A Letter to Jeff Bezos

You probably already know that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, is looking for philanthropic opportunities. His Twitter message says that he has short term preferences and wants something that will yield results quickly.

In keeping with this blog’s focus on play and public space, I have written Bezos a note (sorry, it’s too long for Twitter). If you have similar, allied or expanded ideas, I hope that you will share them with him, as well. His email is jeff@amazon.com.

Dear Jeff Bezos,

In response to your Tweet about philanthropy, I suggest that you fund “parklets” along downtown streets,and outside libraries or hospitals.

The goal would be to create easily accessible, non-commercial, innovative spaces for people of all ages to gather.

There could be play (climbing, hiding, sliding, swinging) components for young children, quiet nooks for teens, relaxation spaces for adults, reading opportunities for all.

By-products could be employing young designers to envision these areas and underserved young folks to build them.

I believe that there are two approaches. You most likely know that the city of San Francisco, where the interdisciplinary group Rebar originated parklets when they leased a single parking spot for a day in 2005, now has a “Pavement to Park” program.

Run by the Planning Department, Department of Public Works, and the Municipal Transportation Agency, it is a vibrant and well documented model for temporary urban areas. The San Francisco program is especially striking because they have produced a manual that not only spells out all the details for constituents but also provides a framework for other cities to use.

In San Francisco, a business (although the applicant could be a community group or local nonprofit) applies to reserve two curbside parking spots for a year.

Most of the “leasees” go on to spend about $12,000 to build a structure that has to be available to anyone passing by.

Restaurants and cafés may NOT use their parklet to serve food since it is not an extension of their dinning or take out spaces.

It is meant as a public resource. While many parklets do become outdoor resting and eating zones, others (such as the one landscape architect Walter Hood designed for Powell Street that Audi sponsored) are useful traffic buffers, rest areas, potential climbing structures.

The other model is one that is happening in my home town, Princeton NJ.

It is less structured and more ad hoc. It may also be more typical of the approach a small town might take and it suffers from continuing underfunding. The non-profit independent Arts Council of Princeton was the organizer and coordinator.

JaZams, the local toy store, is the current host.

There will be a new iteration on another site each year.

The Princeton parklet has the theme of renewable energy production.

It is demonstrated in an informal “multi-room” space. Architect Joseph Hobart Weiss designed bikes with generators, renewable solar panels, a miniature wind farm, a hand operated hydroelectric generator- all of which were intended to power nighttime lighting. The Princeton Public Library has provided books and jaZams has placed games for anyone to use.

Although the list of sponsors is impressive, including Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, it is difficult to redevelop a parklet each year. Surely less prosperous municipalities- and struggling non-profits such as libraries and hospitals- would need financial help on a consistent basis to make a parklet program viable. Even wealthy Princeton could not find a sponsor for this project last year. The current parklet- the town’s second- is meant to be adaptable to any sidewalk (the first one was not) but this type of endeavor needs more ongoing economic support if it is to become a national success.

Also, it may not always be useful to have a specific “message”- it may be better to see parklets as loose, more abstract environments where the users dictate what takes place. That approach, too, might limit the number of donors and necessitate more outside economic help.

A single parklet per town may not be sufficient to spur community interactions.

From 1947 to the late 1970s, architect Aldo van Eyck activated the streetscapes of Amsterdam by inspiring more than 700 play spaces.

Many of these were installed on abandoned land or underappreciated (“left over”) locations, such as traffic islands.

Architectural historian Liane Lefaivre has noted that these sites formed a dense web, one in which children could easily migrate from one place to another.

I would suggest that multiple but unique parklets in American towns could have the capacity to be the new social infrastructure for all inhabitants.

I strongly urge you to investigate and support them.

I am, of course, happy to discuss this idea further or elaborate on other examples.


Susan G. Solomon

Author, The Science of Play; American Playgrounds


2 thoughts on “A Letter to Jeff Bezos”

  1. Dear Susan,

    Thanks to Sherry, I now know of you. I was excited about the Princeton parklet when I helped Princeton Nursery School apply for a grant to build a student-designed energy efficient cooling system. What I liked best about the parklet was that the engineering students and Dean of JaZams seemed open to tweaking BY the children. Might I ask you about other sources of creative educational funding? Have you ever written LEGO, for example?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *