Walking around most places, you’d think the purpose of public space is for automobiles, not people. Look at how much of our streets are given to storing cars versus providing social spaces, a basic human need, for people.
And yet, all that is a recent phenomenon. Until recently, public space was for everybody, not mainly for users of one transportation mode, and the public realm served a crucial role as a place for social exchange. Today, little social exchange happens in public space; most streets are civically dead.
PARK(ing) Day challenges this status quo by showing that public space, so much of it used for storing cars, can be used for anything: Public seating, bocce courts, artist galleries, information booths, cafes, drinking fountains, pocket parks, street vendors, and a million other uses. Yes, we need to accommodate cars appropriately but perhaps going as far as we have for cars is not the optimum use of public space.
For this year’s PARK(ing) Day on September 20th, Walk Austin and Bike Austin partnered on a space on Congress Avenue at 7th Street outside the Austin Contemporary. We wanted something fun, inviting, and quick and easy to do for people with little time to spare and one solution immediately stood up: Mini golf!
People of all kinds and all ages stopped by throughout the day to enjoy a few minutes on our 3-hole course. Those who completed two or more holes were treated to one of our homemade cookies! What was usually a dead space for storing two cars became a vibrant, fun place where people wanted to be, showing just what public space can be when we get our priorities right.
And plenty of other groups created their own spaces for the day…
That said, while there were some great installations, participation was down from 2018. Last year, the City of Austin allocated more resources to promote PARK(ing) Day and encourage people to participate; the strategy worked and participation was way up from 2017. Without that level of commitment from the City in 2019, fewer people got involved, showing that heavy lifting is still required to get PARK(ing) Day to a critical mass level where participation happens organically.
But imagine PARK(ing) Day next year if the City, the public, and the advocacy community all get serious about this opportunity to promote and enrich public space. Blocks of downtown could become bustling, vibrant community spaces for the day; school kids could make a project out of it and parents could come down for the afternoon; there could be art classes, dance lessons, karaoke, even bigger mini golf courses, and hammocks; organizations could share what they’ve been up to and connect with new members of the public. The result would be an electrifying return to public space, prompting conversation about how we could make longer term improvements.
At a time of widespread social alienation through decades of poor land use and transportation policies that distance people from each other, PARK(ing) Day could be a powerful way to kickstart a reevaluation of public space as the civic crucible of society. Next year, let’s shoot for the sky.