On York Boulevard in Los Angeles’ trendy Highland Park neighborhood, city officials early held a ribbon-cutting ceremony early last week for the city’s newest park — or parklet, to be more precise. For those unfamiliar with the term, the difference between a park and a parklet is that the latter inhabits a very unique location: the parallel parking space.
While the idea of human beings lounging in spaces set aside for our cars sounds less than comfortable, landscape architecture firm Shared Spaces actually furnished L.A.’s first parklet with seating, succulent foliage, and a very slight resemblance to Barcelona’s Park Güell (thanks to local mosaic artist Cathi Milligan). It’s a formula that’s been approved by cities worldwide, from Dallas to Melbourne to Budapest, that traces origins back to 2005. It was then that San Francisco-based art and design studio Rebar, motivated by the fact that 25 percent of the city’s public space was devoted to cars, reclaimed a few square feet of pavement by outfitting it with sod, a bench, and a tree for the duration of two hours, the legal limit of how long they could feed the space’s meter.
That one innovative act of guerilla urbanism is commemorated annually on PARK(ing) Day, the third Friday of September, all over the world. It was observed by 162 countries in 2011, and in the next few days, Los Angeles plans to open two more permanent parklets of its own. The popularity of this urban oddity, which started as a single act of defiance and has since evolved into an authority-sanctioned global trend, is symptomatic of city dwellers’ secret longing for a little contact with nature, despite their cosmopolitan sensibilities. It’s a difficult luxury to come by in the urban jungle, where the competition with our neighbors for space only increases as time goes on. Urban populations increase by 60 million people every year, according to the World Health Organization, which projects that by 2050, the total number of urbanites will have doubled to more than 5 million from just 2.5 billion in 2009.
So, as city populations surge and space becomes a rare and precious commodity, Rebar, and other architects and designers like them — creators of a vertical, sky-scraping forest; an underground nature walk; a sustainable city from scratch; or a place to relax at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel — have found increasingly unexpected places to sneak bits of green into our daily lives. In our second installment of our Innovators in Design series, we’re taking a look at the people who are reinventing the way we interact with nature.