When Parking Becomes Parks — and a Space to Connect

Adam Sneed - Sep 21, 2023
Illustration by María Jesús Contreras

You might have noticed some of your town’s parking spaces looked a little different last Friday. Perhaps some had been turned into makeshift cafés or playgrounds or gardens. If so, you stumbled across the movement known as Park(ing) Day, a global annual event in which residents take command of a parking space and turn it into a public space for people to gather and connect.

It started in 2005 when three San Francisco urban designers — John Bela, Blaine Merker, and Matthew Passmore — had an epiphany: Nothing in the city parking code prevented them from putting something other than a car in a public, on-street parking space (so long as they paid the meter). So, for a few hours, they took over a parking spot and built a “parklet.” The next year, in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land, they founded Park(ing) Day to inspire others to take their own creative spins on what parking spaces could be. To date, hundreds of cities around the world have hosted Park(ing) Day events, and several have established their own parklet programs for the rest of the year. 

As part of our “Getting Out” series — interviews about the importance of in-person interactions in an increasingly tech-first, lonely world — Rev spoke with John Bela to learn about the ways that creatively repurposing space in cities can help bring people together. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did Park(ing) Day begin?

Just about everywhere in a city is programmed: You can do this thing here, or you can do that thing. One of the original impulses was to create unscripted space for community interaction — informal, noncommercial hangout spaces.  

We set up a parking space with living sod, a park bench, and a tree, and we had a little sign that said, “If you want to enjoy the park, please put a few coins in the meter.” Then we waited to see what would happen. 

The original Park(ing) installation at 1st and Mission in San Francisco on November 16, 2005. (Image credit: Rebar)

We thought the police might come and arrest us or something, but immediately, people started using the space and having conversations. We thought, OK, this is a success: Where previously the space was used for vehicle storage, we’ve created a space for social interaction. 

What makes a parklet successful?

It’s important to remember that parklets are different from commercial outdoor spaces, like dining patios. We define parklets as public spaces that reflect the nuances, interests, and culture of that particular community. If it’s a well-designed, inviting, well-maintained space, it generates positive social life and activity. 

Some have provided the very basic thing of a place to sit and have a coffee with your friends. You can bump into people you don’t know. There’s an opportunity for those tiny frictions that actually generate civility. That’s what cities are about. It’s not about gathering together with only the people that you know and are connected with and speak the same language. It’s about cultivating tolerance and interest in difference.

What are some of your favorite ideas you’ve seen people do for Park(ing) Day?

I loved one in San Francisco where people set up a free public health clinic. I also really like the ones that introduce play into the urban space. There was one group that did a tightrope walk and another that asked people to dive into a pool filled with bubbles. I also like the ones that are trying to mitigate heat by having greenery, water, and cooling stations. I like that parking spaces in asphalt-based cities can be temporary refuges from the heat.

Where do you think Park(ing) Day has had the most impact?

For some reason last year, it was huge in Switzerland and big in Japan. A lot of Japanese cities don’t have street parking — they have a totally different approach to car storage. But I think the need there is for more of these informal, unprogrammed social spaces. 

Today, in New York City or San Francisco or other places that have extensive public-space programs, Park(ing) Day has a smaller role to play. But if you live in a place where the streets are pretty much exclusively for vehicle movement and storage, Park(ing) Day can be that first step to get people to think about this space differently. It continues to grow and to be used globally as an advocacy tool toward safer streets and more social innovations.