Moveable Urban Green Spaces

Fall 2013
Yerba Buena’s portable Parkmobiles can be moved from one parking space to another on the back of a standard trash collection truck. Photo: Julio Duffoo, courtesy of CMG Landscape Architecture.

While drivers in many urban areas know Parkmobile as the system that lets them use their smart phones to pay for street parking, people in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Community Benefit District (YBCBD) are enjoying another type of Parkmobile: a truly moveable micropark. 

Inspired by a city permit that allows construction debris containers to temporarily occupy the parking lane on San Francisco’s public streets, this Parkmobile is a 16- by six-foot, 40-inch-high steel container fashioned from a custom dumpster that is planted with a lush, robust, low-maintenance garden and then placed in a standard on-street parking space. It offers a model for other densely developed urban areas that want to add attractive green places yet have little or no open space in which to do so.

Designed by San Francisco-based CMG Landscape Architecture (CMG) as one element of the Yerba Buena Street Life Plan and first installed in August 2011, the Parkmobile project deploys six identical, bright red, containers — each of which features a unique, habitat-specific mix of vegetation, including plants like Tasmanian tree ferns, strawberry trees, yuccas, and cotoneaster shrubs (which attract birds, bees, and butterflies) — and relocates them frequently, sometimes alone and sometimes in pairs, throughout the district. Each Parkmobile, which costs approximately $6,000, also features comfortable seating that encourages pedestrians to relax, converse, and enjoy the greenery. The local trash collection company moves the containers as needed.

people sitting on the parkmobiles

Each Parkmobile offers a temporary green oasis where pedestrians can stop to chat over lunch or just sit and rest for a few moments. Photo courtesy of CMG Landscape Architecture.

The utilitarian dumpster base means the Parkmobiles have held up well since they were first installed; Calder Gillin, a designer with CMG who worked on the project, notes that “they were designed to be sturdy and durable, to be suited to the demands of the urban environment and regular relocation by trash collection trucks, which can be a rough process.” A secure chicken-wire base installed below the soil essentially “locks in” the plants, few of which have had to be replaced. Maintaining the Parkmobiles has become a team effort, says Cathy Maupin, executive director, YBCBD. The YBCBD Clean Team addresses rare graffiti and cleanliness issues, the Gardeners’ Guild provides plant care twice a week, and each Parkmobile’s host — the business or nonprofit group outside which it is parked — conducts daily cleaning
as needed.

Moving the Parkmobiles from time to time means that parking spaces are not permanently lost, just temporarily repurposed. It also encourages people to explore unfamiliar parts of the district in search of these charming oases. The Parkmobiles are just one of about 30 projects that the YBCBD expects to implement during the next decade as part of its Street Life Plan; other projects now underway include more public seating, clean energy solar docking stations for public use, and a redesigned alley that will create a distinctive social gathering space for pedestrians.

“The Street Life Plan is about adding richness to the district’s streets to bring people out to use them,” says Kevin Conger, principal, CMG. “While many plans aim to organize an urban area or improve it systematically, this plan identifies discrete projects that take advantage of opportunities in a diverse, changing part of the city. Their impacts will accrue naturally.”