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PARK(ing) Day

David M. Stembel, III, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB

Making the best of COVID-19 through urban redesign of available space

This week many urban areas will celebrate PARK(ing) Day.  Yes, even in the middle of COVID-19, a curbside parking space has never been more valuable for something other than storing an idle car.  While isolated in our neighborhoods, all of us need the sweet relief of time outdoors within walking distance of our ‘home’ offices.  Our local restaurants need valuable outdoor space to serve diners in socially distanced seating.  Add the fact that fewer people are driving and parking, and the spaces are available!  Anchor flutter banners; set up cafe tables and chairs; place potted plants -- and the repurposing of street-lined parking spaces is the perfect, even if temporary, fix for this.

The concept of the unpermitted, guerrilla-style one-day repurposing of single parking spaces on PARK(ing) Day grew out of the Pavement-to-Parks movement on the West Coast several years ago.  Thus was born the temporary “parklet”, a cross between a terrace cafe and a pocket park that occupies one or more standard sized 10’ by 20’ curbside urban parking spaces.  The concept of creating these portable oases has spread to cities across the country and expanded to include whole parking lots and even large traffic circles through the purposeful creation of demonstration parks and plazas by small and large cities alike.  The concept is now celebrated coast-to-coast in the annual PARK(ing) Day.

As urbanists, Torti Gallas + Partners asks: What elements of public benefit could be accommodated if a parking space was used for things other than just parking?  What is the city losing by giving over so much of its prime real estate to the car?  What could the city and its inhabitants gain by taking some of this land back?  Throwing a few quarters into a parking meter doesn't reveal the true value of the parking space, especially in a dense place like a mixed-use downtown where property values are sky high.  Parking the way that we do, for a few quarters an hour, is an unfairly inexpensive short-term lease option for the storage of our vehicles, at a significant cost to our health, our quality of life, and the urban realm.  It's time to rethink the way streets are used and the priorities we place on making room for people and cars.

Torti Gallas + Partners has participated in PARK(ing) Day in our hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland for several years.  In 2018 our Fall-inspired space included seating made from hay bales, seasonal decorations, games and treats such as apple cider and maple cookies.  Curious visitors stopped by to learn what PARK(ing) Day was, or simply to have a treat.  The more adventurous visitors played some chess or cornhole.  Our space was such a success we received first place in the PARK(ing) Day voting!

In 2019 our goal was to make our temporary parklet even more interactive.  We included two giant survey boards with the following questions: “What do you like the most about parks?”and “What is your favorite park?”  We had a table filled with markers and post-it notes, where people could write their responses and add it to our communal board.  Additionally, we had an interactive over-sized ‘paint-by-numbers’ mural that by the end of the day turned into a colorful and beautiful vertical garden. We learned that most respondents value feeling part of a community and liked being able to shape the way their community was designed.  PARK(ing) Day is an excellent opportunity to interact more directly with our local neighbors that we otherwise might just anonymously pass on the street.  

If something good can come out of COVID-19 it may be the realization that we actually need fewer parking spaces and that those spaces are extremely valuable for other uses to the public and to the businesses that abut them.  PARK(ing) Day is a design case study in how we all should be parking something other than a car in the City!

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