Updated: Apr 29, 2018
Late spring to fall, the streets of Vermont’s capital Montpelier are transformed into a welcoming public commons. No less than five parklets have been featured in the city’s downtown core, creating welcome spots for public gathering. These specially designed structures tuck into under-utilized urban nooks, providing much valued public goods — from proper bicycle stowage to picnic areas and conversation corners. On busy sun-filled days its nice to find a bit of shade and take in the passers by, cyclists and dogs.
Four of the parks that have sprung up in recent years are the brain-child of local architect Ward Joyce; the fifth is a private commission by regional eatery Positive Pie working with the design-build firm Anomal. The first pocket park to appear in Montpelier was in 2014 when Joyce, then a member of the architecture faculty at Vermont Technical Center in Randolph, worked with students and community leadership to design the city’s first installation. Joyce and his students used Montpelier’s compact urban fabric to demonstrate “tactical urbanism,” an incremental and site-specific conceptualization of public space that prioritizes pedestrian friendly and playful designs to reimagine and enliven downtowns.
Montpelier’s first pocket park arrived in May 2014 and lasted for two seasons; it occupied approximately a 7-by-28 foot area of two parking spots on the Rialto bridge overlooking the North Branch of the Winooski River. In its siting and design, the parklet afforded many new public pleasures made possible by the usurpation and reprogramming of the dominant downtown parking paradigm. Funded through private fundraising efforts (an early Kickstarter effort failed), the Rialto parklet served as an outdoor respite for patrons of nearby businesses to enjoy their refreshments out of doors; it provided a uniquely generous place for reflection and repose overlooking water in the city; and it was a superb venue for buskers to share their talent.
Significant to the development of Montpelier's first pocket park was the responsiveness of the city planning commission, which has now adopted streamlined guidelines and an application process for the construction of new parklets in the city. In a similar vein, the parklet demonstrated the feasibility and viability of new concepts of public space, access and use in the city center.
Soon after the success of the Rialto parklet, a local business strapped for adequate sidewalk seating commissioned a seasonal outdoor roadside seating area that occupied two orphaned parking spaces. The popular local pizza and music venue Positive Pie negotiated a deal with the city to pay for lost revenue during the installed months; the industrial and interior design firm Anomal built a platform and rail system with interior seating that quickly became a hit with noon and evening crowds during the summer months. While some might question whether a private commission satisfies a truly public definition of parklet, it does address some of the major benefits including traffic calming and, in the hours before the restaurant is open, a spot for public repose.
The next two parklets came in 2015 and 2016 and were also led by Ward Joyce with support from Vermont Technical College students and local leadership. The most ambitious installation is a semi-permanent oasis on an undeveloped parcel of land owned by Montpelier Property Management. At nearly 1,000 sf., the Main Street parklet was funded in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign; it combines garden boxes with a pergola-covered seating area and scattered tables and chairs. Lit at night by strung lights and boasting an adjacent bicycle lock-and-pumping station, a surface treatment on an adjoining wall provides a hanging garden effect that is kept healthy by an onsite water catchment system. The vision of the parklet serving as host to a food truck has not (yet!) been realized.
The fourth is ambitious and arguably the least coherent assembly of seats and shade built off the exterior wall of a former bicycle shop. A collaboration with local architect Stephen Fry, the parklet has a more loose yet striking modern design boasting hewn log seats and a steel cable rail; shade is produced with a pair of outdoor parasols. The overall concept and design fits well within the context of Langdon Street’s recent outdoor art installations, amplifying what is perhaps the most concentrated and pleasing “art block” in the state.
Montpelier’s most recent pocket park, the Guertin Parklet, may vault the city to the top spot for parklets per capita. It was designed by Joyce and the Yestermorrow Design-Build School in Waitstfield. Installed in the fall of 2017, the parklet anticipates a day when the city is graced by a ribbon of biking pavement along the Winooski river. Somewhat out of the way for most downtown visitors, the Guertin pocket park has the vernacular feeling of a farmstead or bus stop — a place waiting for an event to arrive. Built of strong vertical and horizontal slats with subtle waves and circles of color, the parklet will no doubt draw the curious out to the Taylor Street terminus of the 1.7 mile recreation path that is one of the city’s great public assets.
Three cheers for Ward Joyce, tactical urbanism, and everyone in the capital city who envisions a downtown that is ever more friendly to bikers, pedestrians and the many forms of public use that take over when welcoming outdoor places become part of the urban fabric. Here at Backpacker we hope to see the spread of this use — throughout our city and, why not, state-wide!