Sidewalks, shoulders, parking zones – sealed surfaces dominate the cityscape. Creative projects from San Francisco to Singapore prove that it’s possible to turn public street space into temporary green oases. Let’s discover some of the most inspiring examples.

Park(ing) Day

A parking space is a parking space is … public space, available for temporary rental. Or so the members of San Francisco art and design studio Rebar decided to interpret traffic rules in 2005 when they turned an orderly parking spot rental into a tiny public park with turf, tree, and bench for two hours – and then cleared it all away again once their time on the meter was up.

A photo of the event quickly went viral on the net and the idea soon attracted plenty of avid imitators. Now, nature lovers around the globe transform thousands of parking spots in hundreds of cities into extra space for public life.

Today, Park(ing) Day has spread all the way to Singapore, Johannesburg, and Anchorage. Visit parkingday.org to download guidelines featuring many tips and inspirations for your own intervention. Among the shared insights: More seats mean more interaction between people. Try to work with local authorities, not against them. And – remember to bring enough change for the meter.

Parking Day in Toulouse
Every year, on the third Friday of September, parking meters around the globe turn into parks.
Photo: Flickr / Muséum de Toulouse (CC BY-SA 2.0). Image has been edited.

Pavement to Parks

The logical continuation of Park(ing) Day also hails from San Francisco. Their reasoning: Streets take up a quarter of the city – a lot more than all green spaces combined. At the same time, many of these surfaces are not or rarely in use.

The minds behind “Pavements to Parks“ have made it their mission to identify such dead spots, adding new long-term invigoration with green oases, outdoor cafes, spaces for art, or simply great hangout locations. Wherever the space permits it, they even create entire plazas – new public spaces where locals can work out or stage a party. Sometimes, you can even spot the old road markings on the ground.

“Pavement to Parks“ started out as a guerilla initiative at the end of the noughties, but soon won support from local authorities. By now, the team behind the initiative has developed a range of prototypes to repopulate and refurnish unused roadsides: bicycle stands, mobile stages, or seating – even a mobile miniature park. The result has proven so successful, that “Pavement to Parks” has even spawned spin-offs around the world, from Kuala Lumpur and Honolulu all the way to Tehran.

Although Germany has not officially joined the initiative, you can spot similar efforts in many parts of Cologne, for example, where parking spots get a new lease of life as outdoor restaurant or café extensions – all with the blessing of local politicians. The spirit of “Pavement to Parks” has truly entered our everyday lives.

Pavement to Park in San Francisco.
The logical continuation of using the parking meters in cities are the pavements, which are being turned into parks – as seen in San Francisco.
Photo: Jack Verdoni Architecture, CC BY SA 2.0

Ruelles Vertes

New urban green not only soothes our eyes and souls, but also creates a welcome meeting point for people from the entire neighborhood – a vital social function that shouldn’t be underestimated. A prime example would be Montreal’s Ruelles Vertes. In many parts of the city, agricultural roads wind their way between properties, past gardens and courtyards, serving as impromptu playgrounds, but also dumping grounds for the residents’ unsightly garbage.

These tiny routes only took on a beautiful life of their own when the city, back in the 1990s, rolled out a development plan and program to enhance the neglected alleyways. The idea behind it all: If a majority of residents votes for a redesign and is willing to invest some work, the municipality will support the project with materials and manpower.

While it took some time for the idea to gain traction, the program proved a sure-fire success once the first few lanes sparkled with renewed beauty. Today, hundreds of the city’s agricultural roads have received an aesthetic boost from flowerbeds, plants, planted walls, and community areas where people can sit and celebrate together.

At the same time, the need for collaboration drew the neighborhoods closer together. Many residents who used to be relatively isolated only got to know their next-door neighbors through these joint activities. And the results are only limited by the initiators’ imagination. Now, these alleys boast outdoor cinemas, book exchanges, murals – and even double as ice hockey rinks for the kids during winter.

The Pothole Gardener

It’s all about giving people unexpected moments of happiness, or so Steve Wheen describes his motivation. The green-fingered Australian turns potholes in London’s sidewalks and streets into tiny gardens.

Sometimes it’s just a few flowers tucked into a hole, sometimes elaborate arrangements left by Wheen for others to find. Like a miniature Wimbledon court replica, complete with a lawnmower. Or a sea of flowers for Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton.

Wheen started his tiny gardens series a few years ago while he was doing his Master’s degree in design. “I grew up in the bush capital, in Canberra. Gardening was a way of life. We all chipped in, mowing the lawn, raking the leaves … I moved to London and I never got used to not having space – I think that’s what has helped me lead my gardening into the streets,” he adds with a cheeky twinkle in his eye. ”Of course, I procrastinated,” he jokes about his then-studies.

While Steve has since finished university, he continues to roam the streets of London in search of novel gardening opportunities. He has documented his interventions in “The little Book of little Gardens“ and keeps posting new creations on his own blog, thepotholegardener.com – highlighting both his own natural interventions and works by others inspired by Wheen’s urban initiative.

Yet when you garden right on the street, you need to be able to live with some very ephemeral results. Wheen adopts a “win some, lose some” approach to his tiny gardens. “Sometimes they only last for a few minutes, sometimes they last a few years.”

 

pothole garden in London
Steve Wheen has been planting miniature gardens into potholes for years.
miniature garden
Photo: Steve Wheen
Photo: Steve Wheen
Photo: Steve Wheen
miniature garden in front of the Westminster bridge
Photo: Steve Wheen