In 2012, the city of Boston started a new experiment with urban space by way of the parklet. The size of a mere few former parking spaces on the side of a road or near full sized parks, these phenomena include artistically designed seating arrangements to encourage conversation and friendly gatherings – without requiring its patrons to actually spend money.
The difference lies in the customers’ obligation to make a purchase in order to justify their use of space. In the development stages, Boston’s Transportation Department clearly envisioned a community building exercise and clear alternative to paying rent for a study space or hang out by way of a free area intended for similar types of use. This represents a twist on traditional coffee shop culture, where the cozy, intimate setting ideally fosters heightened social interactions via conversation over a cup of Joe… or increasingly in my native town in California, fresh veggie juice and herbal tea.
While predominantly a western pastime, the leisurely way of viewing businesses as more than just a place to sit down, buy food, eat food, and leave, is steadily becoming a global phenomenon. Coffee shop culture has started to spread throughout Asia (the larger cities at least), and in my recent trip to Kolkata, India, several students could be seen sharing tables at a large politically themed coffee shop hub – which did not exist several years ago.
In the pilot phase, these parklets are believed to have been underwhelming, although there are no reports of any comprehensive types of scientific monitoring and evaluation programs used to actually state whether these avenues were utilized or not. Instead local observers from adjacent businesses and other witnesses claim the parklets were often empty, and people often failed to understand whether they were in fact allowed to use the space.
In spite of these supposed lackluster results, the city is hopeful that parklets with gain traction and are installing a third unit in Allston. This should be applauded considering a large problem with innovation in the public sphere is getting discouraged far too early based on initial lukewarm perceptions. This often results in giving up altogether, and in some cases keeping a skeptical eye towards any further innovative endeavors. It’s refreshing to see that in Boston, this is not so.
Coming from a warmer climate, I might also like to point out that the coffee shop comparison may not always apply, especially considering the weather in Boston, and additional use of a coffee shop as a refuge from the extreme weather☼