Idea File: Drive change through PARK (ing) Day

The idea

Every year in September, groups of people band together to transform parking spaces in cities across the world as part of PARK (ing) Day.


Idealist’s Idea Swap at PARK (ing) Day 2009, where we asked New Yorkers for their suggestions for a better city. (Photo from IIP State via Flickr/Creative Commons.)

From their website:

“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!”

The event began in 2005 when the art and design studio Rebar temporarily planted themselves, a sod of grass, a bench, and a tree in a parking spot as a way to challenge San Francisco’s use of downtown outdoor space.

Since then, thousands of activists, artists, and everyday citizens have put their own local spin on the event as a way to playfully engage their communities. Think flash mob — but with a social conscience.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Open source community development. Locals decide what issues in their communities they want to address, and how.
  • Purposeful repurposing. From health clinics to free bike repair shops to urban farms, creative participants all over the world are careful to not let one inch of empty space go to waste.
  • Attainable impact. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s recently inspired city governments to take action. NYC’s pop up café program temporarily places table and chairs in front of businesses to utilize limited street space, for example, while in San Francisco small urban parks called “parklets” can frequently be found where cars used to be.
  • Takes fun seriously. Sure, the ultimate goal is to drive change, but who says you gotta have a straight face to do it? Play a community piano, explore a mini-jungle, or show off your moves at a dance party: the possibilities are endless.

How you can replicate it

In 2011 alone, there were 975 parks in 35 countries from Brazil to South Korea. Rebar has made it easy for you to add to that number this year, providing a comprehensive how-to manual and promotional material such as posters, T-shirts, and more.

We also reached out to the folks behind Brisbane PARK (ing) Day, who’ve helped numerous other cities in Australia get organized, for their advice on how to host a successful event.

Here’s what designer and urbanist Yen Trinh had to say:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Be tenacious about tapping into the knowledge of the international network.
  2. Partner with the community. Design schools, cafe owners, landscape architects, and urban designers can offer a lot of good ideas.
  3. Know the local laws. There is no quick answer as to whether or not the event is legal. Make sure you know what you can and cannot do, and speak to your local politicians.
  4. Ignore the haters. You’ll likely encounter people who think it’s risky; chances are you’ll pull off the event trouble-free.

“Urban design and public spaces are critical to the well-being of our cities,” Yen finally says. “Things like Park(ing) Day are just one small step to broaden the discussion of what kinds of places we want to live in.”

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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