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Opinion: Park(ing) Day: Civic pride or prospecting opportunity?

One of Zipcar's two Park(ing) Day spaces in Sept. 2014

Around the world, the third Friday in September marks the arrival of Park(ing) Day. Park(ing) Day originated ten years ago in San Francisco from an unsanctioned experiment by Rebar, an art and design studio. 
Park(ing) Day is about temporarily transforming metered parking spaces into “Park(ing) spaces,” tiny parks the size of one parking spot. Creating temporary public places in an unusual location--the street--challenges how we prioritize public space in our communities and further accentuates the disproportionate role of the automobile in public space. 
The original vision of Park(ing) Day was “to challenge the existing notions of public urban space and empower people to help redefine space to suit specific community needs.” The focus is on reclaiming streets for people and talking about how public space is created and allocated in our communities.
Here in Washington, D.C., Park(ing) Day consisted of approximately 20 sanctioned spots. D.C. requires groups to have a permit ($50 plus a $5 technology fee) and pay the meter. The city also requires general liability insurance for the space. That may explain the seeming lack of citizen-led Park(ing) Day spaces in D.C.
I visited two noteworthy Park(ing) Day spaces, both sponsored by the Georgetown Business Improvement District. The BID focused on changing the way people interact with the streets. With the comfortable and interesting seating options and absence of advertising, these spaces were great for hanging out and really encouraged chatting and getting to know people.  Of the seven spaces I visited, these were the only two that I felt captured a nugget of the mission. These two spaces were in car-congested areas where pedestrians have a tough time finding a spot to breathe--literally. 
Then there was the Zipcar Park(ing) day space(s). This was different from the others. First off, Zipcar got a permit for two consecutive parking spots for the day, and they cleverly extended it to three by parking their ZipVan next to their Park(ing) Day spread. 
These two spaces were in car-congested areas where pedestrians have a tough time finding a spot to breathe--literally. 
Zipcar cleverly selected I Street NW as their Park(ing) Day location. This location is on the fringe of the George Washington University campus, on a busy block next to the Foggy Bottom Metro. One of their permitted spots demonstrated what you might expect from this event: AstroTurf, some bright, comfy chairs, and a corn hole game.
The other Zipcar spot was the interesting one. There were some Zipcar employees manning a table, handing out Zipcar advertising pieces and tchotchkes - ready to tell you about their service and how to get signed up.
A review of the D.C. permit process for Park(ing) day reveals the requirement for the applicant to provide a detailed park concept as well as a sketch of the site design.  This means that DDOT most likely knew and approved of what Zipcar was up to that day in their Park(ing) Day space: advertising and pitching their business. Or Zipcar didn’t include in the permit process the details of their intended design. 
Zipcar may have been reclaiming the streets for a parklet, but they were also paying the permit and parking meter fee to have a new space to further prospect for memberships. Should Park(ing) Day be about advertising?
Gizmodo.com posted an article in 2013 called Why We Don’t Need Parking Day Anymore. While I don’t agree with many of the reasons this article lists for why we don’t need this event anymore, I do find myself asking, what exactly are we accomplishing? Challenging how we prioritize public space is really important and whether a company or a community organizes the Park(ing) Day space, this challenge can still be realized.  
 Have we killed the heart of this thing with fees and red tape?

But what happened to people creating these spaces? Have we killed the heart of this thing with fees and red tape? I am most concerned with what happened to community in all of this. Rebar was focused on empowering people to redefine space to suit community needs. And speaking of spatial needs or lack thereof, I also visited a Park(ing) Day space close to an existing park. I believe the space was selected in order to advertise more efficiently. More food for thought: the seven spaces I was able to visit were in more affluent areas of the city. 
So, did Park(ing) Day in D.C. cultivate a sense of civic pride? Were people prominently in the equation of these temporary spaces? They didn’t seem to be designing or planning these temporary Park(ing) Day spaces. They weren’t exactly mauling each other to spend time in the spaces either.  Maybe more people would come out for Park(ing) Day if they recognized themselves in the process.  

The author is a Ph.D student studying the role of public space in urban environments. This piece was originally published on her blog, Our Public Places; however, it has been edited here for space.
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