A few years back, a group of artists, designers and activists concerned about the ratio of parking spaces to parks found that one could rent a curbside meter in San Francisco for any safe and legal purpose.
In the vague legalese of the city's parking department, the Rebar group saw an opportunity for a social experiment: What would happen if you laid down some grass, maybe a few benches, and invited people into a tiny, temporary public park?
The result: People sat down. They talked. In their own ways, they began to rethink how cities were designed.
After a citywide event the following year, National Park(ing) Day was born in 2007 - thanks to the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation organization, and a growing worldwide awareness that some cities dedicate as much as 70 percent of outdoor space to personal vehicles.
Parkers came out in 47 metropolises across the globe, including in New York, London, San Francisco and even Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They constructed lemonade stands, stormwater gardens and, of course, comfy places to sit down. As Rebar hoped, thousands came to view a metered space as a short-term lease on a miniature think tank.
"As long as people are being inviting and safe about it, the creativity can really run rampant in that eight-by-20 space," said Matt Shaffer, spokesman for the land trust. "We're constantly stunned at how eager people are to participate. It celebrates the parks and green spaces that make our cities such great places to live."
Interest in the event is expected to reach new heights on Friday, Sept. 19, with more than 400 spaces planned in 65 cities. This year, Columbus participates for the first time.
Near Gay Street's Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails, Green Columbus plans a nonalcoholic cocktail party with live acoustic music - a virgin version of its monthly happy-hour meet-up, lead organizer Tad Dritz said. Jodi Kushins, who organized Park(ing) Day locally, plans a quaint parlor-style setting with an area rug on High Street near Press Grill.
And in front of the Alive office, 62 E. Broad St., you'll find a few benches and free water from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In Columbus, using curbside meters for anything other than parking requires a street-occupancy permit, and local organizers chose proper channels rather than setting up shop with a bag of quarters.
"Given the city's rhetoric about green space, Downtown development and public art, we thought this would give them an opportunity to support something they say they believe in," Kushins said.
After several miscues during the application process, the group has its ducks in a row for Friday's event, assistant public service director Mary Carran Webster said.
Some will argue that this approach means the event has lost its edge - its ability to affect real change, even - but Shaffer disagrees.
"It's not a guerilla event in that people are reclaiming these spaces and making broad statements," he argued. "Parks offer a solution for cities. It's a celebratory event and a fun one within the bounds of law."
It should be.
People are returning to more concentrated urban areas, including a slow trickle into the core neighborhoods of Columbus. For this new wave to crest, we need an open dialogue about space, people, art and how best to weave the three.
An art-education professor, Kushins hopes that a trio of spaces in Columbus can excite more creativity about how to do so.
I think it will.