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Tiny parks are on a roll in San Francisco

Reporting from San Francisco -- The greatest park in San Francisco arguably is Golden Gate — 1,017 sweeping acres studded with playgrounds and windmills, lakes and museums, a Shakespeare garden, a brew pub and its very own herd of bison.

No one could argue that the latest green spaces to grace The City are a far more modest proposal. The two bright-red dumpsters, 16 feet long by nearly 6 feet wide and filled with greenery, have been placed in a busy downtown neighborhood where they throw a little shade, elicit regular double-takes and fill curbside spots that otherwise would go to cars.

The grandly named "parkmobiles" were rolled out earlier this summer, the first in a fleet of itinerant oases in one of America's densest cities.

"The more crowded a city is, the more new ideas come squeezing out of the ferment in a combination of need and opportunity," said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land. "New York and San Francisco are two of the most innovative places."

In the last two years, San Francisco — 17,505 people per square mile, compared with Los Angeles' 8,087 — has seen a proliferation of tiny parks carved out along sidewalks and streets. They have become progressively smaller: from plazas and promenades to parklets and now parkmobiles.

When parking spots began turning into parkland, retailers and drivers groused: "So where do we put the cars?" Those who advocate for more green space in the city worried that the miniatures would replace traditional parks. Even former Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. got into the fray, deriding in a recent newspaper column the "overgrown flower boxes" that he said were a magnet for the homeless.

"The first one I came across had obviously been used as a bathroom," Hizzoner carped. "The second one I visited, a guy and gal were 'socializing' in the bushes."

But proponents argue that even the tiniest of green spaces squirt a little nature into miles of otherwise unfriendly concrete, particularly in a city where only a fraction of the downtown is open space and 70% of the streets are dedicated to private vehicles.

So what do San Franciscans, those pavement pounders who actually have a parkmobile in their own patch of the public realm, think of the beautification effort?

It depends entirely on the day.

One recent Tuesday morning, the urban refuge near 5th and Mission streets beckoned those navigating the gritty sidewalk beneath gray skies. It was bright, perky, hard to miss. The meter beside it flashed "expired." Its long bench and discrete sign proffered a welcome: "All seating is open to the public."

Trucks and buses rumbled by. Sirens wailed. Pedestrians shot the custom dumpster curious looks. Thirty minutes passed, then 60, then 90. No one sat down.

A heavyset, elderly man with a cane eyed the little refuge and hobbled on by. A panhandler clutching a white trash bag turned his back on it as he asked passersby for a quarter, "for my laundry. I'm telling you the truth!" A leashed mutt sniffed but did not deign to christen its shiny walls.

"Sort of ridiculous" was San Francisco native Jerry Adams' assessment as he ambled past the parkmobile, with its hard, narrow inset bench (the better to deflect sleepers) and Arbutus trees and Cotoneaster shrubs (the better to attract birds). "You can't just go plunking them down anywhere."

Wednesday was a completely different story.

The parkmobile had been rolled a bit south to block the mouth of Minna Street, home to a weekly lunchtime collection of food trucks called Off The Grid where diners can buy, among other treats, a Korrito (Korean burrito) at Seoul on Wheels or a Shoyu pork slider from Eat Curbside, a rolling kitchen in an Airstream trailer.

By the time the sun had burned off August's fog, the folding tables had filled and local funk band Bohemian Knuckleboogie ( its motto: "good music for hard times") had launched into a particularly soulful version of "Days of Wine and Roses," the parkmobile was becoming an integral part of the South of Market street scene.

Victoria Jeffries whipped her iPhone out of her purse and focused on the bright red dumpster. She'd just devoured some garlic noodles and a five-spice pork skewer from An the Go when she came upon San Francisco's newest green space.

An attorney with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., Jeffries said her "backyard" is the stately National Mall. The micropark "managed to pack such joy into such a small, little parcel.... I thought it was quirky and interesting and worth a photograph."

Elsa Kim wasn't so sure. The 25-year-old project manager for a high-tech start-up plunked down on the bench, stretched her legs out and methodically made her way through a salted caramel cupcake.

On the plus side, she said, the parkmobile can be moved around to follow the sun, a scarce commodity in this foggy city. On the minus side? It can be moved around, dragged by a little petrol-powered tractor, which makes her wonder: "I'm not sure I feel like it's the most green of parks."

The movable fleet, which eventually will number six, was commissioned by the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District. Each costs about $6,000 and will spend a couple of months in place before being moved to other sites in this South of Market district.

During that time, said Cathy Maupin, the group's executive director, the dumpsters have a rather weighty job: They should improve the neighborhood, create a sense of place and foster community. They are a paved-over district's stand-ins for Mother Nature.

"We have to work within the canvas of the neighborhood," Maupin said as she polished off a locally sourced egg and heirloom tomato sandwich from the Brunch Box truck. "We want the place to be livable. You have to be creative when you're built out."

When it comes to green space, San Francisco — which had a park 11 years before it was a city — is nothing if not creative.

Voters here passed the Sunlight Ordinance in 1989, which protects city parks from new construction that would cast a significant shadow.

And then there is Park(ing) Day. The guerrilla open space movement, born just four blocks from where the parkmobile now sits, is the dumpster park's most easily traceable ancestor. In 2005, an art and design studio called Rebar picked a single metered parking space in a particularly asphalt-rich neighborhood, rolled out sod, plopped down a potted tree and a bench and fed the meter. Two hours later, when the meter expired, the group packed up and left.

Similar events have since cropped up in 183 cities, in 30 countries, on six continents. Park(ing) Day 2011 is set for Sept. 16 worldwide.

In the last two years, the city has granted permits for around 25 permanent parklets; an estimated 30 more are under consideration. These more or less permanent versions of Park(ing) Day whimsy allow green space to bloom where cars once parked.

Most parklets are in front of businesses. Software engineer and bicycle aficionado Amandeep Jawa unveiled the first residential parklet outside his Valencia Street house in June. Made of largely recycled or recyclable materials and drought-tolerant plants, it is home to a topiary triceratops.

Jawa sees his creation, which he has christened 'Deepistan National Parklet, as a social experiment in neighborly respect and a car-free life. The parklet blocks Jawa's driveway, but he gets around on public transportation and his own steam.

"So many people ask me, 'What about your parking?' or 'How do you get your car in and out?' " Jawa said. "We could have a lot of really nice things if we weren't so hellbent on doing things for cars."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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