Culture News

Personal Parks Take Over Parking Spots on Park(ing) Day in Downtown Phoenix

On the Third Friday of each September, metered car spaces across the globe are transformed into tiny personal parks inhabited by activists and spectators who, quite literally, just want somewhere green to sit.

The Park(ing) Day project began in San Francisco in 2005 at Rebar, an art and design studio. That first park took up a single spot for two hours — the time allotted by most meters — sandwiched in between two cars and featuring a bench and a shade tree. Almost as soon as the sod was rolled up the word was out, and cities, towns, and small groups have since taken to transforming the day into their own.

Some places move beyond the greenery, using the day as a springboard to call attention to community needs like free health clinics and urban farms or bike repair shops and art installations.

For Stacey Champion, who has been active in the Phoenix version of the event since it started seven years ago (and has contributed to New Times), the goal has never changed: Address the need for community spaces — and greenery — in our urban core.

"I don't want people to think it's an anti-car day, because that's not realistic," Champion says. "[But] we have such a car-centric city in general, so we look at it as a day when we can re-imagine how we use our public space: using that space for people before cars."

Those interested in participating in the event should be prepared to be early risers. For maximum impact and eyeballs, Parking Day Phoenix is done in conjunction with rush hour. Set-up begins at 6 a.m. sharp on Friday, September 18, and spots are given away on a first-come, first-planted basis. Phoenicians are encouraged to bring anything (and anyone) they would like to create their own personal pop-ups.

In the past, Champion has hosted Dixieland bands and inspirational chalkboards. Grass has been made of blankets and paper, wood and sod, benches and Astroturf. There have been hammocks, pet parks, and people just sitting and talking. (Claire Thomas, who works as the Director of Creative Design at Champion’s public relations firm, Champion PR+Consulting, is doing her first park this year. It’s pillow-fight themed.)

"Parks are supposed to be fun and playful," Champion says. "It's the joy factor. I think that is a huge catalyst for bringing community together. When you can get people to loosen the tie, take the shoes and socks off …. I think it levels the playing field for people being more human."

The event has grown in participation and prominence over the years. Parks have gone from taking over a sole space on Roosevelt Street, situated in front of a Hummer, to spilling over onto sidewalks along First Street, camping out around City Hall, and dominating spaces around the ASU Downtown campus.

This year the campaign moves southwest. Parks will be placed in the eleven spaces that line the eastern side of First Avenue along the block between Monroe and Adams streets. The move was deliberate; there's less fear where cars are concerned (the avenue is a one-way headed south), and the light-rail barrier between parking and traffic will help with rush-hour flow.

And while the added shade of the surrounding concrete is a contributing factor, it's that same concrete that inspired Champion to, well, park there.

"I really want to illustrate how necessary it is to look at blocks or areas where it's literally all concrete. From a visual standpoint, showing that impact will be really cool," she says. This particular stretch is surrounded on all sides by high-rise offices, expensive lofts and apartments, and ground-level restaurants. "I look at it as a big way to raise awareness to the importance of even a small green space in the public realm."

The guerrilla movement has done more than raise awareness; it has effected actual, tangible change. When Champion sits down to talk in the back room of her office and art gallery hybrid, Treeo, she has just come from the monthly City of Phoenix Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee meeting and speaks passionately about the "parklette" program she has been able to put together with them.

"Anything tied to bureaucracy you have to be incredibly patient with," she says. "You have to poke and poke and poke. But I don't know if we would have that parklette program if we wouldn't have been in their faces over the years, if they hadn't seen how much people really enjoyed it.

"I think this city is slowly but surely getting the fact that, especially in urban areas, people desire vibrancy and walkability and interesting things to look at. Community space to gather. They could do a better job; they are still not necessarily being as creative as they should be, but politicians over the years have gotten more involved, too."

(Though to this day she never asks the city for permission or permits for the Parking Day event. “I kind of just tell them I’m doing it,” she says. “Like, ‘Hey! Don’t forget!’” Mayor Greg Stanton and many council members are regular fixtures.)

Champion says she looks to Civic Space Park as a local model for how to incorporate public spaces the way cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Minneapolis do: with shade, something to look at and a place to sit. The slow growth of similar pop-up parks in and around downtown has been a good, albeit sometimes stagnant, sign.

Other Arizona cities, like Tempe and Flagstaff, host their own Parking Days to address their own municipal needs. But on the most primal level, Champion says, Parking Day is about two things: joy and reconnecting with nature. It's for that reason that she decided to extend Parking Day beyond the allotted two hours a meter allows and bring it inside during a Third Friday exhibition at Treeo.

The show, "Outside Inside," will debut Friday night from 6 to 9 p.m. and will remain on view through mid-October. In it, green thumbs Joe Zazzera of Plant Solutions and Michael Lanier of The Bosque are creating living art and installations.

Zazzera, whom Champion refers to as "an amazing plant guru," has been in the business of what he calls "creating connections to nature through indoor plants" for 35 years. For Outside Inside, he has made some individual moss wall artwork pieces, using lichen and tree mosses for texture, and a larger living wall plant piece.

"My hope is that the uniqueness of our pieces will create more discussion on the imperative of nature in our lives," he says. "As city dwellers, we spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors. We need to change that."

Lanier, who owns and operates The Bosque, downtown's only plant store, makes most of his money by providing those indoor spaces with small succulents or hanging greenery. He shares the same view as Zazzera, however, and desire for an increase in biophilic cities.

"To be in a livable city, you must have a strong urban forest covering roads and making sidewalks, palms, and patios inviting. The summer we just experienced was brutal, with hardly any rain downtown, and it may only possibly get worse," Lanier says. "The plants I'll show will evoke a refreshing vibe, something to help shake off the summer blues and transition us back into our incredible winter and spring. I hope to see the area and people realize plants are literally life and create walkable, bikeable, and livable spaces around them, and I'm hoping this might spark someone else to care."

Zazzera's moss installations and large-scale creations will be accompanied by hanging plants brought in by Lanier. Lanier, who opened downtown's only plant store earlier this summer, is working on a hanging, organic bonsai piece where the roots are separated from the soil and added to a moss mixture to form a hanging ball. ("It's a little technical to explain," he says.) Both Zazzera's multiple artworks and the 20-odd pieces Lanier is showcasing will be for sale.

"I think the plants themselves are the art," he says. "I'm just displaying them in a very new way."

Whatever the immediate impact both Parking Day and Outside Inside have on pedestrians, community activists, and surrounding Phoenicians, the end game remains the same for Champion.

"I hope Parking Day continues to spur this city to recognize that not everything needs to be so…"

She pauses.

"Sometimes, I think they're overly analytical when they don't need to be. Sometimes it's just about a pot of flowers and a bench."

Park(ing) Day set-up will be done by 6:45 a.m., but Champion says those who want to participate or build their own parks should arrive at 6 a.m. sharp on Friday, September 18, on First Avenue between Monroe and Adams streets. Parks will take over spots on the east side of that block. Tear down is at 9:45 a.m. Participation is free. To get involved, connect with them via the Facebook event page,, or group page,

"Outside Inside," the gallery show, will open on that same Third Friday, September 18, from 6 to 9 p.m., at Treeo, 906 North Sixth Street. The exhibition will remain on view through Monday, October 12. Admission to the gallery is free. Visit the Facebook event, for details — or call 602-788-0033 or click for gallery information.
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Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.
Contact: Janessa Hilliard