Pop-Up Parks: Get Green Fast

Published: October 18, 2017

They came for the bright orange lawn chairs, grassy village green, music, art and family-friendly activities. You could just feel the excitement as children, teens, and adults zoomed around the skate park and tumbled on the play equipment. Over a few sunny, summer days in Los Altos, CA, a stretch of hot, gray asphalt, lined with cars, was transformed into a pop-up park—a temporary outdoor installation called State Street Green. Bringing instant healthy, green spaces to communities that would otherwise have to wait years for the development of a traditional park, is a new approach to helping people get up, get out, and get moving.

As one of the first communities to give it a try, Los Altos residents seemed delighted with their new outdoor space. “Love this! A whole block in downtown Los Altos closed off to traffic for the summer, and covered over with fake grass and super cool furniture. There are frequent kid-friendly events and it's the perfect way to enjoy the warm weather,” said Jen, a happy Yelp user.

Pop-up parks are uniquely different than traditional parks, since urban features, like storefronts, restaurants, and offices, surround them. They also offer urban communities a low-cost (compared to the cost of creating a traditional, permanent park) way to add a space that encourages physical activity and social interaction. They are always temporary, and can range in size from a single parking space to a couple of street blocks. But more importantly, pop-up parks give public spaces usually restricted to cars (like parking lots or streets) back to the people.

The implementation of the first pop-up park in Los Altos was the result of a public-private partnership between Passarelle Investment Company (now Los Altos Community Investments) and the City of Los Altos. Passarelle and the City of Los Altos joined forces to create State Street Green, taking advantage of the fact that a full street block in downtown Los Altos would be closed due to construction in one of its entry corners. Although construction has long since finished, the pop-up park was so popular, it’s been brought back during three subsequent summers.

From my perspective as a researcher, the Los Altos’ State Street Green was the perfect opportunity to better understand the impact of pop-up parks. Working with the team of scientists of the Stanford Prevention Research Center’s Healthy Aging and Technology Solutions Lab, directed by Dr. Abby King, I led a study examining the patterns of use and of physical activity in the pop-up park, and its broader effect on both individuals and the community.

The main results of our research, published in the Journal of Urban Health in August, 2017, showed:

  • A large number of multigenerational users came to the park at different times of the day.
  • Children and adolescents were the most likely to be physically active at the park.
  • As a result of the pop-up park, users were less likely to spend time in front of a screen (TV, computer or phone), and more likely to spend time outdoors, at a park and in the commercial, downtown district of Los Altos.

The results of our study suggest that urban pop-up parks could become important contributors in the revitalization of downtown central business districts, while also supporting the goal of improving health in cities. The same space that is a street block for motor vehicles one day can easily become a vibrant urban park the following day, where children and adolescents can be physically active and adults can interact with each other, and possibly patronize local businesses.

As a new type of public urban recreation space, pop-up parks can play an important role in making it easier for people to be social and active, all while making our cities more welcoming and livable.

Also featured on The New York Academy of Medicine blog

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Dr. Deborah Salvo, Phd, is an assistant professor at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin, and the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. In 2013-2014, when she led this study, she was with Dr. Abby King’s Healthy Aging and Technology Solutions (HARTS) lab, at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. The full HARTS research team for this study also included: Jorge Banda (now at Purdue University), Jylana Sheats (now at Tulane University), Sandra Winters, and Daniela Lopes dos Santos (now at Federal University of Santa Maria, Brazil).