It’s been a tough week for motorists, as two separate events aimed to reclaim city streets for rather less polluting activities, and create community spaces to challenge people’s thinking about the environment and highlight the lack of playgrounds and parks in many urban areas.

Many years ago now, in a town near to where I live, an inspired public protest made a big impact on me. Having asked the town council many times to provide more parks and play areas for families and children, the residents of one street took matters into their own hands over one weekend, and generated great publicity for their cause. All of the residents contributed clubbed together to hire turf, which was laid the full width of the road, kerb to kerb, so that the whole street became a park. For just two days, families and all the children played and spent time together in the green space, and at the end, the turf was rolled up and taken away again. It was really beautiful to see the road transformed, and made the point more eloquently and poignantly than any other campaign had done before.

PARK (ing) Day, on September 21st, was a bit like deja-vu for me, as, in cities across the world, people took over parking spaces, covering them with turf and filling them with trees and plants. It all started in 2005, when the San Francisco art collective Rebar bought up a group of parking spaces for a day, turned it into an urban park and invited people to make use of it to play games, socialise or just relax. Based on the observation that, so long as you continue to put money in a parking meter, there is nothing to say that you have to park a car in the space, it has now become an annual, and global event. Hence all kinds of inventive uses for the spaces are born, many of them with community or sustainability themes, and all with a great sense of fun.

The event is still very much centred on San Francisco, and is organised by Rebar with the help of Public Architecture, a SF nonprofit public advocacy organization, and a whole host local sponsors, many supplying free loan of transport and materials.

In San Francisco itself, one parking lot was turned into a dog park, with tennis balls to entertain the lucky temporary beneficiaries. Passers-by were surprised to see a chicken coop put up by Wired outside their HQ. Their chef, Philip Ferrato and freelance editor Bonnie Powell handed out leaflets about how to buy fresh, local food, and sold eggs from their chickens, Isabelle and Claudette. In another parking space, Dancing Girl by artist Jeanine Briggs, a sculpture made out of rubbish, held a stack of composting bins that were being given away free by the city of San Francisco. Rebar themselves organised a mobile ParkCycle, a sort of gorgeous green space pedalo, travelling across the city during the day to wherever they thought it was most needed.

The national celebration was expected this year to involve over 30 cities in the US, and was coordinated by The Trust for Public Land. This is a national, nonprofit, organization that aims to conserve land for public and community use, and currently campaigns for parks and playgrounds to be accessible locally for everyone.

In New York City’s West Village, the front of the Birdbath Green Bakery became an oasis for tired city dwellers, transformed by potted plants and sun loungers, and with a resident bicycle mechanic for the day, and a parking space outside the Seattle Art Museum was covered over with fresh green grass, a stone bench and a purple bird feeder.

Over 47 cities worldwide were expected to take part, and in only three years since its inception as a local event in San Francisco, that’s really quite a rate of growth.

On September 22nd, the global street reclaimers went even further, with World Car Free Day. In 2006, residents of over 1,300 towns and cities from 40 countries participated, and the 2007 event was expected to be even bigger.

The event was celebrated in Europe as the rather oddly-named “In Town, Without My Car!”. As part of European Mobility Week, and UK Bike Week, many of the staged events involving cycle riders in one way or another. In Berlin, cyclists took part in the Kreisfahrt circular ride, departing from the famous Brandenburg Gate and finishing, for those hardy enough, 40km later at the Sudkreuz train station. Here, riders recovered with a bio-bratwurst or an organic meal, and view exhibitions and demonstrations on green themes.

In Toronto, a day filled with parking meter parties was rounded off the with the Car Free Dance, a street party for people and their bicycles.

The incredible range of events is well illustrated in the below delightful video record of the day in Brussels, actually held on Sunday 23rd. The city centre is full of people sunbathing, socialising, and performing tai-chi, while the streets are reclaimed by roller skaters, horse, donkeys, cows, and velocipedes of every kind. There’s a great display of traditional farrier’s craft, too.

The great thing about both these days, as far as I can see, is the way it brings people together. Certainly, the points about the environment and sustainability are important, but we seem to live in an ever more insular society these days. I think the excitement of people enjoying the open air and having fun together is the first step to caring communities locally, because if we can’t make things better in our own neighbourhood, we’re unlikely to be able to save the world.




  1. 1 Saulson September 26, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    This rocks. I wanna do this every day!

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