Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Park(ing) Day blues spark a contrarian proposal

Park(ing) Day in Charlotte in September 2012, next to a food truck round-up event. Photo: Keihly Moore
I missed this year’s Park(ing) Day event in Charlotte because I work on a campus 12 miles from uptown and because Park(ing) Day takes place only on the officially approved sites on Charlotte’s main uptown street. (So much for guerrilla urbanism.)

And to be honest, I didn’t really miss it. But it wasn’t until I read this Next City piece by Josh Cohen,“Stop Building Mediocre Parklets, Start Building Pavement Parks,” that I realized my own dissatisfaction with how Park(ing) Day has evolved in my city. Cohen critiques the way Seattle’s parklet movement has turned into seating areas for nearby businesses. Since I’m not in Seattle, that’s not my issue. My frustration is different, because my city is different.

Don’t misunderstand., the online publication I oversee, has been a champion of Charlotte Park(ing) Day events since my then-graduate assistant Keihly Moore organized one in 2012 on Camden Road in South End. The following year – also spearheaded by Keihly, who again rounded up plenty of partners – it was on North Davidson Street in NoDa.

Each of those events took an on-street parking place in a gritty neighborhood and converted it into a small park-for-a-day. Last year and this year the event took place on Tryon Street with a long list of collaborators that included Charlotte Center City Partners, the uptown advocacy and marketing group.

The whole idea behind Park(ing) Day is to transform a parking spot into a small park for a day, to show how places for people matter more than places for cars. It’s a way to make people think about the tyranny of parking in America and how our cities deserve more than huge expanses of asphalt. The message is particularly needed in Sun Belt cities like Charlotte, which are so thoroughly car-focused that the whole city gets a pitiful little Walk Score of 24.

In Charlotte the car rules every street and road and stroad (look it up). Except one: Tryon Street. Tryon Street uptown is the one street where pedestrians rule. Yes, there’s traffic, but it’s slowed by inconveniently timed traffic lights, service trucks, parallel parking and huge clumps of pedestrians. The Walk Score along North Tryon Street is an admirable 95.

Not only that, but Tryon Street is already studded with numerous benches for sitting, plenty of street trees, and a variety of parks (The Green, Polk Park), parklets (at Sixth and North Tryon) and plazas with seating and tables. Does Tryon Street need parklets? What Tryon Street needs is stores and window-shopping (a topic for another day).

The places that need parklets are the innumerable parking lots uptown and the hideous parking decks
that mar most of the uptown streets that are not Tryon. Indeed, uptown Charlotte needs more on-street parking, not less. The Walmart on Independence Boulevard needs parklets. Asian Corner Mall needs parklets. Eastway Crossing Shopping Center needs parklets. All the fading 1990s-vintage shopping centers near UNC Charlotte need parklets.

You get my point. Putting parklets on Tryon Street won’t open people’s eyes to needed improvements. Sure, they’re fun to hang out in. But getting people to hang out in uptown Charlotte is like dynamiting fish: too easy to even be sporting. If this were 1980, parklets on Tryon Street might cause a revolution in local thinking. But by 2015? Even the city DOT is now welcoming private efforts to install parklets in city rights-of-way.

Any anyway, Charlotte is no concrete jungle of hardscape. This city is so full of post-1950s-era single-family subdivisions and cul-de-sacs that we have no lack of grassy areas. If anything we need less grass and more buildings, designed close to each other so you can live, work, shop and play within a small area without driving.

So here is my contrarian suggestion: Instead of a no-longer-very-guerrilla movement that puts parklets on the city’s least car-dominated street, maybe Charlotte needs an unsanctioned, guerrilla urbanism movement to showcase actual urbanism. Buildings that are close together and front on a sidewalk. Storefront shopping. Apartments over offices over stores.

How about some creative acts of well-designed urbanity? How about, in addition to Park(ing) Day, for our spread-out, sprawling Sun Belt city, someone comes up with a Density Day?