Sep 15, 2017
One tiny DIY parklet became a model for reclaiming streets around the world.
“I like to think of Park(ing) Day installations as the gateway drug for urban transformation,” says John Bela.
He’s one of the minds behind the urbanist holiday, held on the third Friday of September every year. Indeed, since 2005, when Bela and his collaborators installed the first Park(ing) intervention on a drab street in downtown San Francisco, the idea has gone on to enliven countless blocks around the world, and to enlighten countless urbanites, who get to enjoy spaces normally reserved for stationary cars. Last year’s event, for instance, featured a streetside ping pong table in Los Angeles, a delightfully twee succulent garden in Madrid, and a giant inflatable Pokemon in Singapore.
For Park(ing) Day 2017, CityLab rode the wayback machine with Bela, to learn how this global phenomenon came to be, and how it might just transform our cities.
In 2005, recently returned to San Francisco from a project in the New Mexico desert, Bela and his urban design collaborators, Blaine Merker and Matthew Passmore, were hankering for a more urban project. They were inspired by the work of conceptual artist Gordon Matta Clark, who created installations in New York City’s tiny, irregularly shaped lots that existed due to surveying errors.
As they searched for “unscripted fragments” of land in San Francisco, parking spaces emerged as an under-appreciated land use type in an otherwise vibrant city. What’s more, they could be rented on the cheap, at just a few coins per hour. “We looked at the parking spaces and thought, ‘Oh wow, this is subsidized real estate,’” Bela says.
So one day in late September, the group found a parking space in a particularly gray part of downtown San Francisco, and converted it into a mini park. On what had once been concrete, they rolled out living grass, put up a bench, and placed a potted tree. Then they retreated across the street to observe the results, hoping their urban intervention was not an arrestable offense. Within minutes, a man sat down on the bench, took off his shoes, and began to eat lunch. Another person joined soon after, and the two began having a conversation. That’s when Bela and his collaborators knew they were on to something: “We created an opportunity for social interaction that wasn’t there before.”