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What seems like way back in 2019, my partner Rob and I entered a competition with Hackney Council to design a community parklet for a pilot installation scheme, seen on the off chance flicking through the free local paper that used to be posted through our door. Influenced by holiday piazzas and ‘passigatas’, where neighbours gathered to sit together, our chess board design entered with the help of Rob’s architect brother Jean, won a place in the competition.

Credit: Trellik Design Studio

For those that don’t know a parklet is defined as ‘a small seating area or green space created as a public amenity on or alongside a pavement, especially in a former roadside parking space.’ (OED). We had been inspired by a guerilla parklet near where we lived in London Fields, not only in the creation of more communal green space but by the democratisation of public space hitherto dominated by cars. It turned out the "People's Parking Bay" made by Hackney Living Streets campaigner Brenda Puech in 2017 was the first ever parklet in the UK. Originally the council refused permission but after getting 700 signatures on a petition Brenda got the council to overturn their decision. She was even later nominated for Transport Planning Society's People's Award and became the inspiration for Hackney’s pilot scheme.

At the time we had neither a garden nor our own car. As Covid and the lockdowns hit we became increasingly aware of our lack of outside space in London, but at the same time the privilege we had that despite this, we still had the opportunity to go out to tend the fields I rent in Hertfordshire. Many of the homes around us did not have that option.

So when the council, understandably, went quiet with news of the competition, we emailed them. And kept emailing. Eventually in 2022 we heard back from them that the process could finally restart, this included a re-consultation with neighbours. We’d gone round, knocking door to door to get support at the time and had been overwhelmed by positive responses. Since our initial outreach some people had moved away, others had experienced specific changes in circumstances but mainly the general change in lifestyle brought about by the pandemic, with more people spending more time working from home, meant that some new concerns were raised about anti social behaviour and how it might impact residents.

Landscape photography credits: David Mirzoeff

From the outset, we had always hoped to create the parklet with our neighbours, to create a sense of community through it, so we were grateful to those who engaged with the project - even if it meant hearing that not everyone was for it. As difficult as it was - and it really was if I am honest - the process ended up being extremely valuable in initiating a genuine dialogue with our neighbours. It created a feeling of community conversation that we just didn’t have before the process started. I think many people living in big cities can relate to not knowing and interacting very little with those we live next to. Modern western urban societies seem increasingly to polarise and disconnect people from one another.

Neighbourhood communities are not like other communities where people might join together over a shared interest or shared set of values. Neighbourhood communities exist solely because people happen to live in close proximity to one another. This experience was a huge realisation that building community is not about everyone agreeing with each other, it’s about making a genuine effort to listen to everyone and that everyone feels heard. Feeling out of control over decisions made that affect where you live can be really anxiety-inducing. Being asked and able to have an impact on decisions, means genuinely positive changes can be made. Together we made some changes to the design to create something that everyone could get behind.

At the very last minute we were lucky enough to be connected to Possible, a charity dedicated to speeding up climate action. They had funding to realise a parklet with a quick turn around and we had a parklet ready to go that needed funding quickly. Carolyn Axtell, the Parklets Campaign Manager, who we worked closely with explained: ‘ We had been trying to find a location for a permanent parklet for the better part of two years but it was really difficult to get permission and support from local authorities to repurpose a parking space for this. Thank you to Hackney Council for leading the way in challenging the prevailing norms around how our streets are used. Parklets are just one tool in efforts to reduce traffic in cities. As the UK ramps up its fight to reduce its carbon emissions, reducing private vehicle use will become more and more important.The goal is to see more councils in London following the example of Hackney, Waltham Forest, Lambeth, and Hounslow in creating parklet permit processes that will enable communities to have a greater say and role in how their streets are used.’

It was very much a case of the right place, right time and we are very grateful that the stars aligned. They are working on a toolkit for building parklets and provide lots of support and advice on their website.

With the funding, we asked my cousin Michael Giambrone, a talented joiner, to build the planters from reclaimed railway sleepers we had sourced. He had been designing parklets, though he didn’t know of them as parklets, since university - his practice being focused on creating objects that bring people together. He thought of so many things that we hadn’t, such as the effect of the camber of the road which was another lesson in how invaluable it is to have people with different skill sets on a team. Cue a keen gardener neighbour Paul Weston who got in touch to offer his help with the planting design.

