Turn parking spaces into spaces for parks

Miami has the odd distinction of having some of the most eye-catching places to park in the world and being one of the few places where we’ve managed to convince award-winning architects to design these typically maligned structures into something that can make one’s heart race.

But what’s more interesting than starchitects constructing glitzy parking garages is how community organizers have been able to turn parking spots into temporary public spaces.

This Friday marks the 10-year anniversary of (PARK)ing Day, a global event that invites communities to transform parking spots into temporary public spaces. The event has been staged in Miami for several years and has grown with the support from the county and city government, as well as local businesses and grassroots organizations.

This year, you will be able to play games, enjoy BBQ, take yoga classes and even take urban ecology tours, all in spaces called “parklets” that occupy two parallel parking spots.

The concept is brilliant in its simplicity, and there’s little with which to argue: It helps build community, foster urban ingenuity, promote business (who often host the parklets) and it requires few resources. Perhaps the one major complaint is that these projects only last for a day.

(PARK)ing Day is just one of several initiatives that have converted parking into parks in Miami. In 2012, Street Plans Collaborative spearheaded an effort to turn a median parking lot on Biscayne Boulevard into a temporary park for five days. With just a $7,000 grant and generous donations of everything from sod to seating, the group was able to convert 60 parking spaces into a vibrant temporary urban park in the midst of one of the busiest corridors.

That project, in ways, foreshadowed another project with major potential called Biscayne Green, which has been spearheaded by the Miami Downtown Development Authority and has received early praise from the Florida Department of Transportation.

The project hopes to make the bustling stretch between Southeast First Street to Northeast Fifth Street more pedestrian-friendly by converting the existing parking lots into an urban park with pedestrian walkways and much-needed foliage.

In addition, just a few years ago, local activists turned a barren, underutilized swatch of land in the heart of downtown into Grand Central Park, which at the time was believed to be the largest temporary park in the United States at roughly five acres.

The park sat at the former Miami Arena site, which had been left empty after the former stadium’s demolition and had largely been used as a paid parking lot for those attending events at the American Airlines Arena.

While it was by no means a flagship park — it had few amenities and little greenery — it helped activate one of downtown’s most desolate areas with year-round events. More importantly, it was able to do so at a fairly nominal cost to taxpayers.

Unfortunately, the space closed and will soon be built over as part of a major megacomplex, that area of downtown with Museum Park as its only green space.

Being in a car-friendly city, there’s undoubtedly those who deplore the idea that their parking spots are being taken over. But there’s little advantage to parking spaces other than their convenience for drivers. While there are few things more frustrating than circling around city blocks looking for a parking space, I’m certain that many would trade parking spots for park spaces without hesitation.

As land prices in Miami-Dade County soar, and empty lots convert into development, those who hope to create more green spaces will need to get creative.

According to MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph, as much as one-third of a city’s land area is devoted to parking lots. It would not be surprising if a car-dependent city like ours would not come relatively close to that figure.

If we converted just a small percentage of our existing parking lots into permanent or temporary parks, the effect would have undoubtedly have a sizable impact on the amount of park space in the city.

As as a city with far less park acreage per capita than many other major cities — but plenty of parking to go around — perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we want more spots to park our cars or more public spaces to park ourselves.