A young woman gives another young woman a human airplane ride at a pop-up parklet.
Human airplane rides were being offered on the grass of one pop-up parklet, next to a tepee and under homemade birdhouses.

Amber Hasselbring sits in a lawn chair next to a campfire where friends are roasting marshmallows and playing guitar. She’s surrounded by native plants, and she has watched four species of butterflies flutter across the grass at her feet.

But the artist and naturalist, dressed in a park ranger uniform, is not on a camping trip. She’s not even in a park. Hasselbring occupies a parking spot in front of Borderlands Books on Valencia Street, offering s’mores and pointing out red-tailed hawks to people walking by. Her pop-up habitat, created in collaboration with artist Ali Sant, Alite Designs and the Curiosity Shoppe, was designed for yesterday’s PARK(ing) Day, an annual worldwide event where metered parking spaces are transformed into temporary parks.

“It’s about letting people know there’s an alternative to driving,” Hasselbring says. “And maybe, just maybe, we don’t need all of these cars.”

The space also encourages viewers to imagine integrating nature into the city. “We’re celebrating the idea that we can combine an urban habitat with the idea of getting more young people excited about camping,” she says.

A couple of parking spots down, Jon Rogers stands next to an easel on a drop cloth splattered with paint. “Sit down and make some art,” he says to a man who has stopped to check out the pop-up art parklet. Rogers, a member of Mission Artists United, has filled his spot with 18×24 pads of drawing paper, pencils, markers, chalk and pastels. He wears a straw hat and a T-shirt that reads “Art is the Mission.”

“This forces me to go make some art for the day instead of going to my job,” he says of the event, which began in San Francisco in 2005 and has spread to more than 162 cities and 35 countries. Fellow MAU artist Sophia Green strikes short poses for people to stop and sketch from life. Neither of them are worried about the cost of transforming an area of concrete into a small art studio.

“The meter maid came by and didn’t even stop,” Rogers says. ” I was prepared to feed the meter if that is what it took.”

At the intersection of Valencia and 17th streets, a meter maid mobile is parked in a spot next to where Neha Sampat sits in a lawn chair on a strip of rollable grass. “We rented it as sort of a photo booth for today,” says Sampat, founder of Kurb Karma, an app that lets drivers in need of parking spots find drivers who are about to give up a spot.

Sampat chose the Mission for her parklet because she finds the neighborhood to be one of the most difficult places to park in the city. She also finds it lacking in public parks. “We need more green space in the Mission,” she says.

Her spot is decorated with paper yin-yangs (the symbol of Kurb Karma), and she and a co-worker hand out homemade yin-yang cookies to the curious and intrigued. “We’ve had a couple of shop owners come up to us say, ‘I’m gonna go get a spot in front of my store,’” she says. “So it’s been more about awareness than anything.”

Zoee Astrakhan, principal at Interstice Architects, has been aware of and participating in PARK(ing) Day for more than seven years. Across the street from the Kurb Karma parklet, her parklet, designed in collaboration with PUBLIC Bikes, is hard to miss. Hundreds of brightly colored balloons bounce around in the wind and catch the eyes of those walking, biking and driving by.

“We are very involved in the public realm, and how people occupy public space,” she says. “We think there isn’t enough of it out there in the world.”

Austin Mitchell agrees. He woke early to drive from his home in Oakland with long metal pipes and piles of blankets to build a teepee that stands in a parking spot in front of Serendipity. He and his friends rest inside while Ramsey Harvey sits on a yoga mat in a bathing suit top and holds a purple hula hoop.

“It’s sort of about how much space is set aside for automobiles and showing how urban space can be used … for fun,” Mitchell says.

“I had three different customers come in and say they couldn’t find a place to park,” says Amy Levine, an artist at City Art who steps out from tending the gallery to smoke a cigarette. But difficulty finding parking on PARK(ing) Day, she says, is a small price to pay for something that encourages people to “step out of their norm” and think about the idea of re-creating urban spaces.

“The fact that a parklet can sprout out of nothing and exist …” says Levine, “It’s been fun. Like a parade. Like a happy parade.”

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Molly is a multimedia journalist, editor, photographer and illustrator. She has contributed to dozens of publications, and most recently, served as Editor of the Pacific Sun. To view more of her work, visit mollyoleson.com.

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  1. This would be great if it didn’t all look like a homeless camp. Frankly, a nice car would look much better in those spots. I do appreciate the half nude ladies sitting there, though. I would donate a few bucks to get those guys a hair cut, too.