Feature

Rethinking Public Space Starts with a Spark

A Look at the Inspiration for #YAFforSPARK

By Maya Henry Posted on September 13, 2018


The new Spark public patio outside Onion Maiden at 639 East Warrington Avenue in Allentown. Image courtesy Onion Maiden

To most of Pittsburgh, new outdoor patio spaces located in Allentown and Downtown may seem to have materialized overnight.  However, these two pilot City of Pittsburgh Spark projects were carefully planned, designed and built over many months. The goal of a Spark is to extend the sidewalk into a street’s parking lane, providing space for gathering and relaxation.

Part of the City of Pittsburgh’s Complete Streets initiative, Sparks are part of a long-term effort to enhance businesses and invigorate the public realm in a new and unique way.  Sparks originated in 2010 in San Francisco to convert parallel parking spaces into areas for the public to gather.

AIA Pittsburgh’s Young Architects Forum recently found inspiration in the Spark effort: the 2018 Young Architects Studio Competition (YASC) asked entrants to design their own Spark and you can view the submissions here.  The Design Award winner will be submitted to the City of Pittsburgh for further consideration.

Sparks are created by changing the use of one to two parking spaces and, in their place, building a semi-permanent platform which extends the sidewalk into the street. This platform is buffered from the street by a railing or barrier and can contain plantings, furniture, and other creative pedestrian amenities. They are placed in commercial areas and are intended to generate more on-street pedestrian activity that supports nearby businesses.

“We thought that with us being a new business, it would be a unique way to spread the word about our little corner of Pittsburgh, and, more importantly, to contribute back to our very supportive neighbors. The response so far has been great,” says Brooks Criswell, co-owner at Onion Maiden.

The Onion Maiden Spark was envisioned by contractor Trevor Barrick and went through a number of design and engineering reviews as part of the process, which included approval by the City’s Art Commission.  Criswell says that Barrick built and fabricated the entire structure but not without the “help of countless of our amazing punk rock friends.”

“We encourage everyone to come to check it out and let it speak for itself. It’s a really impressive and inviting structure that has brought people together every day since its installation,” says Criswell.

As the sponsor of the Spark, the businesses will be responsible for seasonal maintenance and removal of the structure in winter.

Bae Bae’s Greenhouse, photo courtesy Merritt Chase

The second SPARK is located outside Bae Bae’s Kitchen at 951 Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh, adjacent to complimentary new streetscape improvements implemented by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

Bae Bae’s Greenhouse was designed by landscape architecture and urban design firm Merritt Chase and fabricated by Technique Architectural Projects.  The pop-up “green machine” tracks rainwater and measures air quality – addressing two of Pittsburgh’s biggest environmental issues, and even has its own website.

“We were excited to be selected to pilot the Spark program. As landscape architects, we like to test the limits of what’s possible in urban public spaces, and the Spark program was a wonderful opportunity to work with the city and Bae Bae’s Kitchen to experiment with ideas and to help to set the standard for the program,” says Nina Chase of  Merritt Chase.  “The Greenhouse is one of our smallest projects to-date, but it packs a powerful placemaking punch.”

Bae Bae’s Greenhouse, photo courtesy Merritt Chase

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