Monday, August 31, 2015

Why You Should Take Part in Park(ing) Day

Photo taken September 3, 2014 - on the way back from my first Parking Day planning meeting

A year ago I was living in Stamford, Connecticut instead of San Jose, California. This meant I had a working knowledge of the cycling quirks in the state I lived in, a memory of what rain looked like, and the ability to carry groceries with complimentary, store-issued bags. 

My Stamford friend and fellow bike activist Emily emailed me and asked if I wanted to take part in Parking Day - an event I had never heard of before that originated in San Francisco in 2005 and takes place on the third Friday of September. I’ve always maintained that if you want a better environment for cyclists and walkers in Stamford (or, for that matter, the state of Connecticut) that you do whatever Emily tells you to do, so I agreed to help.

I met with Emily and Meg (one of the founders of Bike Stamford) at Lorca to discuss what we wanted to do. Thankfully, they gave a rundown of Parking Day that can easily be found on the web site: The short version is: you feed a parking meter, but instead of putting a car there, you put a small public space. It can be a living room, a dining area, a mini-golf course - anything you can imagine. This is a fun way to get people to wonder how to best use public space. After all, when you think about it, cars take up a lot of public space.

The name of the new public space is called a ‘parklet.’ This is not a common word. I know this because spell check changed it to ‘parcel’ the first few times I typed it. 

Even still, you’ve probably seen some parklets in your life. The more permanent ones can be pretty elaborate. Here’s one I found when went biking in Germany last year:

In Redwood City, California, I found this near an outstanding Mexican restaurant. The meters are still there. 

But back to the not-yet-built parklet in Stamford: since the jobs of working with the city and promoting the event were taken by people more talented than myself, I volunteered to provide most of the furniture for the parklet. We barely had two weeks to prepare. The big criteria is that we needed to use items that could be put in place quickly and taken away as soon as the meter ran out.  

I used a small vinyl couch from my home office that had big casters on it (it also could fit in the back of my Honda Element) the DIYBIKING.COM signature coffee table, the coat rack I had also welded, a couple of folding chairs and two $20 rugs from Home Depot. Incidentally: two 5 x 8 rugs, when taped together, are about the same footprint as a parked Toyota Corolla.

While mapping this all out in my basement, I realized just how much space a car takes up (a feeling I’d get nearly a year later when I had the not-for-me experience of being in the same room with my car). 

Days before Parking Day, I planned out how we would take the two parking spaces in front of Lorca at the predetermined time.

When it came time to move in, we were annoyed to see an ugly Ford van in the second space hadn’t moved even though its meter had run out. But we pressed forward anyway: I fed our meter and we set up the furniture on the one parking spot.

We worked quickly to put things in place at our parklet - which bore a slight resemblance to my man cave/basement living room. I even brought along my old chess set, and in no time at all we were sitting in our parklet playing a game.

However, a few minutes later…

One of Stamford’s finest stopped to ask what we were doing, and we assured him we had cleared it with the proper people first. Besides: I had added reflective stickers to the back of the sofa to provide more safety after sunset.

After the friendly officer left, more people began stopping by and asking what we were doing. Some brought snacks and a vase of flowers somehow materialized on the coffee table. Emily also provided a board so anyone could stop in and provide their visions for public space (you may have seen Lindsay Perry’s photo of this in the Stamford Advocate with Elizabeth Kim's story). 

Others showed up. I got to meet a nice woman over a chess game that we didn't finish (we finally did days before I moved to California). My wife came over after she got done with work and made a watercolor sketch of the parklet. I even jaywalked through the gridlocked Bedford Street carrying a plate Lorca cookies offering them to motorists. A guy even stopped by on foot playing a guitar.

And then I sat on the vinyl couch with my Lorca cookies, watching friends play board games and talking - laughing, really - with one another.  A few feet away on Bedford Street, cars continued to trundle by. Some of the drivers were staring. Most were smiling. And that ugly Ford van never moved. 

Within a few minutes of the meter running out we packed up. I managed to load the carpet, my coffee table, folding chairs and coat rack onto the vinyl couch and roll the whole lot behind Lorca to stuff them into the back of my legally parked Honda Element. When I returned on foot, I was greeted with a familiar sight.

The car had pulled into the space within thirty seconds of us leaving it - the occupants apparently had no idea how significant the space had been (or wondered who all of these people were who were staring at them when they pulled in). Afterwards, a group of old and new friends went out to dinner at Cask Republic. 

Your own experience with Parking Day may vary but I highly recommend that you get involved with Parking Day and/or make one yourself. As I proved, you don’t need the best or most stylish furnishings to make a Parking Day impression - just a small number of people willing to have fun convincing others that space devoted to an unoccupied motor vehicle may be put to better use. Stamford's Parking Day 2015 will be bigger and better this time around and if you live in the Bay Area: I may have a brown sofa with reflective stickers on it you can borrow.  Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

Follow me on Twitter @michaelknorris

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