk. Entrants are encouraged to add elements that lower the barrier to entry: bike-friendly stands or racks, tables and chairs, a few places to find shade from the sun. Solar power is fine, although electrical power is not. Submissions are due by the end of the month.

After a panel of judges weighs in, the winning parklet’s designer will get a cash prize between $1,000 and $3,000, and help from the city’s Department of Traffic, Transportation and Parking to get the necessary permits to build and install. Once built, the parklet will stay up from April through November of each year, removed before the winter.

The amount currently depends on how many winners the contest has. It could be as few as one or as many as two, said Hausladen at Tuesday’s event.

That was exciting news to design duo Kassandra Leiva and Misha Semenov, second- and third-year graduate students at the Yale School of Architecture and Yale School of Forestry. Tuesday evening, the two brought a rendering of their project “Urban Canopy” to the open house, laying it out to a few oohs and aaahs from the small group.

Conceived of as an “environmental education opportunity,” the parklet is part rest stop, part ecology lesson. Over a cluster of tables and benches stand four sculptural trees, representing the local varieties of Elm, Sweetgum, Pin Oak, and Maple. Around them, a wooden fence juts up from the ground as a sort of buffer. Four bike racks sit at the far end of the parklet.

Semenov said he didn’t know if $3,000 would cover everything, but it’s a place to start. If he and Leiva are to win the competition, they may seek private funding for photovoltaic trees, and solar powered charging stations for passers-by who are almost out of battery life.

“If we win … will we have support from the city?” Leiva asked tentatively, motioning to the rendering as she spoke.

“We’re not going to throw you out there,” Hausladen said.

As Leiva and Semenov finished to a smattering of applause, other attendees offered up their ideas, ranging from renderings in Google SketchUp to working ideas that have yet to appear on a page.

Pulling a PowerPoint presentation up on MakeHaven’s projector, SeeClickFix Founder Ben Berkowitz said that his team had been thinking “parklet … why not a skate parklet?”

Specifically, a mobile skate parklet for the New Haven Green. Maybe it could travel to parts of The Hill and Fair Haven that aren’t currently served by the skatepark by Edgewood Park’s Coogan Pavilion.

“We wanna make skateboarding more inclusive,” he said. He pointed to the New Haven Green and downtown as newly off-limits due to the installation of skate stops, which stop boards in their tracks. If skateboarding is going to be recognized as an olympic sport by 2020, and cities like Los Angeles and Montreal have already added public skateboard hours, why can’t New Haven take a few steps to do the same, he asked? 

“The Green was the place,” added fellow skate enthusiast Noe´ Jimenez, who had come to support Berkowitz.

Hausladen raised the issue of liability and age accessibility. Currently “there aren’t places for anyone under like, three feet downtown,” he said, motioning to his calf for a height visual. What about something that was more open to kids and families? He added that there’s a plan in the works for a downtown jungle gym from Luckey Climbers, but at $800,000, it’s a way off.

Berkowitz said that he’d considered all of those factors — and still thought that the Green was the best option. Unlike other possible locations in The Hill or Fair Haven, downtown is not a heavily residential area. The closest apartment building is 900 Chapel St., which Berkowitz said he did not think would pose a problem. 

Ben Berkowitz RenderingOther rough parklet ideas floated around the room, knocking into each other like electrons. Tinkerer and bike advocate Lior Trestman suggested a place where people could simply “enjoy being outside” as much as he did, adding that he liked the idea of outdoor seating for those who did not skate, or share his penchant for napping in New Haven’s public spaces. Deputy Parking Director Michael Pinto pointed to the addition of swing sets in downtown Detroit. Yale student Cameron Nelson suggested a parklet with “a tactile quality,” to draw people in.

Just as the group was finishing up, transit engineer Stephanie Upson came through with one more idea of the evening. Upon hadn’t come with a physical parklet plan, but she suggested a sort of “buffer zone” on the New Haven Green: “something for kids, with a lot of art and artists” and an option to rent it out for public open mic and performances.

“I’m thinking of everything the Festival of Arts & Ideas does on the Green every summer,” she said. “We could have something like that all year.”

“Like a public soapbox!” Hausladen cried.

“Like a public soapbox,” she answered.

This article first appeared in The Arts Paper, a digital daily and print monthly publication of The Arts Council of Greater New Haven.

