“What is this? What’s your message?” asked the woman walking back to her apartment in the Hanover Rice Village development. I’d seen her about an hour earlier crossing the street to the 24 Hour Fitness at the corner of Kelvin and Dunstan.
Justin Smith of Walter P Moore, Mary Beth Woiccak (a colleague of mine at the Rice Design Alliance, which publishes this blog), and I had been relaxing and talking for the better part of the morning. It was the third Friday in September, or PARK(ing) Day, and we had paid $16 to occupy a parking spot from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Earlier that morning — as the rain soaked us — we’d rolled out a 240-square-foot hunk of artificial turf that we’d found at the City of Houston Building Materials ReUse Warehouse and laid down a few stone pavers, set up plants and furniture we had brought from home or had had donated. And — voilà — a park!
Ours, developed by the rdAGENTs, the young professionals group of RDA, wasn’t the fanciest in the world. And ours wasn’t the only in Houston. A crew from Clark Condon Associates planted theirs on Westheimer:
And a group of graduate architecture students from Texas Tech parked theirs in East Downtown at the Houston Food Park:
But it bothered me that the “message” of these parks wasn’t self-evident. (And, to be honest, it also bothered me that I couldn’t have been a little sharper in the moment to explain it.) I muttered something about the park “being up to your own interpretation” — that classic wishy-washy disavowal — while the woman compared our soaked turf and shade tent to the Occupy movement, saying that it’s clear we don’t know what we’re for, only what we’re against.
The event did start as a provocation, a political action. The first was in 2005 in San Francisco. It lasted just two hours. A group from art and design studio Rebar fed the meter, put down sod, a bench, and a tree for two hours — as much time as they could buy — and then packed it all up. Since then, the event has become international. (This year, there were temporary parks in Iceland, Australia, South Africa.) Participants, brags the PARK(ing) Day website, have “built free health clinics, planted temporary urban farms, produced ecology demonstrations, held political seminars, built art installations, opened free bike repair shops and even held a wedding ceremony.”
For me, it was more of an interruption of the ordinary. Why, I asked, have we decided to give up so much of our city for room to put our cars when we’re not using them? Is that the highest and best use of land?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m curious. Why are parking lots more important to us than parks? Or more important than libraries, bike repair shops, animal shelters, clinics, computer labs . . . ? I don’t think any reasonable person would say that they are more important. But, if you really look at our city, you would have a hard time concluding otherwise. A story by Lisa Gray in the Houston Chronicle cites an estimate from City of Houston planner Christopher Andrews that as much as 20 percent of Downtown is dedicated to surface parking lots. “The situation is worst [sic] in the southeast part of downtown, where parking lots account for 25 out of 64 blocks — almost 40 percent of the space available.”
Forty percent! And most of us use our cars for only an hour or two, at most, a day. Last month, Christof Spieler presented at the RDA civic forum and showed the audience an aerial photograph of Uptown: Look, he said, at the amount of incredibly valuable real estate — right across from the Galleria! — being given away, for “free,” to cars.
Taking over single parking spots one day a year isn’t a viable solution, of course. It’s not meant to be. But I can think of worse ways to spend a day than walking around the corner for espresso at Fellini Cafe and lunch at Local Foods, talking with people about their neighborhoods, and imagining alternatives.