New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Less Parking, More Parks

February 18, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Ecology, Jay Walljasper

They Paved Paradise — Can We Unearth It?

by Jay Walljasper

“Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it,” Mark Twain once quipped.

And the same could be said about the lack of public space in most cities, where the majority of  non-private property is taken up by highways, streets, and parking spaces.

In downtown San Francisco cars claim 70 percent of public space, which is what finally prodded a gang of artists to stop complaining and start doing something.

One fine day in 2005, they plugged the meters at a few  downtown parking spaces, rolled out 200 feet of sod, set up chairs and sat down to enjoy San Francisco’s newest “park.” (And somewhere Samuel Clemens, who started signing his articles “Mark Twain” while working in San Francisco, was smiling.)

Most folks appreciated the happy scene of people lounging in a spot usually reserved for Buicks and Hyundai, but a few objected. To which the artists — who were associated with Rebar, a group working “at the intersection of art, design and activism” — politely pointed out that if drivers could claim the space by plugging the meter, why couldn’t people without cars.

That was the first Park(ing) Day, which is now celebrated in more than 100 cities from Las Vegas to Des Moines to Lisbon to Hangzhou. Plan your own festivities for September 17 this year.

Meanwhile back in San Francisco, some of these “parklets” are becoming permanent as part of the city’s Pavement to Parks program — an innovative plan to return some of the streets back to the people.

The parking spaces out front of the Mojo Bicycle Café, a combination bar/restaurant and bike shop, now sport sidewalk tables and bike racks to the delight of the neighbors.  Check out Clarence Eckerson Jr.’s  short movie about it, “People, Parklets & Pavements to Parks,” at his exciting Streetfilms website.

Rebar created a parklet featuring gardens, benches and bike parking out of three parking spaces at 22nd and Bartlett in the Mission District and another in front of Caffe Greco in North Beach.

In a related move, Portland is now converting some on-street parking spaces to “bike corrals” to ease the lack of two wheel parking — a move popular with many business owners who realize that 10 customers can park their bikes in the same space that one parks a car. There are now 61 bike corrals around the city, with a waiting list of merchants who would like one in front of their store.

Could this signal a waning reverence and prioritization of the automobile? One little noticed effect of the Internet revolution has been a significant shift in our emotional attachment toward automobiles. This could have a profound effect on the future of our cities.

The car was once everyone’s prized possession — a symbol of status, manliness and unlimited possibilities. As early as 1945 novelist John Steinbeck wrote, “Someone should write an essay on the moral, physical and aesthetic effect of the Model T. Two generations of Americans know more about the Ford coil than the clitoris.”

And showing how little things changed over the next two generations, Tom Robbins echoed this observation nearly to the point of plagiarism in his 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, when he described men as knowing “more about the carburetor than they knew about the clitoris.”

Indeed, for most of the 20th Century, cars were an extension of our souls — and to think about giving them up, or even driving less, felt like a form of suicide. Buses or walking were for losers, wimps and weirdos.

But for many of us that’s changing. With all of the information, entertainment, and communications available on the web, the computer has become our vehicle for exploration and self-fulfillment. The car is now seen as simply a way to get from point A to point B, especially for young people.

Last week, The Washington Post reported the surprising plunge in the number of 16-year-old’s with drivers’ licenses, from 44.7 percent in 1988 (before the worldwide web) to 30.7 percent in 2008

My son turned 16 in October, and has yet to even sign up for drivers’ training. None of his friends drive either.  They cycle all around Minneapolis until snow covers the streets — and then some keep on riding with studded tires on their bikes while others hop on city buses or cadge rides from parents. By contrast, I was considered a total oddball for waiting two months beyond my 16th birthday to take a drivers’ test.

This trend favoring gigabytes over horsepower are being closely followed by the real estate industry. A recent report from GWL Realty Advisors in Toronto notes:

“There is also growing research that younger generations do not relate to the automobile as enabling ‘freedom.’ Instead, their electronic and social media devices — whether a smart phone, small laptop computer, music player, etc. — provide an alternative means for self-expression and being free to do what they want…. Younger generations seem to have less interest in automotive use, making apartment living in dense, walkable and transit-oriented urban areas a more natural fit for their lifestyles.”

The implications for our communities are enormous. As cars become seen as just one form of transportation among many, not as a measure of our self-worth, then the stigma long attached to buses, bikes, trains, and walking will fade. With gas prices now hitting $3 bucks a gallon, even more folks will decide that driving everywhere is not worth the expense. This paves the way (pun intended) for new opportunities to transform our neighborhoods into places for people, not just conduits for cars.

Jay Walljasper is co-editor of He is the author of the new book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (The New Press, 2010), a Contributing Editor at National Geographic Traveler, a Senior Fellow of the Project for Public Spaces, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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