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More Than a Parklet: A Catalyst to Inspire Change

Gensler Philadelphia won the People’s Choice Award at the AIA National Convention's Parklet Design Competition. Image © Gensler.

This post is part of our series on Vibrant Communities.

In a landscape filled with concrete and asphalt, city pedestrians often crave people-friendly refuges within urban areas. Taking over underutilized spaces, parklets are a great example of how design actively participates within the community by creating new areas for people to connect with environment, the public and themselves.

When the 2016 AIA National Convention came to Philadelphia in May, Gensler Philadelphia was selected, alongside several citywide design firms, to participate in the Saint-Gobain Parklet Design Competition. Tasked with transforming a single parking space on Arch Street for one day with a $1,000 budget, the Gensler team (Lana Tang, Jennifer Sharesky and Alex Klohr) immediately got to work in the several weeks leading up to the May 19 installation day.

Enthused by our new client, the Philadelphia community, our team executed a statement piece for the place we call home. Our parklet design encouraged interaction and chance encounters between both the convention goers and Philadelphia natives. We loved the idea of creating community spaces for people to ‘cross paths.’ Not only did this idea allow others to cross paths, but it also allowed us to collaborate with people we don’t normally work with directly.

Inspired by the vibrant Philadelphia culture, people and history, our design response exploded bold color as an extension of the sidewalk. The transformation of the parking space into a technicolor moment was a symbol of our city’s diversity and a tiny catalyst to inspire big change in the world. We set out to have visitors (about 30,000 convention attendees) ask themselves, “What if every city was as colorPHL as ours?”

Our founder, Art Gensler, visited Gensler Philadelphia's parklet. Image © Gensler.

To start the design process, we thought about what inspires us about Philadelphia. The city not only provides a wealth of natural landscapes, but has long set a precedent for utopian city living. William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia is recognized as one of the earliest attempts at utopian city planning through its organization into a rectangular grid pattern, with broader civic-oriented streets for commerce and transportation forming the grid’s main axes. Each quadrant features a public square with open green space, today known as Logan, Franklin, Washington and Rittenhouse Squares. Evenly spaced lots allowed residents to have private outdoor space for gardens and retain a sense of country living within the rapidly-expanding city. With the addition of Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1917, a tree lined diagonal parkway connects City Hall to Fairmount Park, which is now one of the world’s largest city park systems. Penn’s concept set a precedent for planning in many early American cities. This concept aligns strongly with our design concept, which sets an example for how colorful people, places and culture could and should be.

We thought qualitatively about “how does what we do affect these people and what they take away?” Our team member, Alex Klohr, led the design for the parametrically driven bench’s undulating form. We also had generous partners help bring the parklet to life. Shaw Contract Group donated carpet tiles and Advanced Office Environments lent us the DIRTT living wall. Philadelphia University allowed us to use their machine shop and CNC router, and we partnered with Cooper Junge for their construction expertise.

Vying with seven other competing firms, Gensler Philadelphia’s design won the People’s Choice Award at the AIA Convention, winning more than 48 percent of the popular vote! The “cherry-on-top-moment” was having our founder, Art Gensler, visit our parklet and ask to keep our design concept documents that we had shared with him.

We received many positive responses about what our parklet stood for. That’s what it’s all about—provoking thought, inspiring change and making a lasting impact on those who use the space. As a result of our parklet design, we’ve been invited to participate in Design Philadelphia for a temporary installation at the Center for Architecture. We are also reserving a spot in front of our building for Park(ing) Day 2016 and are asking to install it in our office’s main lobby temporarily. We hope that the success of Philadelphia parklets can set a positive example to other cities of how they can use their space efficiently to create people-friendly zones in urban environments.

To learn more about parklets and Philly Parking Day, visit http://www.parkingdayphila.org.

Lana Tang is a project accountant based in Gensler’s Philadelphia office. She supports Gensler’s Washington, D.C. Work 3 Studio for all their accounting-related needs. Lana started her Gensler career in the Southeast Region, where she served the North Carolina office as a project accountant. She also worked in the Asia Region as a knowledge manager. Lana earned her Bachelor’s degree in Marketing from Virginia Tech University. Contact her at Lana_Tang@Gensler.com.
Jennifer Sharesky, AIA, LEED GA, is an architect for Gensler Washington, D.C. who works out of the Philadelphia office. As an architect, she encourages her clients to take the long view when making decisions and guides them to think beyond the physical—considering social, economic and environment impacts of design. With more than 10 years in the industry, she has worked with many leading clients including Vornado (Charles E. Smith) and Duke University. Contact her at Jennifer_Sharesky@Gensler.com.
Alexander Klohr, Assoc. AIA, is a technical designer in Gensler’s Philadelphia’s office. He collaborates with team members, clients and consultants throughout projects to assist in design and technical concepts. He focuses on workplace and professional services firms and is passionate about creating the built environment to cater to human experiences. Alexander earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture with a minor in Business from Philadelphia University. Contact him at Alexander_Klohr@Gensler.com.