The Progressive War on Parking

Mark your calendars: September 21 is international PARK(ing) Day, described as “annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into ‘PARK(ing)’ spaces.” Get it? The place you “park” your car becomes a “park.” It’s a postmodernist play on words that destabilizes the patriarchal hegemony of language. A better name might be “No Parking Day,” since the intent — or at very least, the obvious consequence — of this and other activities is to attack automobile use by nibbling away at the supply of parking spaces.

2rgj0wx_thumb The Progressive War on Parking

A candid discussion of restricting parking appears in the Cambridge (Mass.) Climate Protection Plan:

Strategy 3: Reduce the Amount of Motor Vehicle Travel through Parking Incentives and Restrictions. […] Studies indicate that parking restrictions are by far the most effective way to reduce driving, but they tend to be unpopular and therefore difficult to implement. Because most residents do not have off-street parking and very little space is available to create more parking, there are built-in constraints on residential parking.

Translation: we’d like to eliminate on-street parking to force everyone to take public transportation, but residents who have to store their cars on the street would get mad.

One strategy to get around public opposition is to reduce parking progressively, a little bit at a time, so that parking shortages seem like the fault of selfish drivers who won’t abandon their cars. PARK(ing) Day, given that it takes place on one day a year, poses only a minor inconvenience for nearby businesses, but its larger goal is to delegitimize the parking space, to prepare a favorable climate for the gradual reduction of parking.

According to, the project began in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, created what they describe as a “spatial meme” by installing sod, a park bench, and a potted tree in a parking space in downtown San Francisco. In 2011, the event included 975 PARKS in 162 cities in 35 countries.

The organizers published a Manifesto (downloadable here) to describe their revolutionary act:

Absurdity, authenticity, generosity and a tactical approach have been the hallmarks of PARK(ing) Day… Rebar’s thinking as much as anything else has been the sense of niche, loophole and opportunity. These tantalizing gaps in the urban structure-these necessary pieces of the urban structure, as long as that structure is generated by strategic forces seated in power and authority…challeng[e] the existing value system encoded within this humble, everyday space. […] By providing a new venue for any kind of unmet need, re-valued parking spaces became instrumental in redefining “necessity.” Thus the creative act literally “takes” place-that is, it claims a new physical and cultural territory for the social and artistic realm.

More from the Manifesto:

[PARK(ing) Day provides] a temporary generative territory for unscripted social interaction, where experimental forms of playful and creative human social behavior are cultivated and allowed to emerge, unmediated and unshackled by commercial imperatives… PARK(ing) Day offers an experiential critique of the hypercommercial public realm. […]

It is only by the tacit undervaluing of certain activities (such as, say, play or eating or socializing) that other activities (such as parking and driving) can thrive.

If you scrape away the postmodernist gobbledygook, Rebar is saying that the street is a public space unfairly coopted by private automobiles. By adding new open space in the form of “re-valued” parking spaces, we will remedy the hypercommercialization of our urban landscapes.

Moving from lofty rhetoric to reality, this is what the original installation looked like here.

A few responses:

San Francisco has 84 federal, state, city and private parks, including Golden Gate National Recreation Area, “one of the largest urban parks in the world with a size two-and-a-half times that of the consolidated city and county of San Francisco.” If you were looking for outdoor public space, would you choose to sit on a potted tree across from a vacant lot and a graffitied brick wall? And why didn’t Rebar try to “re-value” some of that wide sidewalk or the huge empty lot behind the chain link fence?

-Most human beings love hypercommercialized landscapes. My mother-in-law comes to mind. You couldn’t get her near a hiking trail, but she would walk for miles on Madison Avenue. In Boston, hypercommercialized Faneuil Hall is mobbed — ditto for Harvard Square — while the nearby Rose Kennedy Greenway “urban oasis” is as empty as an Obama fundraiser.

-We already have designated public spaces on our streets; they’re called sidewalks.

-We already have places that value play, eating and “unscripted social interaction.” They’re called restaurants, caf├ęs, bars, malls, and museums. Oops, I forgot that those places are “shackled by commercial imperatives.” If you’re going to sit on that potted plant and eat a sandwich, I guess you’d better bring a brown bag lunch.

-Allotting space to cars for people who pay excise and gasoline taxes is a public use — as are the roads and bridges that Elizabeth Warren and Obama eulogize. Can the same be said after a parking space has been occupied by someone’s PARK(ing) Day installation? Even if passersby are invited to take a load off, wouldn’t it feel like you were entering a private space and sitting on someone’s private bench?

PARK(ing) Day is temporary, but cities like Cambridge are working on permanent parking restrictions. For instance, rather than requiring commercial projects to guarantee sufficient parking to accommodate the traffic generated, the City is pursuing an opposite strategy:

In February 2001, the city council passed comprehensive new zoning measures, including some designed to reduce the traffic impacts of new development. These include reducing parking at new developments.

An early successful effort to reduce the amount of parking for new commercial development was the City’s work with the developer of the Galleria Mall to reduce parking and institute a shuttle bus that runs from the mall to the Kendall Square Red Line station.

Recently Cambridge has been installing bike racks, normally placed on sidewalks, out on the street, removing parking spots, usually in the busiest commercial locations.

Traffic calming — the construction of traffic islands, road bumps, and the like — has been promoted by appealing to the noble goal of improving pedestrian safety. At the same time, it adds
to vehicle congestion by narrowing travel lanes and replacing parking spaces with curb extensions.

Cambridge also plans to increase zoned parking for residents, to eliminate spaces for, say, someone from Somerville who wants to park near the independent gourmet cheese shop up the street from me. If the City succeeds in these efforts, ironically, it will only push people out of dense urban areas toward supermarkets and big-box stores with parking lots.

The next time you’re looking for a parking space, remember that there are people who think the solution is to reduce parking even more, so next time you’ll leave the car at home.