Parklets in San Francisco, verdant containers in Montreal, potted plants in Tokyo, rented gardens in Manchester: Across the globe, dedicated residents have started to hoe, hack, and chop green spaces into the cityscape. Now, they are joined by the first authorities.

My friend Hannah in London just bought an apartment. Far from the city center, even beyond the last subway stop. Although her new space is rather minute, it cost Hannah small fortune. Yet she is happy: Her 100-square-meter garden comes with plenty of turf, benches, and flower beds. And two trees, Hannah’s pride and joy. I totally get why she feels this way.

By 2050, almost 70 percent of all humans will reside in agglomerations. More or less by choice, we enter into living situations that keep us from access to fresh air, clean well water, or untamed flora and fauna. Even a small garden or allotment, like the one our parents might have kept and tended, has become almost inconceivable. Big cities, on the other hand, beckon with culture, interesting encounters, infrastructure and – most of all – jobs.

Yet over time, their steel and glass, brick and concrete affects our relationship with nature. Take San Francisco, a booming dream city: A quarter of its surface has been taken over by streets and parking. A quarter! Just for cars! Sure, concrete is extremely useful and – right now – even trendy in contemporary design. But it will never replace life-giving chlorophyll.

San Francisco Parklet urban green hacks smart magazine
“Pavement to Parks“ has expanded from guerrilla gardening efforts to 38 official green spaces
Photo by: San Francisco Planning Department, CC BY SA 2.0

Parklets in San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Tehran

Bay City residents saw it the same way: They realized that cars claim essential space; space that could be used for a brief break and chat – without having to shell out for coffee or being asked to move on by security. Think attractive space equipped with chairs, tables, and even plants – right in the center of town.

Inspired by this scintillating idea, people started to seize and greenify parking spaces. Soon, the “Pavement to Parks“ project provided San Francisco with its first ever “parklets“ – up to 10-meter-long sidewalk hacks.

All this was back in 2009. Since then, the local grassroots drive has evolved into a confident movement dedicated to make public spaces more enjoyable. By now, “Pavement to Parks“ is backed by the City of San Francisco and has expanded from guerrilla gardening efforts to 38 official green spaces. Projects are initiated by private individuals, community initiatives, and people who run local shops – and these parklets (and their grown-up siblings, so-called plazas) have taken over the city as tiny oases for a brief reprieve from the incessant urban buzz.

San Francisco Parklet urban green hacks smart magazine
Tiny oasis have taken over the city: parklets in San Francisco
Photo by: Jack Verdoni Architecture, CC BY SA 2.0

The project’s spirit has proven infectious, with spin-offs taking hold in different continents and spawning initiatives in a. o. Brazil’s biggest metropolis, Sao Paulo, the Spanish town of Valencia and even the Iranian capital, Tehran. Budding all over the globe, further parklet-inspired spaces have started to crop up in the most unlikely places, including Montreal, Canada, where locals have swapped the original plywood design for cut-up and brightly painted freight containers. At the same time, all of these projects are united by a single, shared goal: to reclaim urban space by the quickest, easiest intervention in areas where people feel pushed out by development.

Potted plants for Tokyo, on-demand garden rentals for Manchester

At the same time, each greenification phenomenon works within the archetypical spatial constraints of its respective host city. In Tokyo – the world’s largest conurbation with 37.5 m residents – nobody would ever consider setting up 16 x 2.5-meter containers. Citizens used to squeezing into grotesquely tiny “geki-semas” (i. e. coffin-style accommodation) are happy with much smaller doses of green, like the potted plants frequently dotting residential curbs. Here, ten plants quickly make a garden – and hundreds of them an urban trend.

Back in the UK, a different concept sprung up in the city of Manchester: In the summer of 2014, Britain’s first-ever on-demand garden, Plot, started offering hourly rentals. In line with sharing economy principles – where people lend or rent apartments, cars, and tools – it encouraged communal garden use. Situated on the roof of an inner city shopping mall, this green sanctuary comes with a panoramic view of the city, free Wi-Fi, and plenty of peace and quiet. In 2015, Plot will reopen – in a different, as yet undisclosed space.

The moral of the story: Whether hijacked parking spaces, potted plant gardens, or hourly rental of that coveted private apple tree – those who sow progressive ideas do not need tons of cash to improve their city’s overall quality of life. Hannah, my friend in London, for example, has come close to this ideal with her private garden: To me, two trees of your own in an urban setting are the most sustainable definition of luxury I can imagine.

urban green hacks smart magazine
The greenification phenomenon works
Photo: Greenbelt Alliance


Header image: San Francisco Planning Department, CC BY SA 2.0