To be perfectly honest, Park(ing) Day is my favorite sidewalk/street related political event.*
You might have seen photos of this before, people sitting in chairs in a parking space and (pretending to be) having a good time.
I like it so much because, short of a NASCAR race or The Shout House in Block E, parking spaces and parking lots are pretty much the worst places I can imagine to sit and hang out. Asphalt looks, feels, and smells dirty and gross. Parking spaces endure a constant barrage of cars, circling like vultures, threatening to invade, strike, and pick at your body parts with their sharp front fenders. You're low down the the ground, surrounded by cars and dirt and muck and smog and why the hell would anyone want to sit and hang out and enjoy relaxing in a parking space?
But, somehow they do. Each year, all throughout America, interesting, artsy, architect-y, hipster-y, fun people set up parks within parking spaces.
Why do they do it?
More than anything else, this little act calls attention to the HUGE amount of space in the public realm that is given over to cars. Cars aren't just large isolating, polluting, deadly shiny objects... on top of that, they also require tremendous amounts of geographic space in order for people to store them near their homes, offices, shopping places, and in order to drive them really quickly. Acres of parking in front of every store, along every street, in every driveway in every house in America... most of the time, most of this space is unused, as cars behave according to distinct daily patterns. And when we devote all of this space to cars, we automatically make it unusuable for people, animals, plants, rainwater that seeps into the ground, and a whole lot of other things that might occur on the planet.
[At one time the largest parking garage in the world, Euclid Square Garage c. 1930 shows how early parking garages became a prime concern for cities. Img. the Nat'l Building Museum's recent exhibit on the history of Parking Garages.]
[Located at Broadway and Main St, NE, The Northeast Bank Parking Lot Park is one of the most unique spots in Minneapolis: an early, innovative and ultimately futile attempt to merge the city park and the parking lot.]
Over the years, we've gotten to the point where we take parking spaces for granted. We just assume that every street will have as much space as possible reserved for the automobile. And, as every transportation project in the history of the late 20th century has proven, nothing gets business owners more pissed off than messing with their nearby parking spaces.**
Much like the price of a gallon of gas, there's no feeling quite as palpably helpless as trying to park a car in a crowded situation. More than in any other situation, here we're directly competing with each other. The animal instincts bubble up, and we 'fight' almost irrationally to get an extra ten feet closer to the store entrance. Parking the car somehow taps into an emotional nerve center, and most drivers feel very strongly that there can never be enough parking.
Well, all this has consequences, and it means that our streets look like ass-phalt. Public space is continually eroded, paradise is paved, our cities heat up, sidewalks disappear, and because of the cyclic dynamics of auto demand, even more people end up driving even more cars and fighting even more intensely over parking spaces.
And that's why I love Park(ing) Day.
Park(ing) Day demonstrates the range of possibilities that can take place in our public space and on our streets. There's no reason that we can't have wider sidewalks where people can hang out. There's no reason why Snelling Avenue, or Broadway Avenue NE cannot have space for people, cannot have trees and benches and plenty of room in front of stores for sandwich board signs and flower pots. There's no reason why Downtown Minneapolis near Marquette has to feel cramped, sun-less, and desolate. In an alternate world with fewer cars, we'd have way more spaces to relax and enjoy living together in the city.
And, for one day a year, that's just what Park(ing) Day tries to do. Tomorrow, keep your eyes open. There will be anywhere from 5 to 20 parking spots in Saint Paul and Minneapolis that are temporary converted into spaces for people. This will probably happen in lots of creative ways. Thanks to the good folks over at Works Progress, who organize this event and a few other cool events in the Twin Cities, Park(ing) Day is celebrating its 4th year in Minnesota. And its not too late to join in. As I've written about before, it doesn't take much to take back a street from the automobile.
So, between 10:30 and 2:00, feel free to set up a chair in a parking space near you. Mark it down on the Park(ing) Day website, and experience world the full range of the world's possibilties. Let Park(ing) Day commence!
[Manhattan's recent Broadway re-design shows what happens when you take Park(ing) Day to the next level.]
* This is true even though (or perhaps because) I've never participated in it in any way. Conceptually, though, its a knockout.
** This is very very true. Probably nothing. Maybe catastrophic apocalypse, or returning to the 90% upper-bracket tax rates of the 50s and 60s. But, short of that, there's no button so hot as a curbside parking spot.