COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Reclaiming Our Streets, One Smoothie at a Time: PPS Celebrates PARK(ing) Day

Sep 21, 2015
Dec 20, 2017

Celebrating its tenth year in 2015, PARK(ing) Day is an annual event where artists, activists and citizens turn metered parking spots into temporary public spaces for people rather than cars. The project began in San Francisco in 2005, and it has since become a global movement whose mission is to “call attention to the need for more urban open space, generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and improve the quality of urban human habitat.” PARK(ing) Day offers a great model of how we can begin to re-imagine our Streets as Places, and for this year’s festivities in Washington, D.C., PPS Vice President and Director of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, Mark Plotz, helped to set up our parklet on the 1600 block of K Street NW. Here are some of his reflections from the event.

‍PPS's Mark Plotz, the smooth(i)est of all operators, aboard the "fender blender" - a bike-operated and human-powered smoothie machine that was a key feature of our 2015 parklet | Photo by PPS

I’ve always considered "why" to be the most subversive word in the English language. Asking why forces us to stop and examine our assumptions. One of our most basic assumptions about our cities, for example, is that streets are for cars, not for people. PARK(ing) Day got its start when a handful of people asked: Why are drivers the only ones allowed to rent that 8’ x 20’ parcel of public space? How could it be used differently?

As I stood in front of our parklet on Friday, outside the PPS office in Washington D.C., I realized that this two-fold question is a great way to introduce the uninitiated to the concept of PARK(ing) Day. With a delicious berry smoothie in hand, and a compelling demonstration just a few feet away of how that 160 square foot patch of asphalt could be used differently, it didn’t take long for passersby to make the mental leap about which was the better use: storage for a single car or fun and social interaction for a dozen people?

The first lesson: the conversations that emerged from posing these questions were more thoughtful and productive than those that started by us telling people why PARK(ing) Day was a good idea.

‍Community members creating and enjoying new uses for this small public space - from eating and socializing to lounging or drawing | Photo by PPS

The second lesson: the old Stone Soup folk story really holds true. This was especially heartening for me as a District resident, because a frequent criticism of D.C. is that it is uptight and lacking in community. While we (PPS) did much of the heavy lifting, our parklet could only be fully realized with the help and involvement of many others. Roxy and Sara from the 12th floor brought farmers market peaches for the smoothies and some potted plants for the biophilia. Paul and Brenda from building management offered some throw rugs so that our laminate flooring could lay flat, and they gave us orange cones and five gallon buckets to mark off our parklet. Other organizations in the building contributed the couch, a cooler, and the stationary trainer for our famed fender blender. Most importantly, our friends in the building provided people to sit in those chairs and lounge in the grass. Since people attract people, their presence was essential for our parklet to succeed. And the best part is that most of this happened spontaneously once people saw what we were doing. They got it, and they wanted to help us succeed.

The corollary to this lesson is that when planning for place it is important to give people the opportunity to contribute. The biggest crowds and smiles came from those we invited to pedal our fender blender. Similarly, having some sidewalk chalk available awakened the inner artist in a few people. The hopscotch game was a big hit with the suits at quitting time on a Friday.

‍An aerial view of the transformed parking space | Photo by PPS

The third lesson is that place must be brought to the people. Our installation was on the 1600 block of K Street NW. One block west is Farragut Square, two blocks east is McPherson Square, and two blocks south is Lafayette Square. All of these locations have lovely lawns, benches and shade trees. In between these locations, though, it is kind of like a DMZ for walkers because there’s nowhere to sit and not much to see – and as a consequence people tend to hurry through on their way to somewhere else.

It was amazing how three tables, eight chairs, a couch, half a dozen chrysanthemum planters, fake grass, and some chalk art disrupted all of that - it was Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper at its finest. We became fast friends with the Fed Ex employees next door, the guys from pizza place two doors down, the building manager next door, the shoeshine guy from the restaurant down the way, the local bike couriers, and lots of people from the organizations in our building. “What are you doing here?” they asked as they greeted us, and as we said our goodbyes, the question became “When is this happening again?” The flak I expected from the parking deprived never materialized.

I ran out the meter on the best-day-at-work-ever by laying on my back in the grass, looking up at the trees lining K Street. I wondered who might be looking down on me. I suspect more than a few of them spend their days telling Congress how to spend what we think of as our greatest public resource: money. But if we think of power as the ability to make a difference in the daily lives of people, then we (and my friends on K Street) are overlooking a much more important public resource: the streets of our cities. Friday was a reminder that there’s an option for our streets other than a total surrender to cars.

I’m hooked; planning begins now for next year’s PARK(ing) Day—if I can wait that long. In the meantime I need to find a reuse for a few hundred square feet of lush plastic grass and oak laminate flooring. I am learning towards mini golf for the former and a breakdancing floor for the latter, unless you’ve got a better idea.

‍Smiles all around as PPS staffer Sam Goater keeps the smoothie refills coming | Photo by PPS
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space