Richard White, a Calgary-based columnist who writes on urban development, says The Village Ice Cream patio on 10th Avenue S.E. is a good example of a parklet in action. Photo by Michelle Hofer/for CREB®Now.

Experts debate whether mini meeting spaces will replace traditional parks

You may have never heard of a parklet, but chances are good you’ve walked or driven past one. Maybe you’ve even sat in one, enjoying a coffee or a chat with a friend on a warm afternoon.

“You’re taking a space that would normally not be a public space, maybe part of a road, and you’re converting it,” said Byron Miller, an associate professor of geography at the University of Calgary and co-ordinator of school’s Urban Studies program.

“It’s about expanding the public realm to create new spaces where people can interact.”

Talk of parklets — a sidewalk extension or parking spot takeover that creates a new place for people to relax and be outdoors — is relatively new in Calgary. Yet they are increasingly popping up, primarily in the inner-city core, notes Richard White, a Calgary-based columnist who has been writing on urban development for more than three decades.

Parklets work best “where there isn’t sufficient green space, such as in the Beltline,” he said, pointing to The Village Ice Cream’s patio on 10th Avenue S.E., which has overtaken part of the parking lot out front of the shop.

“I love small urban places like that because it doesn’t take very many people for it to feel animated. They’re a good idea in certain situations.”

Another favourite among many Calgarians is the small cement plaza outside the Roasterie coffee shop on 10th Street N.W., which has naturally attracted people for decades, said White.

“It faces west so it captures the sun and retains the heat,” he said. “People can sit out there even in January or February. You put six or seven people in that space and it immediately feels animated.

“We live in one of the sunniest cities in Canada, and if we design our spaces properly, we can create attractive, warm, desirable places to be on all but the most extremely cold days.”

Miller notes that parklets have both pros and cons to them – the most notable pro being they are easier to establish than larger versions.

“People often get overwhelmed by really huge spaces,” he said. “And small- to medium-sized ones have a cosy feel to them.”

Environmentally, however, parklets can’t replace the role that large parks play in a city, argues authors of an article in September 2015 edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment magazine.

“’Land sparing’ – an approach that combines dense urban areas with large parks or nature reserves – is crucial for … improved temperature regulation and pollination,” according to the article written by Iain Stott, Richard Inger and Kevin J Gaston from the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the U.K.-based University of Exeter, as well as Masashi Soga from Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

In other words, the bigger a park’s green space, the better it is for the environment.

“However, distributing green space throughout cities, or ‘land sharing,’ may still be necessary to maintain services such as human well-being,” the article continues.

While parklets may have their place in urban centres such as Calgary, they are never going to replace the role fulfilled by larger parks, argues Miller.

“Different spaces serve different needs,” he said. “Smaller spaces cater to people’s everyday activities and routines, and larger spaces tend to be more suited to big public events and specialized types of activity — anything from festivals to going canoeing to playing cricket.

“A good city will have a good mix of both.”