Taking Back the Streets: How Park(ing) Day Became Park(ing) Year

CC BY 2.0. A semi-permanent parklet in Toronto/ Lloyd Alter

Not too many people are squatting in parking spaces today. It is the story of one of the great successes in tactical urbanism.

It's the third Friday in September, also known as Park(ing) day. It started in 2005 when Matt Passmore and his team at Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, put money into a parking meter and rolled out some sod, installed a bench and a tree, writing:

The mission of PARK(ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat ... at least until the meter runs out!

Which it did, two hours later, so they rolled up the sod, swept the parking space and went home.

parking day

© Rebar/ Parking Day 2005 on TreeHugger

A few weeks later, as a single iconic photo of the intervention traveled across the web, Rebar began receiving requests to create the PARK(ing) project in other cities. [We caught up with it in December]
Rather than replicate the same installation, we decided to promote the project as an “open-source” project, and created a how-to manual to empower people to create their own parks without the active participation of Rebar. And thus “PARK(ing) Day” was born.

In 2012 I made my very first iPhone video with Matt Passmore, while at the Making Space symposium in Philadelphia; I didn't even know how to hold my phone properly. He describes how it inspired a movement, and then evolved into permanent parklets.

Parklet Philly

Lloyd Alter/ A parklet in Philadelphia, 2012/CC BY 2.0

In 2012, Park(ing) day was a very big deal. Today is Park(ing) Day 2018, and it's not a very big deal at all. Even the official website appears to have been squatted on by somebody selling tools. It's not that we have all become blasé; it's that parklets got normalized. Parking Day became one of the great milestones in the history of what Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia called Tactical Urbanism, writing in their book on the topic:

San Francisco now has more than forty parklets, with many more proposed and in the permitting process. This program subsequently inspired numerous cities, from Philadelphia to Grand Rapids, to develop their such own programs.

This is where activism actually led to real change, to taking back the streets; city planners and politicians realized that streets were good for more than just car storage. People don't even have to put money in the meter; it has become legal. Last year, Benjamin Schneider of Citilab talked to Passmore's partner John Bela:

“Parklets have become a new urban space typology on their own,” Bela says. Indeed, since Rebar’s humble intervention in 2005, an average day in San Francisco and many other cities looks a bit more like the third Friday in September. Park(ing) Day, and all of the more permanent changes it helped spawn, portend a new paradigm in urbanism, Bela says. “Dialing back the space we allocate in cities for moving and storing private automobiles, which is inevitably going to happen, is going to unlock a whole lot of space and opportunity in these things we call streets today.”

You might have trouble finding a Park(ing) Day installation today. That's because it is becoming Park(ing) Year. What a wonderful success story.