What if our streets were transformed from passages between places to destinations themselves? In 2009, a tactical program in New York City closed Times Square to traffic; visitors reclaimed the space and set up hundreds of lawn chairs and tables. The project was so popular that Mayor Michael Bloomberg made it permanent, transforming the famous intersection into an epic public plaza. Outreach Projects Engaging Neighborhoods is now bringing that tactical urbanist ethos home to Asheville.
“My main vision for OPEN is to be able to work with the city, urban planners and other designers to come up with really fun, creative projects, that you throw on the street as immediate models and then see how people respond to them,” says co-founder Luly Gonzalez.
The common element of the projects is that they are designed to create a sense of place, be it putting a few chairs on the sidewalk or building a temporary street bazaar. “These smaller spaces can then inform the larger project — such as the multimillion dollar park,” she says.
OPEN works with the city for permits, but the action comes from the ground up. “The city doesn’t have to take it all upon themselves to make it happen,” Gonzalez says. It’s all part of the tactical urbanism movement that approaches city planning from a grass-roots level. Two tenets: Start small, and tap into the basic human desire for community. The group’s eventual goal is more open space, and all the beauty and vitality that comes with it. OPEN’s pilot project, the Lexington Avenue Parklet, will have its third unveiling on Friday, Sept. 21, as part of international Park(ing) Day.
Park(ing) Day began modestly in San Francisco, when a local design studio converted a metered parking space into a temporary public park. It quickly evolved into a worldwide celebration with the common ritual of feeding parking meters and transforming the corresponding spots into temporary shared spaces. Though this year’s Park(ing) Day in Asheville is limited to the Lexington Parklet, OPEN has secured city permits for next year — so all can run freely with fistfuls of coins, claiming parking spots as picnic areas and busking stages.
The Lexington Parklet debuted during Downtown After 5 on July 20. At that point, it was just bare wooden planks resting on cinder blocks. By the time LAAFF rolled around, the public was invited to enjoy a curbside patio made of composite decking and forged steel. Adorned with borrowed potted plants, café tables and chairs, the emerging parklet was flanked by a wheel stop and bike rack contributed by the city. OPEN’s organizers have been encouraged by the public’s response to the parklet, but the group still has much to do to meet the campaign’s fundraising goal. OPEN is about $2,500 away from realizing the parklet's final design, which includes customized tables, perimeter planter boxes, benches and chairs. “We want people to understand that this is a prototype. Once it’s built, the costs, time and materials will be better understood,” says Gonzales, pointing to the parklet’s larger purpose as a trailblazer for comprehensive and engaging street-scapes.
This year’s Park(ing) Day will be the last chance to visit the parklet for a while; after Friday, OPEN will deconstruct it and work to raise money, unveiling it in its full glory at a later date. A $5-from-500-people campaign is in the works.
Such ad hoc efforts can have big results. Though many neighborhoods and cities do receive tangible economic benefits from such street-scape beautification and place-making, the monetary realm is not OPEN s focus. They are harkening to, and participating in, the creation of a parallel economy whose currency is quality living experience. The project s authenticity is what makes it so refreshing. “People respond to the essence that it is an open, public space,” says Gonzalez. “You don t have to buy anything to be in it, and it s not a form of generating revenue... . There s no gimmick to it.”
Jordan Foltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: PARK(ing) Day, open source event where citizens, artist and activists turn metered parking spaces into temporary parks
where: Downtown Asheville, and hundreds of other cities
when: Friday, Sept. 21 (parkingday.org and openasheville.org)