Staff of the Georgetown Patagonia store run a parklet during Park(ing) Day 2016. Image by the author.

Friday is “Park(ing) Day.” Last year, 34 mini-parks sprouted up during the day in street parking spaces in DC from Tenleytown to the Navy Yard, plus others in jurisdictions around the region. People rolled out a temporary lawn, played board games, did yoga, and had some non-alcoholic beverages. It was an enjoyable change of pace out on the street.

The idea started in San Francisco as a sort of guerrilla street art event. It aimed to expose the way we usually don't think about the about 180 square feet on the street that a single car occupies, or how one might use it differently.

It's evolved into something less guerrilla, at least in some cities like DC. The District Department of Transportation officially sanctions Park(ing) Day and offers a special type of permit to make a parklet on this day. Park(ing) Day happened in 183 cities across 30 countries last year.

One permit reviewer for the Metropolitan Police Department apparently didn't get the memo. When MaryLauran Hall applied to place a parklet in Adams Morgan, the response was that this is “FLAT OUT NO SAFE,” and “MPD WILL NOT APPROVE THIS CONCEPT.”

Fortunately, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue got involved, DDOT quickly rerouted the request to the right place, and approved the permit. MPD is one of many agencies that typically reviews permits for special events, but according to the @DDOTDC Twitter feed, MPD doesn't review the Park(ing) Day parklet permits.

This could just be a story of one employee at one agency doesn't know about something, makes a dumb judgment, others in the government set it straight. It happens. But this is a bigger deal because MPD isn't always “not a reviewer” for events that try to rethink street space in creative, less auto-dependent ways, and it and other agencies do often make innovative uses of public space more difficult.

Greg Billing, WABA's executive director, said, “WABA faces similar reactions to parking permit requests for non-traditional uses of on-street parking spaces. DCRA outright denied the public space permit for temporary bike parking for events because it was not an allowed use. It took a number of attempts to successfully permit temporary bike parking in the curb space. Reimagining the use of curb space is not neccessarily these agency's job, but they often stand in the way of those seeking more creative uses of public space.”

Exhibit A is what happened the first time someone tried to do a parklet, back in 2009. DDOT hadn't yet embraced it and whoever was reviewing permit applications, like the MPD person this time, had no idea. They, hilariously, suggested that organizers Justin Young, Brandon Schmittling, and Chris Loos, reserve 512 square feet on three parking spaces for a tiny 48-square-foot parklet.

Surrounded by concrete barriers. With planters between the barriers and the people. And two giant flags. And then an empty parking space with five cones. On each side.

With many special events, the general approach of the permit folks is to require that any people be hermetically sealed away from even slow-moving car traffic with barricades, water barriers, planters, and so forth. Never mind that people coexist mere feet from even not so slowly moving traffic every day, all over the city. Maybe the typical sidewalk or crosswalk is dangerous (to a little extent, it is), but then every corner in the city and much of the nation is “FLAT OUT NO SAFE” because it “OFFERS NO PROTECTION.”

Talk to people who've tried to do pedestrian and bicycle events and they have plenty of horror stories of the permit review process.

Of course, the officers and everyone else are just trying to keep people safe. There have been people driving cars into crowds deliberately, like (allegedly) in Charlottesville this summer. But bigger crowds congregate on street corners every day than could fit on a Park(ing) Day parklet.

Fortunately, Park(ing) Day is happening. Check out a parklet near you this Friday, and thanks to the DDOT public space folks and Deputy Mayor Donohue for getting it.
This post has been updated to include other jurisdictions that participated in last year's Park(ing) Day and with the final resolution of MaryLauran's permit request.

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.