Setting up the Wilson Building parklet. Photo by Anne Phelps on Twitter.

Park(ing) Day (which is today; go check out a pop-up parklet at 12th and G, 1350 Pennsylvania, or 1101 Wilson in Rosslyn) started out as a guerrilla performance art project to call attention to how little public space on streets goes to people. In DC, there’s a different parks-related issue that needs attention: The obstacles to actually programming the parks we have.

In San Francisco, where Park(ing) Day started, there are whole neighborhoods with very few places to sit. In New York the situation was even more acute, at least until a recent push under Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan to convert a lot of short, underused bits of street into plazas in places like the Meatpacking District and Fort Greene.

In DC, that’s not our biggest park problem. The District actually has a lot of public spaces, especially in the L’Enfant city. The biggest problem is that not much happens in those public spaces, and the people of DC don’t control them.

A lot of them mainly sit empty or accommodate homeless individuals, except maybe at lunch when office workers come out to patronize the food trucks and then sit on the sometimes awkwardly-placed benches. Lydia DePillis wrote last year:

Franklin Square and Mt. Vernon Square are unkempt and unwelcoming. Freedom Plaza is a desert, and Pershing Park a swampy thicket. Lafayette Park feels securitized and touristy, the National Mall more like an African savannah than your back yard. It’s hard to even imagine a world where they could take on the character of London’s Picadilly Circus or Rome’s Piazza Navona, with their liveliness and 24-hour sensibility.

Not all parks are problematic. DePillis cites drum circles in McPherson Square, constant activity in Dupont Circle, and the great success of Columbia Heights’ plaza.

The top, but not only, obstacle for these parks in the National Park Service. Most of the small circles, squares and triangles around DC, especially in the L’Enfant City, are federal parks. The Park Service’s historic preservation rules prohibit changing the layout of parks, and burdensome concession rules restrict the potential to even have a little coffee kiosk.

Bryant Park. Photo by panduh on Flickr.

Shouldn’t Franklin Square be DC’s equivalent of New York’s Bryant Park or Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square? There have been many discussions between the Downtown Business Improvement District, DC’s Office of Planning, and the Park Service over the course of years about renovating Franklin, Chinatown Park and others. The projects move forward very slowly, and make at most very modest changes. That’s better than nothing, but it’s not a lot.

The best urban parks have things like moveable furniture, so that groups of people can sit and talk together instead of having to all face the same direction on a bolted-down bench along a path. They have concerts and other events in the evenings, often funded with some commercial sponsorship.

Jacqueline Dupree pointed out on Twitter that the amazing Yards Park in Near Southeast came about only after the federal government transferred the land to the District and private entities entered a partnership with the city to get the park built.

DC is talking about an 11th Street Recreation Bridge when there is a huge amount of parkland right by the bridge, on the banks of the Anacostia. But DC probably couldn’t put the mix of recreation, vending, and arts, including commercial ventures like the trapeze school and establishments serving food and drink, on any of that land.

Food trucks have brought a lot of life to DC parks. Ironically, NPS rules don’t allow the food trucks, but since they are in District parking spaces, they can operate. They can’t operate on streets like 7th and 4th through the Mall, though. Peter May from NPS said at a National Capital Planning Commission meeting that the agency believes it has complete jurisdiction over streets with NPS property on both sides.

NPS has actually been making great strides lately. They ended some particularly restrictive concession contracts, and new contracts won’t be as exclusive. They’re building a relationship with Dupont Festival, the organization that brings soccer watching, theater, and community events to Dupont Circle. They’re open to a downtown playground and put Capital Bikeshare on the Mall.

Nor are DC-controlled parks a panacea. The Department of Parks and Recreation isn’t any better funded than the Park Service, and often under-maintains its parks while giving more attention to rec centers. The September 11 memorial grove in Langdon Park got funding from a number of organizations but little follow-up attention from those groups, says @Sept1GroveW5DC on Twitter.

New York activated its parks with substantial private money and public-private partnerships. It’s been willing to bring a little commerce into the parks in exchange for making them truly great places. Working with the BIDs is the best hope for DC public spaces.

None of this is to say Park(ing) Day isn’t still quite valuable here. It’s a great opportunity for councilmembers to try giving up their prime parking spaces for something better, and one very tiny reminder that this space they get for free isn’t entirely free. It’s also a great chance for organizations like Casey Trees and Washington Parks and People to show off what they do.

Bike parking in the street at the Wilson Building parklet. Photo by WABA.

Ironically, Tommy Wells can do more in his park in the Pennsylvania Avenue roadway than the District could on the adjacent sidewalk. NPS controls those sidewalks, too, which is why there are very few cafes and no Capital Bikeshare stations along the avenue. Wells put bicycle parking in the street, but DDOT wouldn’t be able to put it on the (very wide) sidewalk.

A lot of people don’t know that Dupont, McPherson, Franklin, Stanton, and the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalks are federal, or the little triangle by Dupont Circle Metro, or the triangle that will now be the Ukranian Manmade Famine memorial. Many federal employees and hill staffers don’t know (though many do).

Could we use some sort of guerrilla activity to call attention to these issues? Any ideas?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.