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What's a ‘Spark’ and Why Should Pittsburghers Care?

Sparks are relatively young — the concept for them first popped up in San Francisco in 2005. They’ve just recently appeared in other U.S. cities, including our neighbors on the other side of the state.

A Parklet in San Francisco | photo via flickr creative commons


Two streets in Pittsburgh will be one or two parking spaces short this summer. This might irritate those behind the wheel, but it means good news for those on foot.

Those spots will instead be occupied by small parks, or “sparks” — temporary public seating areas that cover the area of a parking spot. They’re usually placed in commercial areas in the summer to encourage a pedestrian presence and economic activity.

The city announced earlier this month the two initial applicants for its Spark pilot program, which allows businesses to sponsor a spark; Bae Bae's Kitchen Downtown and Onion Maiden in Allentown.

Bae Bae's Kitchen is proposing a spark on Liberty Avenue with a roof and rain barrel. The Onion Maiden is proposing a steel and wood deck on East Warrington Avenue with benches. This doesn’t mean the sparks will serve as seating for these eateries — commercial activity isn’t allowed within them, and they’re meant to be used by everyone.

Sparks are young — the concept for them first popped up in San Francisco in 2005. They’ve just recently appeared in other U.S. cities.

Here’s a look at some other “sparks” around the country:

San Francisco
The official birthplace of sparks — or parklets, as SanFran refers to them as — is currently home to about 50 of them. The city began building permanent parklets in 2010. Many local businesses reported increased revenue after a parklet was installed nearby. A 2014 Pavement to Parks assessment report discovered that most respondents were satisfied with the social opportunities parklets presented.

Pittsburgh’s older sibling is currently home to four of what it also calls parklets. They first popped up in 2011 and have performed well since. A University City District report found that Philly’s parklets tend to be filled at peak hours and appeal largely to people under the age of 34. People tended to use the space to eat or talk rather than read or use electronics, and parklet installation coincided with a boost in sales at nearby venues.

The Windy City’s “People Spots” emerged in 2011 and now include about 10 installations. The Metropolitan Planning Council evaluated the impact of these spots in 2014 and found that about 73 percent of people at a People Spot said they would probably be home if the spot wasn’t there. A majority of businesses near a People Spot said they experienced more foot traffic, and 93 percent said one made the street more “positive.”

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