PARK[ing] Day highlights importance of urban public spaces

Isthmus was among the participants in this year's event.
Isthmus was among the participants in this year's event. Photo credit: Isthmus

If you walk around downtown Auckland on Friday, you might notice some normally drab car parks have been converted into eye-catching installations such as temporary beaches or bizarre art sculptures.

With dozens of installations across Auckland, and a handful in Tauranga, the transformations are all part of PARK[ing] Day, an event aiming to highlight the importance of public space in urban areas.

Beginning in San Francisco in 2005, the open-source event is now held across the globe, and will be celebrated here as part of the New Zealand Institute of Architecture's (NZIA) Festival of Architecture.

A city made for cars

NZIA's John Walsh says the day is a reminder that as cities continue to grow, we are losing more and more vital public spaces. 

"The attraction of cities are their vitality, the diversions they offer, the opportunities for encounters and engagement  - and for these you need public spaces," he says.

By drawing attention to car parks, the PARK[ing] Day movement highlights how much our cities revolve around cars, and what consequences that has on our environment.

This is particularly true in Auckland, points out Walsh, as the city seems to be more geared for machine than man.

"Auckland for at least half a century has been in thrall to the automobile – often it seemed the city existed to serve the car, not citizens. So much urban space is dedicated to cars, but it doesn’t have to be that way," he says.

Ludo Campbell-Reid, general manager of the council’s Auckland Design Office, says Auckland Council is well aware of the problems arising from an ever-growing city and the importance of public spaces.

"We're trying to respond to the demand from the public that this is something that they would like to see."

As public transport and facilities like bike lanes improve, Campbell-Reid says more and more Aucklanders are calling for a less car-oriented city.

"What you are seeing is a real change in the way people want to move around their city. And we don't really have any more space to build more roads within our city centre, so what we're going to have to do to accommodate this new mobility - which is really public transport and walking - we're going to need to reconfigure our streets to be more efficient and to be able to be utilised for different purposes at different times of the day," he says. 

Auckland Transport, too, acknowledges that on-street parking is likely to decrease in the future as more people use public transport, with spokesperson Natalie Polley saying "it is inevitable that there will continue to be a loss of on-street parking, as road space is reprioritised to create space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport".

The CCRG created a beach-themed installation on High Street.
The CCRG created a beach-themed installation on High Street. Photo credit: CCRG

But some groups say change doesn’t come quick enough, and they hope events like PARK[ing] Day can put pressure for change to happen faster.

"Auckland has huge potential to improve its urban landscape and we already have many plans that reflect how the people want our public space developed, but council is slow to act," says Emily Reeves, of the Auckland City Centre Residents’ Group (CCRG), which created a beach-themed installation on High Street.

"Some of the great plans aren’t funded for another 10 years."

She encouraged residents to become more proactive in pushing for more urban space.

The challenge of balance

Campbell-Reid says it’s a challenge to balance the needs of different groups all wanting different things for the city.

"It's not one size fits all - it's a blended and balanced approach about providing choice."

He says the council "absolutely" supports the need to better utilise facilities such as car parks and provide more public space, but the focus is on improving transportation in general. 

"At the end of the day we're building roads as well. This is not a war on cars, what we're looking for is a city that has more opportunities for choice around how people move."

PARK[ing] Day highlights importance of urban public spaces
Photo credit: Isthmus

For Isthmus - an urban planning, landscape and architecture studio - also taking part in the event, the answer lies in intelligent design. 

In order to provide for a greater number of people, cities must maximise the space they have.

“Events like PARK[ing] Day reminds us just how much precious space is used up in our cities and hints at how much is available for safer, healthier spaces for people," says Isthmus senior landscape architect Jotaro Tokunaga.

"For me it's all about efficiency and priorities - is this space better used to store an empty car, or is it better as somewhere to relax under a tree? To get safely past that huge group of tourists? To meet up with a date? It's rarely the first answer."

Only by responding in a well-thought out way, can we hope to overcome the urban challenges we face, says Tokunaga. 

"Design is both the process and the outcome. Architecture, landscape and urbanism serve to enrich our lives, and they're designed as representations of our culture and identity. In a city now as busy, diverse and historically as rich as Auckland, we need to make sure we're getting all sides right."

Even with good design, however, the reality is that Auckland is a car-centric city, and that won’t change overnight. 

The fact that it will change at some point, however, is for Walsh inevitable. He hopes PARK[ing] Day will give us a glimpse of what that change will look like when it finally does come.

 "One day, perhaps quite soon, we’ll have to confront the challenge of what to do with all that redundant car parking space. PARK[ing] Day anticipates that happy eventuality."


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