Southport Celebrates Park(ing) Day: Turning Parking Spaces Into Parks

By Patty Wetli | Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Pilsen neighborhood's take on Park(ing) Day. Credit: Flickr/metroblossom

Parking spaces aren’t just for cars, they’re for people too. Put your quarter in the meter (or your credit card in the kiosk) and the space is yours to do as you please: pull up a chair and crack open a book, share a cup of coffee with a friend, plant a tree. That’s the idea behind of the Fifth Annual Park(ing) Day, a global movement that could only have originated in San Francisco and promotes the transformation of metered parking spaces into temporary parks.

Take that LAZ.

On September 16 in hundreds of cities across dozens of countries on six continents (what, penguins park free, Antarctica?) patches of asphalt, concrete and, for all we know, cobblestone, will be converted into open green space. Chicago boasts several sites, including Southport Grocery & Cafe, UIC, Revolution Brewing and Buttercup Park.

“We’re just going to be feeding the meters all day,” says Zach Drummond, Southport Grocery marketing director. “Anybody can feed the meter and use the spot. It’s like renting part of the city.”

For Southport Grocery, 3552 N. Southport Ave., this is the cafe’s third Park(ing) Day collaboration with Moss Design, which has also played an instrumental role in developing the Lakeview Area Master Plan (LAMP). Last year’s effort took up the better part of a half a block and this year’s event, which runs from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., promises to match, if not top, its predecessor. The theme is “bicycle comfort station,” featuring a bike repair station, food, live music and a lawn for dining. The goal is to create a park where cyclists and pedestrians can refuel and relax.

Matt Nardella, principal architect of Moss Design, took the time to chat with RVJ about his firm’s participation in the event.

RVJ: Why get involved in Park(ing) Day?

Nardella: As a city dweller and biker, I am a big time advocate of creating hospitable spaces for all forms of transportation. I thought that Park(ing) Day was a great opportunity to show all the useful and fun things that can be done in the space between buildings, aside from storing automobiles, that have a much more meaningful impact on our everyday lives. As you probably remember, the parking meter deal was in its final stages in 2009, which was our main impetus for setting up a park that year. We had so much fun: I mean we get to hang out in a sunny park all day, we like to do it every year. We pitched the idea to Lisa Santos from Southport Grocery and she was super excited to be involved, plus we got some cupcakes out of it.

RVJ: How long does it take to plan/coordinate this event?

Nardella: Every year when we are packing up for the day, I say we need to start planning earlier next year because we want to expand and make the day better. Invariably, it never happens. I gave myself two months this year to plan… it still wasn’t enough!

RVJ: People are mighty attached to their parking spaces, particularly business owners. How do you convince them otherwise?

Nardella:It seems to be a misperception that we don’t have enough parking or that business will dry up if people can’t park in front of their favorite store. While designing the LAMP project, we discovered during our very extensive public input process that shoppers did not think there was a shortage of parking, however, some business owners felt very differently. It is a misnomer that available parking equals big business. What does increase business, though, is a hospitable pedestrian experience. This encourages shoppers to stroll a neighborhood and visit more stores instead of merely parking at one place and leaving immediately. Ask any casino owner why they try and keep people put. To great detriment of our urban spaces, design policy has been formulated by traffic engineers who plan

(Park)ing Day is celebrated worldwide, including this scene from Munich. Credit: Green City Munich

around only one thing, automobiles. Our new policy has to take into account all forms of transportation, which is what we try to display at Park(ing) Day.

RVJ: Some would say if you want more open, green space, move to the suburbs.

Nardella: I think that notion is exactly what has created our current unsustainable predicament. Suburbs are a monoculture, which by nature, is not a sustainable method of development. In my view, the key to sustainable cities is creating opportunities for biodiversity to flourish. Building urban ecosystems that are designed to be in balance with nature, not fighting it. Cities are the most unique, exciting, sustainable and livable method of development, we need to encourage all demographics to live here.

RVJ: Setting up parks in parking spaces is a great way to draw attention to the need for more green space, but not a practical long-term solution. What are other opportunities, either in Lakeview or citywide, to create additional open spaces?

Nardella: I beg to differ. The only way to make cities truly sustainable and hospitable is to overlap functions. So not just pure open space, but city functions that can serve the same purpose as open space. For far too long, streets have been designed only to move vehicles, fast. But this is public space, it belongs to all of us in the city, so it should serve all of us, whether our primary objective is to move fast through the streetscape or not. The right-of-way should be for growing food, recharging stormwater, and places for people to hang out, not the single automotive use we have today. I think the only way we can become better stewards of the land is to be in direct connection with it. Unfortunately, nature doesn’t exist in some places in the city, so it must be reintroduced. As a start, I would love to see Lake Shore Drive redesigned as a multi-faceted transportation corridor, accommodating bikes, trains, buses and pedestrians while giving Chicagoans more direct access (this is something Daniel Burnham advocated for) to our most precious resource, Lake Michigan. Less hardscape and more native landscape would also improve water quality and urban biodiversity. There is plenty of precedent: Portland tore down a riverfront highway, Seattle and Buffalo are discussing it, and Robert Moses [famed New York City planner] is a laughing stock. All of these cities realize the importance of making real places for people.

RVJ: What’s the reception been like to your Park(ing) Day efforts?

Nardella: It’s been awesome. Everyone is supportive and has a great time. In fact, our first year someone from LAZ stopped by. We saw him pull up and got our parking meter receipts ready. He walks up and says, “I’m not here to write tickets. I heard you on NPR yesterday and wanted to check it out. It sounded cool.”  It’s the only time I can say that a LAZ employee made my day.

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