• PARK(ing) Day 2012 in Philadelphia featured 60 parklets across the city, including this one in the 1300 block of Walnut Street.

    Credit: Dominic Mercier

    PARK(ing) Day 2012 in Philadelphia featured 60 parklets across the city, including this one in the 1300 block of Walnut Street.

It’s amazing what you can fit in the roughly 150 square feet of a standard urban parking space, other than a car: a garden, an art installation, a health clinic, even a free bike-repair shop. Many of us wouldn’t have realized all of that if it hadn’t been for PARK(ing) Day, an annual public art event that has redefined what public space can mean to our increasingly privatized cities.

Launched in San Francisco in 2005 by the art and design studio Rebar Group, PARK(ing) Day featured a single redesigned parking space complete with sod, bench, and tree that existed for a mere two hours—the maximum “lease” allowed by the parking meter. Since then, it has spread to over 162 cities in 35 countries across six continents, with architects, activists, and artists (all operating independently) following guidelines established by the PARK(ing) Day DIY Planning Network, managed by Rebar Group.

Philadelphia, one of the cities that has embraced Rebar’s philosophy, held its fifth PARK(ing) Day in 2012, with nearly 60 parks spread across its main downtown area and outlying neighborhoods, exceeding organizers’ ambitions for 50 parks—or “parklets,” as they’re sometimes known—to mark five years of participation.

The parklets ran the gamut from simple tables, chairs, and lawn-style games to open-ended shipping containers filled with artwork. The makeup of the teams behind the parklet designs was almost as diverse as the concepts, ranging from world-recognized architecture firms, such as Apple Store darling Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, to the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA).

Even though it is an agency tasked with mercilessly enforcing parking violations, the PPA has been one of PARK(ing) Day’s earliest supporters, says Pam Zimmerman, principal of Zimmerman Studio, who along with a number of volunteers has organized the event since Philadelphia embraced it in 2008. The authority even earned the honor of creating the largest park so far, occupying three consecutive spaces last year. PPA representatives spent the day handing out lemonade and soft pretzels.

But for an event that could be seen as an act of guerilla intervention or tactical urbanism, Zimmerman says PARK(ing) Day, in her eyes, was never meant to be harsh or confrontational, so much as it is a day of advocating for more pedestrian-friendly space in cities and educating passersby on their lunch breaks.

“The goal is to make people aware of how much space in cities we give over to the car,” Zimmerman says, “and to illustrate how little it takes to create a space that encourages interaction and makes people smile.”

“Some people think you are selling things,” adds Erike De Veyra, Assoc. AIA, a designer at Zimmerman Studio and 2013 AIA Philadelphia associate director. “That was one of the first questions I received from some pedestrians the first year, and then the educating started.”

But is it possible to make someone who spent a good while hunting for metered parking or plunked down up to $30 for garage parking smile? Is it possible in a city that in 2011 PsychCentral.com listed (however dubiously) as the most depressing city in the United States, based on Google habits? A city whose hometown sports fans once threw snowballs at Santa (in 1968) and D-cell batteries at the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder J.D. Drew (in 1999)?

Zimmerman thinks it’s possible.

“We warn the PARK(ing) Day teams that there’s going to be one or two people at every location who give them a hard time about taking a parking space,” she says. “But, for the most part, the reaction is very positive.”

Troy Hannigan, Assoc. AIA, project manager at Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia and a collaborator, with De Veyra, at Philadelphia-based Patrike Design Workshop, remembers his first complaint about the waste of a “perfectly good parking spot,” which came, ironically, from a man who didn’t even own a car and preferred to walk everywhere.

But positivity is a sentiment echoed by David Golden, the 2012–13 president of Drexel University’s American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) chapter. Golden partnered with fellow architecture student Monica Gaura last year to set up a mishmash of tables and chairs, as well as carpet squares that Golden rounded up from the firm where he now interns, Studio Agoos Lovera.

“Those who approached us and asked, ‘What is this and what are you doing?’ loved it,” Golden says. “We even got some great feedback from people driving by and yelling out the window.”

PARK(ing) Day goes hand in hand with the mission of AIAS, Golden says, and is a perfect opportunity for chapters to come together and educate the public about design and public space, while bridging the gap between architecture students and working professionals. Golden says he hopes that 2013 will see AIAS chapters from nearby Philadelphia University and Temple University collaborating on a single spot.

Grassroots public education initiatives like PARK(ing) Day in Philadelphia appear to be paying dividends, too, as the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities seeks to make lounging in the street a more permanent pastime in the Quaker City. Last year, it extended grants and multiyear permits for six simple curbside parklets in four different neighborhoods.

Christopher Stromberg and Brian Johnston, AIA, principals of Johnston Stromberg Architecture, were tasked with creating a parklet in the budding Graduate Hospital area of South Philadelphia, a few blocks from the firm’s office. The parklet—which features seating atop easily segmented decking made from reclaimed wood and metal (so that it can be disassembled and stored by the grant-holder)—debuted in front of South Street’s Pumpkin Market on PARK(ing) Day 2012, and remained in place through that October. The project is now in its first full season as a multi-month parklet, through this October, and early reports from the mayor’s office suggest significant economic boosts among some businesses adjacent to the parklets, which claim a 20 to 40 percent sales increase due to foot traffic.

But is permanency the future of PARK(ing) Day in Philadelphia? It’s hard to say, but the mayor’s office will be adding two additional parklets in 2013. De Veyra says she’d like to see PARK(ing) Day grow and expand into some of the city’s further-flung neighborhoods and, perhaps, run longer than one day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., so participants will have longer to show off their parks. Either way, she says, there is room for growth.

“This event is not an aggressive movement to be a stick in the mud, but a gesture to reconsider and re-evaluate what our city and urban fabric can become,” De Veyra says.

PARK(ing) Day is held annually on the third Friday of September (Sept. 20 this year). Learn more at parkingday.org.