Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012 | 2 a.m.
It’s Friday night in downtown’s Arts District, and cars and motorcycles fill the dirt lot outside of Artifice bar and the Arts Factory.
Crowds spill out onto the adjacent Boulder Avenue — really more of a wide alley than a functional street — for a breath of fresh air, or maybe a cigarette. The scene is a typical for the up-and-coming urban neighborhood, but amid the buildings’ industrial-chic concrete facades, something unusual stands out: a park.
It looks much larger than its 9-foot by 18-foot dimensions — the size of a parking space — and it comfortably accommodates the handfuls of passers-by who approach the trees, plants and sod benches, curious and eager to indulge in the tiny green oasis.
The installation is part of International PARK(ing) Day, a global event that took place Friday in which artists, designers and other citizens convert parking spaces into public parks for a day. The goal is to highlight the need for more urban green and open space and to stimulate community discussions about use and allocation of public space.
“I see people in downtown walking their dogs every day but they have no place to go, and yet there’s vacant lots on almost every street that could be converted into urban green space,” says Amy Finchem, director of COLAB Las Vegas, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting local designers and the role of architecture and design in the Las Vegas community.
Finchem, along with the Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (NASLA), seized PARK(ing) Day as an opportunity to launch the Downtown Backyard Project, an initiative to engage the downtown community in dialogue about the kinds of parks and other urban spaces they’d like to see in the budding neighborhood.
Finchem and her team spent the night distributing surveys to gauge community considerations for the kinds of projects COLAB can advocate and work toward in the future. They’ll also be surveying several of the major downtown residencies to determine interest and will showcase the results to the community at future dates before ultimately deciding on a project to present to the city.
In the middle of the mini-park, a white board poses the question, “What do you want from your downtown?” to which passers-by have scrawled their responses in dry erase markers: “Places for kids to play,” “parks with desert greens,” “nicer places to walk” are among the most common.
“Anything green,” is what Rhonda Mayland, 61, wants. She and her companion, Brian Miller, 60, happened upon the mini-park while on an evening stroll through the neighborhood.
“It’s awesome. It goes right along with the whole downtown rejuvenation,” she says. “Let’s make it more centralized. Let’s take this busted parking lot back here with the broken bottles and make it green. Most of us who didn’t grow up here miss getting our hands in the dirt and in the grass.”
Miller is also enthusiastic about the initiative, though he raises a concern about the city’s homeless, who occupy many of the existing urban green spaces.
“It’s something they’d need to consider, how to maintain the space for public use. But maybe they can grow a vegetable garden — what better way to feed the homeless?” he says.
Finchem says city projects like the Huntridge Circle Park, a popular space for the city’s homeless, have failed to thrive because of a lack of community spirit, as well as community participation and investment in the planning process.
“You have to program it for what can be successful at the time. Things like dog parks are where community members meet each other. And when people create that kind of local camaraderie, they start investing in more public spaces,” she says. “So it might start as a dog park, but in a few years it might have a playground or a vegetable garden.”
While the mini-park will have disappeared in a matter of hours, Finchem remains confident that its impression will linger.
“This is about including the community in that process. People don’t realize they have a door open to them to discuss what they want from their city.”