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posted by: RobotShlomo on September 22, 2017  11:53am

Where are these hipsters coming from?

posted by: Noteworthy on September 22, 2017  12:07pm

Oh Yeah!!! Something to take away more parking in New Haven! Congratulations! Instead of death by a thousand cuts - just eliminate all car traffic - allow only horse and buggies, bikes and people who need to rest their fxxxing feet.  It makes us so walkable, it make me quiver.

posted by: HewNaven on September 22, 2017  12:11pm

Wait a sec. If we make it a “public” soapbox then how are we supposed to hide behind our crafty pseudonyms?!

posted by: RobotShlomo on September 22, 2017  12:48pm


The old fake schnoz and glasses?

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on September 22, 2017  1:34pm

This is a really cool contest. Some friends and I really wanted to enter the contest, but it turns out that if you’re not an architect, then designing a real space is actually pretty challenging. It’s super fun to brainstorm, and I think these kinds of public space ideas are excellent.

Sorry to people who have to walk another block and park on the Green. I know it’s tough, but you could use the exercise.

And the hipsters come from Yale. It’s their city too (for now). I applaud them for engaging in the city rather than insulating themselves from it.

posted by: HewNaven on September 22, 2017  1:38pm

I insist that the City provide a free paper bag so that I may disguise myself while pontificating IRL

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 22, 2017  2:40pm

And I thought the fine ‘al fresco’ dining in parking places was idiotic….. 
I keep telling the kids it’s dangerous to play in traffic….

posted by: RobotShlomo on September 22, 2017  3:03pm

Lot of good the extra block and all that “cycling” has done. New Haven is the “least healthy” city in Connecticut!! WE’RE NUMBER ONE!!

And you won’t welcome hipsters after they take over your favorite bar, drive your rent up, and then decide the city is “totally like overrated”, and then move on like the Borg to another town to take over, and ruin that one just the same.

I submit to you, the Evolution of the Hipster!!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 22, 2017  5:29pm

Like I said Take Back New Haven Doug Hausladen your next Mayor at it again.Nothing for Cars.

posted by: Noteworthy on September 22, 2017  6:45pm

I’d like the non-parking czar to take more parking slots after this wave of confiscations, and use them for doggie parks so it’s easier for our pets to relieve themselves and rest or play in the concrete jungle.

And because there are more electric wheelchairs, perhaps the department can take more parking spaces sdo the wheelchairs have some special accomodations.

posted by: Close2real on September 23, 2017  4:41am

Although this may sound like a lovely idea, it has the potential to be a costly one. If you are paying attention to terrorist trends in Eureape. Countries (and the United States,) cars and trucks have now become the weapons of choice for those who are looking to injure large numbers of people. To sit people so close to the roadway with only wooden boxes or plants in planters for protection is thinking from a bygone era. The world has changed. Urban design is the signature of Please rethink this naive concept.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on September 24, 2017  1:35pm

Close2real, your concern is undoubtedly sincere. But these sites currently have lots of pedestrians and absolutely no protection against drivers who lose control of their cars, much less terrorists.

Installing barriers makes sense in iconic areas like Times Square, and should have been done in Las Ramblas in Barcelona. But lining the miles of streets of downtown New Haven with bollards is not plausible.

posted by: Close2real on September 25, 2017  5:07am

Kevin -
We are in agreement that physically redesigning the downtown area to address this safety issue is impractical. My point in writing was to get people to think about options. London, Paris, New York have all suffered human loss because of an impulse driven person behind the wheel of a 6000lb vehicle. Whether it’s terrorist inspired or texting related, when that much metal meets a human body, the outcome is devasting…
Using a car/truck as a tool to get even with the world or another person is already an option that’s proven to work. Just look at the attention it gets in the media and the number of casualties it leaves behind.
So, if you still want to spin that “it will never happen here” wheel and enjoy a mean close to the road, by all means, have at it. But before you sit down, please think about a safety plan, should you suddenly find yourself at the wrong end isf somebody’s very bad day.

posted by: goNewHavengo on September 27, 2017  3:25pm

BetweenTwoRocks—please feel free to submit an application to the Parklet Design Competition, even if you don’t know exactly how to build your design yet. We want anyone with ideas to submit a design, and we’ll work with you to figure out the best way to build it if we select your application. If you have any questions, feel free to email us at info[]