trends social life in motion
Carren Jao (http://carrenjao.blogspot.com). All Rights Reserved 2011
by gretchen coombs
Los Angeles, 2011.
Walking through the city, passersby are occasionally jolted out of the mundane by surprises that seem out of place or incongruous with the expected urban function—a hidden cafe, or an unknown public art project. If you happen to be wandering through a major city on the third Friday of September each year, you might encounter a parking space that has been temporarily transformed into a “park” with green grass, a bench and an umbrella, perhaps a lemonade stand, a nursery, or an interactive space with a survey about local issues. For its participants, Park(ing) Day is about making place and space. Public spaces are repurposed to draw attention to specific local issues and orient pedestrians toward aspects of urban life that are often overlooked in our crowded visual sphere. These urban “interventions” differ from conventional activist concepts in favor of fun activities. They are easy to embrace yet still carry a message. 64
The San Francisco based design collective Rebar launched Park(ing) Day in San Francisco in 2005 (the first official day was in 2006) to draw attention to the lack of green space in the downtown area of this city. The collective and the local community participated in a project to repurpose parking spaces in creative ways and to occupy the “commons,” or what used to be shared public spaces. During this one-day event, artists, designers and the public transformed public parking spaces–– by feeding the meter––into interactive sites. These projects quickly became a widely supported endeavor––San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom even let participants take over his parking space. Since that time, Park(ing) Day (PD) has become a worldwide phenomenon with 850 documented “parks” in 183 cities, across 30 countries and six continents. Urban interventions such as PD can collapse the boundaries between
art and life and use day-to-day experiences to offer new conceptions about what a “gentle” activism can elicit in the public. They raise awareness about local issues while seeking to help citizens imagine different ways of negotiating or confronting these issues through an intersection of urban design and community-based activism. The aesthetic qualities of these art works foreground process over contemplation, participation over reception, and direct experience over mediated communication. Although Rebar’s initial aim with these spaces was to draw attention to the lack of green space in downtown San Francisco, the messages of PD have proliferated, co-opting the original meaning and making them a more frivolous and light approach to occupying spaces in some instances. These projects facilitate improvised and spontaneous public participation and provide a means for people to
The Rapid Rise of Park(ing) Day 1,000 documented park(ing) spots 800 600 400 200 2005
interact with urban structures and other people in new and interesting ways. Urban interventions, and related strategies, such as tactical urbanism, are part of an increasing trend in urban cultures around the world. For example, the Conflux Festival 2010/11 in New York invited “participants to transform New York’s East Village into a laboratory for creative experimentation and civic action.” This festival featured public interventions that included designer/architect/artistfacilitated walks and tours, interactive performances and installations, and bike and subway expeditions. The Tactical Urbanism Salon has similar initiatives; artists and designers formed collectives to tackle urban issues with imaginative, yet practical solutions. These types of interventionist practices are also formalized in such events as the Creative Time Summit held in New York, which has debated the ubiquity and increased influence of public practices in art and design. Urban interventions also create a localized spectacle and enlist an actively participating local public that “make” the event/experience rather than serving as passive consumers of product offered by the corporate entertainment industries. These interventions invigorate public spaces and bring to life interactive and creative modes of civic engagement. They use conceptual frameworks to create performative displays that support and help expand the cultural value of participating in urban life. But such freedoms are granted
within terms determined by city authorities or education authorities. Many city councils have recognized the value of projects that enhance urban entertainment in a leisure2010 2011 focused experience economy and have sanctioned — to a certain degree—artistic and activist endeavors that offer cultural events that require public participation. When an event is sanctioned by local governing bodies, the local businesses are also more likely to offer support and get involved. PD has had some success in raising awareness about the use of public space, and there has been some shift in policy that might be directly related to this increased awareness. For instance, in San Francisco, the “Pavement to Parks” initiative (through the City Planning Department) stemmed out of the
Street movement (OWS) in that both are highly visible attempts to reclaim public space for social and political impact. As we all witnessed last fall, OWS captured the attention of the nation and the world. A long overdue outrage against the corporate greed and the lack of individual or corporate accountability exploded into the public imaginary with countless tweets, blogs, articles and mainstream media coverage. The activists of Zuccotti Park in New York attempted to articulate the outrage of the 99 percent, and they did so by occupying a privately held public space. These OWS groups used public spaces as platforms to vocalize dissent and convey a message to the larger populace. Their use of public space in this manner, while much more urgent in its demands, resembles some of the tactical urbanism of PD and other similar groups. The short-term tactics used by both groups raise visibility and encourage difficult discussions in the hope of long-term shifts in policy, accountability, and use of urban space. Both types of
Urban interventions offer new conceptions for “gentle” activism. issues raised by Park(ing) Day. New York City has experienced similar initiatives. PD demonstrates that urban space can have a multitude of functions and is indeed far more flexible and fluid than otherwise conceived; it is a living and creative space that expands the possibilities of experience and cultural value through the collective practices of all participants. This conception of community-based activism is represented by connections established among designers, audiences, and communities, and promotes a greater awareness about the role individuals and provisional publics can play in urban life. Although quite different in intent and scope, Park(ing) Day has, on the surface, affinities with the Occupy Wall
Contexts, Vol. 11, No.3, pp. 64-65. ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2012 American Sociological Association. http://contexts.sagepub.com. DOI 10.1177/1536504212456186
groups use public space to reflect a profound dissatisfaction with how governments operate. They insert bodies into public space in order to reorganize common conceptions of its use. Their practices—tactical, activist and urban—are pointing the way towards new cultural forms, encouraging institutions, people, and communities to transform their urban environments. Gretchen Coombs is in the art theory and design department at Queensland University of Technology. She studies the intersection of art practices and politics in urban contexts.