What is public interest? Without a universal definition, such a question is left to be interpreted by circumstance. In terms of planning, this can leave city officials and planners feeling like they are wedged between a rock and a hard place. Or, in this case-between a rock and a parklet.
Morristown, New Jersey proposed a master plan last year that included experimenting with “parklet’s” in an attempt to create a more livable, sustainable, healthy, and fun place to live. A parklet is an extension of the sidewalk from the curb to the street, typically occupying parking or street space, and is barricaded from traffic. These areas can be used for pedestrian seating, as a medium for green space, art, or just as a means to encourage residential engagement. Utilizing space in this manner, especially in thriving downtown areas, has proven to be economically beneficial. Areas become more walkable and so people are more likely to stop and visit small businesses and restaurants. It encourages residents to walk and bike more frequently, creating a more pleasant atmosphere. In places like New York and Los Angles where parklet’s are becoming more popular the spaces are an efficient way to bring more greenery to the landscape, whether it be potted plants or even micro-gardens.
Parklet’s were introduced into the master plan as a way to create and broaden a sense of community in Morristown, but the consensus has been met with some dispute amongst residents. Article comments and voiced concerns echo the disapproval of removing parking spaces from an already traffic congested downtown. Morristown is accessible by five major roadways. Green spaces are abundant in the town already and there are numerous benches, tables, and outdoor eateries. It is within the opponents interest to keep the parking spaces and omit the parklets. Proponents are most likely eager to see what kinds of people and successes these parklets can bring to the city, having some knowledge on their successes elsewhere. Is the decision to start experimenting with pilot parklets fair to residents who rely on vehicles for transportation? Should their disputes be the voice for the entire public?
In the article titled: The Public Interest Reconsidered, author Frank J. Souraf states: “instead of being associated with substantive goals, or policies, the public interest better survives identification with the process of group accommodation (638).” The goal for revitalizing downtown Morristown by introducing parklets was meant to serve a particular segment of the population-a statistically younger, artsier, and more bicycle friendly, and often times “visiting” residential segment. The opposing group is made up of (presumably) local residents, and those who rely on vehicular transportation in and out of the town, perhaps those living in condo’s or apartment buildings without guaranteed parking spots.
Souraf would agree, it is unrealistic to assume that the “public,” will come to unanimous decisions when it comes to planning policies. In this case the public refers to residents of Morristown. Their “interests,” are divided-as there are many in favor of the leisure they hope parklet’s will bring, but there are also those who argue that parklet’s are unnecessary and more hassle than not. Opinions will undoubtedly influence policy decisions, but they do not define them. Residents are not planners, and are not equipped with the knowledge to effectively argue their points beyond a layman’s measure. Therefore it is within the planner’s position to create a better, more efficient, city by providing an atmosphere that is most beneficial to the residents, having dissected their concerns. I admire Morristown’s forward thinking in even attempting a trial run with the parklet system. Only time will tell if this pilot project will be as beneficial as it is projected to be.