Park(ing) Day reminds us how society shapes public space
"Environments change...in the midst of these events, people remember the past and imagine the future."
On Friday, September 18th, the international event known as Park(ing) Day took place here in Washington, D.C. The annual event, which transforms metered parking spaces into mini parks, began in San Francisco in 2005 and has since spread to other cities around the globe, including spaces in New York, Denver, Rome, and Berlin.
Park(ing) Day's purpose is "to bring awareness to how we use public space in our cities and how to use it to make our urban neighborhoods more livable, environmentally sustainable and beautiful."
While this was not the first time the event was attempted here, it was the first time the event ran successfully through the course of a full day (some activists and planners tried to host the event in a parking space a couple of years ago, but they didn't have permits and the authorities shut them down within an hour). This year's Park(ing) Day wasn't free of planning troubles: as discussed on GGW last week, the organizers (Justin Young, Brandon Schmittling, and Chris Loos) had difficulty obtaining permits from DDOT for the four planned locations. At the last minute, they were forced to alter plans.
The event's location was moved to one large space, a vacant parking lot along 14th and S Streets, NW owned owned by Garden District, a local urban garden center, who stepped up just in the nick of time and saved the day so that the demonstration wasn't turned into a larger act of civil disobedience. (Another backup plan was to just pack up and move park(ing) locations every time authorities shut down the event.) The lot of impervious surface was transformed into a beautiful park, with real green grass and potted flowers, garden furniture, and lots of happy people playing board games and badminton, eating cupcakes and apples, and discussing life's pleasures. Some passersby heard about the event online, others just happened to walk by and were invited to partake. The scene was beautiful.
Park(ing) Day in D.C. reminded me of a lesson I learned in an urban planning course on behavior in the physical environment. In that course, University of Maryland Professor Sidney Brower described how behavior settings—a combination of both the physical and human components in any given space—provide the conventions in the environment that define what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. While the designers of the physical setting obviously play an important role in the formation of the behavior setting, the space's users can, do, and should alter it according to their needs.
In his book, Design in Familiar Places, Brower wrote: "Successful spaces and facilities conform to the conventions of the particular society to which the users belong; they owe their success not simply to the way they look, but to the way they are used, managed, presented, and interpreted, and to the goodness of fit between their physical and behavioral components" (page 57). In essence, Brower argues that public space isn't a static physical entity; it is thoroughly a social entity, too. We are not just stuck with whatever physical space is provided for us. A little programming, such as an event like Park(ing) Day, can go a long way toward inexpensively transforming mundane spaces into greater spaces.
There are plenty of opportunities for taking action in spaces around D.C. In fact, this isn't the first time you have heard the suggestion that what is needed is more programming in public spaces. Alex Block recently pointed to all the "odd-shaped public spaces" scattered around D.C. that result from the diagonal avenues crossing through the rectilinear grid. Many simply need re-programming to make them functional. Of course, there are many other spaces where a little more programming could go a long way toward making "our urban neighborhoods more livable, environmentally sustainable and beautiful." Go out and find those spaces! On next year's Park(ing) Day, hopefully D.C. will transform many more spaces for the day. Perhaps even, between now and then, some spaces ripe for transformation will already have been changed.
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