Park(ing) Day’s Roadside Attraction

The founders of Park(ing) Day discuss the birth of their idea and how it became a global phenomenom

Park(ing) Day is an annual tradition of turning parking spaces into actual parks that will be held this year on Friday, Sept. 16th. (SV Johnson)

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If aliens were watching the Earth from space, they might well assume that cars are the planet’s dominant species. Humans, they’d quickly observe, seem to exist in order to feed and groom their well-armored masters, and propel them from place to place.

That image long peeved Matthew Passmore, who decided to do something about it. Passmore, 41, is a consummate idea man who manages to seem both laid-back and highly enthusiastic. His résumé is all over the place: philosophy major at UCLA, professional bassist, intellectual property lawyer. But art has always been his passion, and in 2004—along with two friends—Passmore created Rebar: a maverick design studio based in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Rebar’s chief interest is “the commons:” shared space in the urban community. Its projects have included imaginative playground structures, inflatable “Sho-Globes” for outdoor festivals and an effort to protect an endangered seabird that nests on California’s Año Nuevo island (a feat that involved designing ingenious ceramic habitats). But its best-known project is Park(ing) Day: an annual tradition of turning parking spaces into actual parks that will be held this year on Friday, Sept. 16th. It’s the urban equivalent of beating swords into ploughshares.

The genesis of Park(ing) Day began in 2005, while Passmore was working in a downtown building, watching cars going in and out of metered spaces. “I had a vision of time-lapse photography, and started thinking: What if an art gallery came in for two hours, or a park came in for two hours? I looked into the law and found that, in San Francisco, it's technically legal to do something with a metered parking space, apart from storing your car there.”

Passmore, along with Rebar co-founders Blaine Merker and John Bela, thought about what they would put in a parking space. An office cubicle? A bed? They ultimately agreed on the idea of a park. Civic-minded, they decided to site it in an area of San Francisco that had been singled out as “lacking public green space.”

“We did it on November 16, 2005, on Mission Street,” Passmore recalls. “It lasted two hours: the maximum time offered on the meter.” Despite his legal research, Rebar’s foray into guerilla landscape architecture was filled with trepidation. “We actually had speeches prepared for the police: speeches about how we were acting in the public interest, planned to clean up after ourselves and so on. Because we were sure we were going to be arrested.”

But nothing happened. “A few meter maids scooted by,” Passmore says with a laugh. “They must have assumed we had a permit—because no one in their right mind would try to do something like this otherwise.”

The event swept through the blogosphere. Suddenly, people all over the country wanted to turn parking spaces into parks. “People were asking us to replicate our project in their cities—which was difficult to do. We were just three guys with day jobs. Rebar was something we did on weekends. So we decided to make a how-to manual and let people do it on their own.”

As the response grew, the Rebar team decided to focus the energy onto a single day—a celebration of the core principles behind their initial inspiration. “Parking Day would be a vivid showcase of alternative uses for public space traditionally used by automobiles,” says Passmore. “It would be a day for citizens to become involved, take ownership of their city and change it for the better.”


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