Temporary parks dominate parking spaces across the U.S.

reporter's notebook On the third-annual PARK(ing) Day, urban parking spaces across the country were commandeered and turned into small oases. Photos: Put up a PARK(ing) lot

reporter's notebook SAN FRANCISCO--It's a gorgeous Friday morning and Jennifer McLaughlin is blending a smoothie in her rooftop garden.

Except this garden isn't at her house, it's not permanent, and it's not even on a rooftop. In fact, it's a temporary oasis of grass, a bench and a few chairs, some young pepper plants, some even younger brown-egged hen chicks, and it has all been installed in a parking space a stone's throw, and in full view of, City Hall.

And McLaughlin is vigorously riding a bicycle that in turn is powering the blender for her smoothie.

This is all part of , a collaboration between San Francisco nonprofits Rebar and Public Architecture and the national Trust for Public Land, during which more than 40 cities across the country have seen countless groups take over parking spaces and turn them into an extremely wide variety of interpretations of the "public park."

"People have gotten inspired because it's easy to understand (how to) improve the quality of urban habitat," said John Bela, a co-founder of Rebar. "People are taking their ideas into the streets. People are transforming these parking spots into extraordinary, creative acts, and acts of generosity."

For McLaughlin and her colleagues from the San Francisco Department of Public Health who have set up a demonstration of what a sustainable rooftop garden looks and feels like, PARK(ing) Day is a wonderful chance to spread the message that urban environments don't have to be a never-ending field of concrete and steel, and that even if you don't have a traditional garden, you shouldn't feel cut off from a life with green things."

"The whole concept is to promote more open spaces," McLaughlin said. "If you can't have it on the ground floor, get it going on the rooftop."

On this third PARK(ing) Day--the first occurred in 2005 when Rebar set up a temporary park in a single San Francisco parking spot--the creative spirit is definitely in the air, and it's not just ordinary citizens who are getting involved.

Even San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom has gotten on board, said Bela, who explained that the mayor had donated his personal parking space outside City Hall to the cause. Reached by phone, Bela said that he and some others from Rebar had parked their "human-powered, mobile public open space" in the mayor's parking spot and that "people are chilling out and relaxing in the park."

Not far away, and around the corner from McLaughlin's temporary park, Kathleen O'Day and several people from San Francisco's Department of Public Works and Recreation and Parks department have set up what they're calling a healing garden.

This might be the best of the day's parks. It is a stunningly beautiful setup adjacent to San Francisco's Main Library that is complete with a wall of bamboo, a bunch of other tall plants, 10 feet or so of healthy grass, a small garden pond filled with dahlias and two distinct spaces.

One side is designed for social interaction, O'Day said, while the other is for solo contemplation. In its entirety, the park, known as "Frankie's Garden," is dedicated to the (hopeful) healing of O'Day's brother, Frankie, who is battling stage four hodgkin's disease, and who is preparing for a stem cell transplant at a hospital in Boston.

"The whole idea was we wanted to create a garden that would be great for people to come and relax and get away from the city," said O'Day. "So the idea (became) a healing garden because they knew what was going on with my brother.

Many of the temporary parks around San Francisco were dedicated to specific demonstration or community-oriented purposes.

For example, on Folsom Street, there was a dog park, complete with dozens of tennis balls and a rectangle of grass for any wandering pooches to circuit. Nearby were three other temporary spaces set up in parking spaces: a long table with plenty of chairs for sitting and reading, a beauty salon outside a cosmetology school, and a bike repair outlet.

In addition, a block or two away, Blair Randall and several others from San Francisco's Garden for the Environment were doing hourly demonstrations of worm composting.

"My take is that it allows people to see established urban areas in a new way," said Randall, "because I think urban areas become quite literally concrete in our minds, but we have all the power to change that. I don't think you know the value of something until it's gone. Being able to stop in at a garden in an urban area allows people to say, 'Oh, wait, we don't have this.'"

In a way, PARK(ing) Day was a dress rehearsal for what Public Architecture hopes will be a series of permanent installations set up in urban streets.

According to John Peterson of Public Architecture, the organization is planning on installing what he called a "bioswale," a system that will capture storm water runoff from the street, filter it and send it back into the ground water. The system is expected to be installed next year in San Francisco's South of Market district.

But for now, residents of San Francisco and the other cities participating--New York, Seattle, Portland, Miami and others--will have to be satisfied with one day of these terrific temporary oases.

As an observer, I can say it's quite a wonderful feeling to be walking down a heavily trafficked street and stumble upon one of these little pieces of green paradise amidst the asphalt and cars. Some, like the "Park-Fi," which offered passersby benches and free Wi-Fi, were going for a community feel. Others were just trying to make an artistic statement.

But either way, the experience was positive and enriching. After all, how often do we get to see our cities deviate from the never-ending rush of cars, commerce and rules.

Of course, even PARK(ing) Day had its rules. Those who had commandeered parking spaces had to pay the meters.

At one point, at McLaughlin's sustainable rooftop garden, a couple of her colleagues noticed that a meter maid was coming.

"We'd better feed the meter," they said urgently.

But over at the temporary beauty salon, where there weren't any meters, but where the space was in a one-hour parking zone, Cara Buglil said the meter maid was simply driving by and honking happily at her and her fellow cosmetologists.