Provoked by PARK(ing) Day

Friday's International PARK(ing) Day for 2010 was 'provoking' in more ways than one.

PARK(ing) Day came to Hangzhou, China for the first time this year. Photo from helina lass at Park(ing)Day Hangzhou 2010

It has been declared a great success by its global organisers. I agree. I love this event for the way it makes people think again about something they usually take for granted - on-street parking space

What is International PARK(ing) Day anyway?
PARK(ing) Day is a annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places. The project began in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco. Since 2005, PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals (operating independently of Rebar but following an established set of guidelines) creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world. 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!
These days, most PARK(ing) Day events have official permission. Nevertheless, a number faced problems with local bureaucracies, for example in Berlin and Brussels.

But why should special permission be necessary? This may seem a 'stupid question' but it made me stop and think. Keep reading for more reflections on PARK(ing) Day that start with this stupid question.

Most municipalities have rules decreeing that a parking space is a parking space is a parking space. Such spots simply cannot be used for anything else (without special permission). Doing otherwise provokes a stubborn bureaucratic response, as amusingly captured on video at one thwarted PARK(ing) Day in an unidentified North American city. Some events, such as Louisville's, were stopped on safety grounds:
According to Metro Louisville Public Works, a permit for the Park(ing) Day project would require the approval of Fire, EMS, PARC, and Public Works with a traffic engineer signing off on a traffic plan. A three foot buffer would be required with barriers or reflective cones of some sort.
The safety angle is not complete bunkum but I think the startled reactions to this event go deeper than that. PARK(ing) Day gets a huge amount of media attention each year, especially in cities doing it for the first time. It is news because it strikes people as quirky and subversive. But why? Why should redeploying parking spaces be so intriguing? What is so unusual about simply paying for some space? We actually do it all the time when we park vehicles!

But that is the point I think. I suspect that most people DON'T really think of 'feeding the parking meter' as some kind of rental payment for real-estate space. If motorists really did see it that way, it might be a lot easier for cities to bring in rational parking pricing policies. Instead, it seems that somehow parking gets put in a special mental category. Some people even seem to think of on-street parking fees as a kind of tax (especially when objecting to such fees).

So I wonder if the shocked reactions have something to do with the underpricing of on-street parking spaces? [Am I being predictably 'Shoupista' here?!] Would attitudes to these stunts be different in a street with performance pricing for parking? Performance pricing makes it clear that to park you must 'outbid' other potential parkers (in a sense).

Let's take it further, shall we? What if parking on the street had to compete with (at least some) other possible uses of the space? Safety issues would preclude some uses. But hawking is one obvious alternative use of parking spaces. With certain conditions, allowing vendors to sell things from carts by the street-side could be made safe enough. So why not let hawkers use parking spaces so long as they pay the (performance-based) fee? Why should food vendors be allowed to block footways in many cities but not be allowed to use temporary paid spaces right next to the footway? Is that food for thought? (pun intended)

There is more irony here, and maybe a danger.

We need to be careful, I think, that these events don't inadvertently suggest that parking space is a 'public good' like public parks are. Parking policy can get into bother if we think of car parking spaces as a public good. Actually, 'common pool resource' is a more useful way to think of on-street parking. The originators of PARK(ing) Day identify parking spaces as 'niche spaces' that are undervalued or inappropriately valued. Participants seek (rightly) to highlight the scarcity of public green spaces in cities and the ubiquity of space devoted to car-based mobility, including parking space.

I was prompted by PARK(ing) Day's reminder of the under-valuing of parking spaces to reflect on pricing them properly and on the possibility of making them compete with other uses. This does NOT mean I want to see 'pay-per-use' public parks. No-one is suggesting that. [Well almost no-one...] We usually express the value of public gardens and parks through community decisions and public choices, not markets. Public parks are indeed a public good.

Let me end with a quote from Matthew McDermott of Treehugger, who was also in a reflective mood after touring New York City's events and pondering the real meaning of PARK(ing) Day:
At its most basic level of impact, where it really has the most success, is simply getting people to stop and look. It interrupts the day for anyone who is nearby. By presenting the unusual in a usual context it allows a split second of consideration, of reflection--even if that reflection is more along the lines of "what the heck are you doing sitting in the street" than something more topically on point. In that moment there is the chance for change.


  1. We had a small PARK(ing)event that went mostly unnoticed despite not seeking approval. Our technique just in case was to bring the Michigan Penal Code with us and have a bicycle parked in every parking spot. Bicycles are treated as motorcycles, and are thus allowed to park in an on-street parking space. Towards the end, our parking official did pay us a visit. He wasn't going to remove us, but wanted to register his 'displeasure' and to let us know that our method wasn't "very productive". I'm not sure he understood our mission, because we were very successful at having fun, relaxing and making a few heads turn. Images and description at


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