Unpave Paradise


A nationwide event demands fewer parking spaces, more parks.


By Sarah Parsons


On most days, the parking spots in front of Birdbath Green Bakery in New York City’s West Village are occupied by yellow taxicabs and BMWs. But today, two metered spots are overtaken by potted plants, a table with snacks and lemonade, a bicycle mechanic, and several people lying on lounge chairs.

“We’re showing what the city would be like with fewer cars, and more spaces to relax and get to know each other,” says Samantha Knowlden, a member of Times Up!, an environmental activist group that organized the display.

This drastic change of scenery is part of the first National Park(ing) Day, an event sponsored by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) to raise awareness about cities’ need for more public parks and open spaces. Today, individuals and organizations in 40 cities across the nation are taking over parking spaces and lots and turning them into makeshift “parks.”

Matt Shaffer, a spokesperson for TPL, estimates that more than 150 new “parks” will spring up in various cities of America today. Participants are hoping that citizens and lawmakers alike will take the demonstrations to heart, and make more city spaces green and open.

“Quality of life in our cities depends so much on certain factors,” says Shaffer. “This is an opportunity to give back to the community that expression of what’s important to us about parks and open spaces.”

Park(ing) Day began two years ago when an art collective in San Francisco, Rebar, transformed a parking space into a public park for a day. In 2006, TPL organized a city-wide Park(ing) Day in San Francisco.

While there are many motivations for creating more city parks—more places to exercise, extra tourism dollars, and opportunities to build communities—some groups are dedicating their “parks” to highlighting green spaces’ environmental benefits.

Less pavement and more plants would certainly have significant environmental perks for concrete jungles. Because pavement cannot absorb water, rainwater runoff often flushes pollutants (like heavy metals and oil) that build up on surfaces into nearby waterways. And because pavement absorbs heat from the sun, parking lots and spaces contribute to urban heat island effect, a phenomenon in which urban areas remain hotter than suburban or rural areas where there is more greenery and moisture.

“The temperatures within an urban area at any given time could be two to five degrees more than the surrounding rural area,” says Dev Niyogi, a professor of climatology at Purdue University and Indiana’s state climatologist. “We certainly see that urban heat island can affect our regional climate. When you see this phenomenon happening globally, these localized effects can start showing global impacts.”

Some National Park(ing) Day participants are doing their part to show lawmakers and city residents that creating more green spaces like public parks is one way cities could absorb excess rainwater and reduce the higher temperatures.

Landscape architects in Flushing, NY are turning a parking space into a raingarden demonstration to show how vegetated drainage swells could prevent polluted rainwater runoff from traveling to nearby rivers and bays. A “park” in Atlanta created by nonprofit Park Pride is handing out information about the environmental health benefits of having green spaces in cities. And one group in Louisville, KY is adorning its “park” with grass, trees, and shrubs, and demonstrating the temperature differences between vegetated areas and pavement.

“We’re trying to make something that usually goes unseen more visible,” says John Pacyga, a member of the Kentucky Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the group that organized Louisville’s Park(ing)Day park.

“The local, close-to-home parks are an opportunity to bring people together,” says Shaffer. “Otherwise, there’s not much in terms of places people can gather, get to know their neighbors, and become a close community without parks. The environmental benefits are there, but there are so many other benefits as well.”

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