Whilst I know about growing flowers for cutting and love plants, I had very little experience with garden planting. Together, our idea was to choose plants which provide interest all year round, mainly perennials and bulbs with different flowering periods, as well as evergreens or varieties with interesting seed pods during winter. We had been lucky recipients of some plants from Wayward Plants’s brilliant scheme to rehome plants from the RHS Flower Shows for community projects and some kind donations from N1 Garden Centre, so we settled on a scheme to compliment them and bring it all together.

Achillea, Anthriscus sylvestris, Echinacea, Erigeron, Euphorbia, Festuca glauca, Fritillaria, Gaura, Geum, Hellebore, Heuchera, Japanese Anemone, Pittosporum, Rosemary, Sanguisorbia, Sedum, Tirella

As well as the aesthetics we also considered how plants can both play an important role in mitigating air pollution and at the same time need to be resistant to it. Whilst researching, I found a pamphlet produced by Citizen Sense for the Museum of London: ‘Numerous studies have now established that vegetation can capture particulate matter, absorb gaseous pollutants, and also phyto-remediate soils. In addition, vegetation can enhance biodiversity, capture stormwater and reduce flooding, and lessen the urban heat island effect.

One study undertaken by the Nature Conservancy, “Plant- ing Healthy Air” (McDonald 2016) found that urban trees could make a significant local improvement in air quality by reducing particulate matter levels between 7 to 24 percent. Additional studies from Imperial College (Shackleton et al. 2012) have shown that vegetation, such as shrubs and perennials, planted near or as barriers to emissions sources can also make a positive contribution to lowering particulate matter levels and absorbing some gases such as nitrogen dioxide.’

I have a distinct memory of a conversation I had had, worrying about the fact that I was still reusing some weed membrane fabric in the flower field, to help manage some perennial weeds, and how this might be negatively impacting the soil. Rob turned to me and said think about London, think about how much of the soil there is covered in tarmac and how little land there is left for plants. Though parklets aren’t necessarily exposing the soil, they are introducing more plants back into concrete jungles and the support for them is encouraging councils to create more opportunities for planting which does.

Crucial wildlife habitats and feeding points on migratory routes are disrupted by large conurbations and even though London is said to be one of the greenest cities in the world, actively trying to ensure that it stays that way, that wildlife corridors are maintained feels essential. Any planting designed for pollinators surely has to be a good thing and it’s not just animals that parklets benefit. Studies have shown that providing rest points makes it possible for people to walk double the distance they would normally. As the Living Streets campaign puts it, parklets are positive urban planning tools:

‘Residential parklets are not just symbolic reclamations of space. They offer solutions to identifiable issues when it comes to the way our streets are designed.

There have been many books written on the issue of walking that say that the following make a better walking environment

  • having points of interest along the route

  • having greenery and planting along a route

  • rest points including shelter from weather

  • chance of social encounter along the route

Tick, tick, tick, tick’

Creatively, I found the process of thinking about textures and forms a lot like floristry but with pleasingly more permanency. Already, watching things grow in has been so rewarding. I feel so excited to see it change across the year as flowers make way for seed pods, bulbs sprout and spring buds bloom. And it seems our neighbours have too. We have already had children on the street involved in the planting and offering to get involved in tending it. When I was at school, there was very limited exposure to growing, perhaps it is different now but at least in this road the opportunity for children, and adults for that matter, to get hands-on experience gardening feels worthwhile in itself.

I also learnt from my conversations with Joe Lindsay, Senior Transport Planner and our point of contact at the Hackney Council, how difficult it is for councils to maintain their planting with cuts to budgets ever increasing. Whilst we wait for our votes to show our voices being heard it would seem that we need to take responsibility and proactively do what we can, where and how we can ourselves.

Since the parklet was installed there seems to have been a proliferation of stories about guérilla gardening and people taking the need for green space into their own hands. Perhaps because my eyes are more open to it, I have been delighted by residents planting up the tiny gaps in concrete. We have tomatoes and sunflowers growing beneath the trees on the street where I live. And I feel so encouraged by schemes like this one, where councils are actively supporting their constituents ‘to green the grey’. Making your own private Eden is one thing, but working to create a public Eden is quite another. I really hope I will have more opportunities to paint with plants but to be able to do something specifically for public enjoyment has felt particularly rewarding.

The parklet has been a labour of love, it has caused me immense heartache in the conflict, but the healing from the resolution and seeing it thrive and enjoyed by visitors both human and animal has been heartwarming to say the least. I could not recommend more highly considering creating a parklet. Parklets may be but little but I think they could be fierce statements from the public to politicians about how much we really do care about both people and planet and a climate positive agenda.




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