Like all great stories, this one starts with a great idea. But not my idea—Liz’s idea. She came across PARK(ing) Day and thought it would be a cool project for us. I agreed.
Turns out, it wasn’t Liz’s idea either. Erin and Jordan, both with the Hartford Business Improvement District (and Hartford.com), tried launching PARK(ing) Day last year. They hit a couple roadblocks, and the idea just didn’t gain traction. But they were totally game to try again.
Ryan at Knox, Inc., the local parks nonprofit, loved the idea. He’s game for almost anything park-related. Together, we were going to turn this idea into a reality. An amazing, one-day event to take back the city by turning metered parking spaces into temporary, artist-envisioned pop-up parks.
I wish we could take credit for PARK(ing) Day, but it wasn’t our idea at all. It’s an eight-year-old global movement, begun by San Francisco’s Rebar Group in 2005, celebrated in 170 cities and more than 60 countries across the world. We’re just a little late to the game. But we figured: better late than never. And to beat this “game” metaphor to death, we decided to hit Hartford’s first celebration out of the “park.” Pun very much intended.
Every good event needs a good plan. Luckily, PARK(ing) Day comes with a roadmap: a set of guidelines and suggestions that every city follows. PARK(ing) Day is a non-commercial venture, so businesses and organizations can’t use their pop-up parks to hock their wares. Sticking with the theme of urban revitalization, parks should be accessible to everyone—truly open to the public. And, parks must conform to every city’s parking laws: no park can occupy a space longer than a car.
As the event took shape, each organization—the Arts Council, the Hartford Business Improvement District and Knox, Inc.—promised to share the credit and the workload; to do what each group does best. Jordan and Erin would identify spaces and coordinate with city officials, give the Police Department a heads up, and talk to the local businesses. Ryan and his green crew would move around planters install real grass sod at each space, creating parks in name and in substance. Liz and I would hire local artists to design each of the spaces, creating a fun and interactive community experience. Together, we would keep it “hush-hush” and then promote the crap out if it day-of, surprising and delighting the city with a really cool event.
Ahh, the element of surprise.
THE MAIN EVENT
Uncharacteristically, I volunteered for the early shift, arriving at work at 6AM to assist with sod installation and serve as police point-person. Impressively, the Knox crew was able to get the sod installed faster than anyone expected—faster even than the HPD could cone off the spaces. It’s a rare treat to see a Land Rover parked atop a grassy parking space on a Friday morning; I guess that’s the spirit of a community project. By 7AM people started taking notice of the sodded spaces. One couple exchanged confused glances as they snapped smartphone pictures of the patch of grass in front of FedEx Office; I had to kindly ask a woman not to let her dog pee on the spot by the XL Center, explaining it was a people park—not a dog park—that would open later on in the day.
By 10AM our committee and the Arts Council staff volunteers were ready for action, dispersing to spots across downtown to help artists unload materials, tape up temporary signage and prepare for an 11AM opening. And that’s when the fun really began.
THE FUN PART
I don’t think I’m overstating when I say that PARK(ing) Day exceeded even our wildest expectations. The feedback from the public was overwhelmingly positive; people were utterly surprised and completely dumfounded to see these parks pop-up all over downtown Hartford. Families visited our Asylum Street location at the ProPark lot to paint pumpkins; office workers laid on the grass in front of CityPlace to look up at Lori Robeau and Melissa Ralston-Jones’ colorful cup installation; the Mayor enjoyed tea and biscuits at Nina Salazar’s Pratt Street Alice-In-Wonderland-park; John O’Donnell invited visitors to his “front lawn” to try his homemade lemonade; and hundreds of people took a break from their hectic workday to walk from park to park, enjoying the scenery and the cityscape. It was amazing to watch.
Throughout the day, I would stop people on the street—people looking confused, or people too shy to step into the parks—to explain what PARK(ing) Day was all about. I knew we had achieved something great when I started talking to two women and they stopped me, saying “oh, we know all about this. We printed the map off the website. We have to see every park.”
I’m sure people will complain. Maybe they’ll think “this wasn’t long enough,” or “why didn’t I hear about this earlier?” Some will bemoan the lack of parking downtown, blaming PARK(ing) Day as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Others will say, “it was too artsy” or “too small.” But I remind them that this is just the first Hartford PARK(ing) Day. We had to start somewhere.
And to the nay-sayers I say: There’s always next year; we’ll be back. Come join us!
THANK YOU THANK YOU
A day like this just isn’t possible without tons of amazing support and supporters. First, to my colleague Liz and to my friends at the HBID and Knox for their invaluable assistance and incredible ideas. Next, to all my co-workers at the Arts Council for giving up their Friday to bring these parks to life. Special thanks to the folks at the Mayor’s Office and the city’s Marketing, Events and Cultural Affairs (MECA) Division for understanding the spirit of the day and joining in on all the fun. Thanks to Civic Mind for the beautiful logo design, the Hartford Parking Authority and most importantly the Hartford Police Department—Lieutenants Martin and Mefferd—for making it all happen.