Last Friday was a day in Portland a little unlike any other. PARK(ing) Day grew out of the actions of Rebar in San Francisco almost a decade ago as a way to inform and inspire what our urban streetscape can look and function like through direct action of engaged citizens. Each year on September 20th, spaces normally used to park motionless motor vehicles are repurposed for people to enjoy with seats in the street, benches, tables, music, games, trees, flowers, art materials – all manner of outdoor amenities suited for folks looking to kill some time on a lunch break or otherwise wandering the metropolitan fabric of their city.
When one or two parking spaces are converted into a place for people, whether temporarily or permanently, it is commonly known as a parklet. Portland has several such spaces, though the Portland Business Alliance has blocked additional such spaces from being allowed permanent status in downtown. However, nobody seemed to know what to call a parklet the size of an entire city block last Friday, when a small group of urban activists unleashed the largest parklet in Portland’s history onto SW Stark st. Lead organizer and THINKurban.org founder Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman said her group had simply set out to make this year’s PARK(ing) Day PDX “bigger and better” than years past in order show how easily regular people can improve their streets any way they see fit.
As noted by Bikeportland.org, not only were there hundreds of people stopping to park their bikes and enjoy the ping-pong tables, benches, tables, and hammock, but the total impact of the mega-parklet effected far more than the space it occupied. People easily and safely crossed the street at any point they desired, as motor vehicle traffic was calmed to moving at single-digit miles per hour through the bustling block. Truly, it was the cars that looked out of place in the road – having to awkwardly maneuver to accommodate people strolling at whatever pace they desired.
What started out as simply trying to do things ‘bigger and better’ had evolved into an experiment beyond the intentions of the organizers. Asked by them to assist in a documentary capacity, I spent the day taking many photos and shooting video, which I’ve edited below. It felt liberating to be able to take on the role of ‘city observer‘ and watch how passersby reacted to and interacted with this reclamation of public space. At first many were hesitant, stating they either thought it part of a private event, a commercial promotion of sorts, or worried sitting in the street wasn’t that safe. Yet as more and more people sat to read, drink coffee, converse, and make new friends, it was as though a spell had been broken. Gradually, hundreds of Portlanders began connecting with one another in ways that were totally familiar – yet hadn’t been practiced in a long time, at least nowhere near this block.
By all accounts, PARK(ing) Day PDX was a smashing success. It was rumored that several PBOT employees came to eat lunch here, remarking how this kind of thing needs to transpire more often in our town. After debriefing with the organizers, it’s clear there are even grander schemes in the works to deliver this kind of action more than a once a year. Ultimately, the aim is to rightly implement this kind of street space as permanent, not just as a novelty. New York City has seen tremendous success in doing just that. It’s time for the people of Portland to take street seats and parklet-ing to the next level.
Enjoy the video, share if you like – and follow the links below to learn how you can get more involved in reclaiming urban space for people. See you in the streets!