"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

September 24, 2007

Turning Parking Spaces Into Parks: Park(ing) Day 2007

This past Saturday morning in downtown Northampton, MA. from 7am -2pm, a group of friends and acquaintances reclaimed three parking spots in front of Thornes Market and turned them into a public park. There was a great response from people in town that day, and we spoke with dozens and dozens of people about public space, the landfill expansion, Pulaski Park, and other issues of concern that many believe have been hijacked by private economic interests. Past and current officials of City Government walked by and offered their words of encouragement, and expressed glee with the event. Three parking spots were reclaimed, with one a park with benches and plants, one a center for information on the landfill expansion, recycling, and the Pulaski Park redesign, and one was a free bike repair shop. As you can see in the video above, the free bike repair shop proved very popular, and the proprietor was busy fixing bikes all morning.

It did not all go off without a hitch. Almost immediately after arriving and setting up, two officers in a police cruiser drove by and swung around to find out if we had the proper permits. We did not, and after discussing with them the merits and reasoning behind our efforts, it seemed as if they were going to respectfully request that we vacate the parking spots. (Relevant city officials have expressed their support for this event, and were willing to sign off on it and allow us the proper permits. Time constraints did not allow us to pursue that if we were to continue with our plans for Saturday) After speaking with the police some more, and showing them the proclamation our Mayor had signed declaring The City of Northampton's support for Car Free Day, among other validating and defensive arguments we could muster, including that we had vehicles in the spots, (our bicycles) and were paying the meter, the officers kindly noted that we were in free '15 minute' only spots. We moved out of those and into hourly metered spots. What was a slightly tense affair was becoming light-hearted, and the officers seemed to be experiencing a moment of understanding and respect for what we doing. They did not ask us to leave, but instead noted their concern for our safety, and suggested ways to create a more secure buffer from traffic. They were empathetic and understanding the whole time, and left slightly bemused. This episode was repeated with a meter maid who showed up later in the day. At 2pm, long after I had left, the police did return and request that the group leave. And so they did, after creating a public park in a parking spot for seven hours on a Saturday morning in Northampton, MA.

Similar events happened in cities across the globe on Friday Sept. 21, in celebration of Park(ing) Day, and sponsored by Rebar and The Trust for Public Land. Additionally, Saturday, Sept. 22 is World Car Free Day. The two events, each with their own ideals and visions, operating separately from each other and being held one day apart, both represent important and radical issues. Issues I see as very similar. Public Officials, in their mandated role as representatives of the public, have handed over our public space, without much debate, to private commercial interests and automobile owners. Our public spaces are being destroyed for private financial gain with the blessing of misguided public representatives. Here in Northampton for instance, occasionally influential people and businesses advocate for another parking garage in town, dusting off tired and easily disproved arguments about the lack of parking in town, and the alleged detrimental economic benefits that has for our city. Arguments made in spite of the fact that the garage we have now, with about 500 parking spots, has on average, 150 empty spots on a daily basis. Furthermore, the public spaces that are left in the public domain are increasingly falling under a host of restrictions that benefit a minority of financial interests, at the expense of the greater public, effectively mandating by default, a public subsidy of private profit.

In light of the recent decision by the DPW in Northampton to form a Committee to Redesign Pulaski Park, downtown Northampton's only public park, the event that took place here in town on Saturday morning was especially timely.

Public space is recognized by supporters of democracy around the world for providing a critical and necessary role in any equitable and democratic community, as it allows land ownership rights for the eneral public, and space for the community to gather and be an engaged part of the larger community they live in. With private commercial interests gaining ever more influence in the day to day affairs of community government, public spaces act as a countervailing force to that influence, providing a community space where people can come together to converse, solve problems, agitate for change, meet their neighbors, and to create community, without the interference of a minority of monied interest who have other priorities. As important, it encourages the community to do so not in their living rooms, or in private conversation, but in the public arena, highlighting for others in the public sphere the power and influence individuals can wield when they band together to work on a common goal. As the founders of this event have pointed out, "More than 70% of most cities' outdoor space is dedicated to the private vehicle while only a fraction of that land is allocated to open space for people." Quite simply, that needs to change. And we need to support and propel courageous individuals to elected office who have the determination and vision to enact the necessary changes.

More from around the world below:
News reports:
Austin TX
Sacramento CA
St. Louis
Wilkes-Barre PA
Los Angeles
Wall St. Journal
Eugene OR
West Palm Beach
University of Southern California

Park Slope Brooklyn
Rio De Janeiro Brazil
Sacramento CA
Tampa FL
St. Louis
Los Angeles
Paddington Australia

Los Angeles CA
Rio De Janeiro
London, Manchester UK, Milwaukee, and Eau Claire Wisconsin
Utah State University
Logan Utah
Northampton MA
Louisville KY

Atlanta GA

Information about Car Free Day:
World Car Free Network
Streets are for people
Car Free Day in Brussels

LABELS: public space, downtown, northamptonist tv