Cars kill. We all know this. Whether you’re a capital-driven transit oriented developer or an anarchist despising motor vehicles as technology raping the planet, the automobile is the most lethal killer outside of diet-induced illness in the United States. Even the NRA rightfully will agree on this point.
Beyond the lethality of the automobile, cars kill the social capacity of urban streets. Our rightful places of common interaction and mingling – where we have historically laughed, shopped, conversed, and observed one another – have been demoted to highways choked with dangerous speeding steel machines.
For centuries, the through-ways in between city buildings were dominated by human beings, by horse carts, by rickshaws, by bicycles. Then came cars, and with them the communal dimensions of our streetlife were crushed beyond repair.
Courtesy Mark Gorton
Sure, we still have the sidewalk – where there’s barely enough room to squeeze past a light post, or if we’re lucky, an outdoor cafe table and chair. Sidewalks have suffered greatly in the last 100 years, and along with them our dwindling commons. What little space left to us has been dissected over and over to make room for ever more subsidized private motor vehicle parking.
Yet even here we are not safe. Just last week, the driver of a “Sport Utility Vehicle” jumped a curb and ran down a group of children. No charges were filed against the driver, the incident was deemed an “accident”, and the principal of the school the kids were walking to blamed the victims for wearing headphones.
The amount of social space people have sacrificed for cars – especially parked cars – is utterly appalling. It’s estimated that the cost of subsidized parking to the taxpayer, whether they drive a car or not, is a staggering $30,000 per space per year in high density cities. Add up the millions of parking spaces across the nation and we’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars each year that Americans are taxed to park idle motor vehicles while their owners go about their day.
This hijacking of the commons for the convenience of the auto-centrically advantaged simply cannot continue alongside honest aspirations of ‘sustainable cities’. Such buzzwords uttered by trend-savvy politicians fail to ring true when they’re stomped on by big-industry interests like the Portland Business Alliance. When our elected officials and highly funded nonprofit groups fail to push the ball forward where it concerns livable streets, the work of liberating our avenues and boulevards falls upon citizens weary of waiting for change from the top.
It was with this desire to reclaim the urban commons that PARK(ing) Day was born in San Francisco almost a decade ago. Originally launched by the design studio Rebar, PARK(ing) Day saw individual spaces normally assigned for stagnant motor vehicles repurposed as a miniature park, now commonly referred to as a parklet.
From PARKingDay.org: “The great majority of downtown outdoor space is dedicated to movement and storage of private vehicles, while only a fraction of that space is allocated to serve a broader range of public needs. The PARK(ing) project was created to explore the range of possible activities for this short-term lease, and to provoke a critical examination of the values that generate the form of public space. PARK(ing) Day has since been adapted and remixed to address a variety of social issues in diverse urban contexts around the world. The project continues to expand to include interventions and experiments well beyond the basic “tree-bench-sod” park typology first modeled by Rebar. In recent years, participants have built free health clinics, planted temporary urban farms, produced ecology demonstrations, held political seminars, built art installations, and opened free bike repair shops.”
This year, PARK(ing) Day takes place on Friday, September 20th. Here in Portland, an entire block will be repurposed as a mega-parklet in front of ACE Hotel on SW Stark Street. The largest such parklet in our city’s history, the multi-sectioned space will feature a wide variety of amenities and activities that will begin at 10AM and continue until around 6PM, at which time an after-party at The Cleaners will commence. An event page can be found HERE.
Said ThinkUrban.org founder and PARK(ing) Day PDX organizer Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, “It is a fundamental right of a city’s citizens, as in any democracy, to demonstrate that which they deem necessary for the health of the community. When that comes to public space, the need is urgent. We can no longer wait for the ‘capital C’ city to suddenly realize that streets as they are now do a disservice – we need to reclaim the streets for people. What we are seeing through actions like this is a rise of insurgent urbanism, not only as a force of awareness and rebellion, but as a demonstration to the ‘powers-that-be’ of what can be done when people creatively make the city into their own.”
The reclamation of our social space from the domination of motor vehicles is imperative. Our streets exist to serve many purposes, and over the last hundreds years, the list of activities that can safely take place in the street has vastly diminished. This Friday, in downtown Portland, we’ll be writing a whole new list. PARK(ing) Day PDX plans to deliver an urban block party unlike anything seen in years past. Expect this reclaiming of the commons to involve all manner of enjoyment and engagement.
Stop by, enjoy the space, play some games, listen to some music, read, chat, make new friends. Most of all – come see what’s possible when we start designing and utilizing urban space first and foremost for human beings.
See you in the streets!