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“What’s that all about, mate?” is the question from a van that pauses in the middle of Thomas Street. The driver’s attention has been drawn to one of the road’s many car parking spaces, which has been modified with artificial grass. A couple are playing short tennis while others sit in deckchairs.

“We’ve created a parklet to help promote a better use of city centre space,” replies Pete Abel, of Friends of the Earth. The driver pulled away, seemingly none-the-wiser, but with a story to tell his mates.

If the vehicle occupants were confused, that was nothing compared to the bemused look on the parking attendant’s face as he pondered the possibility of issuing a ticket to a piece of grass – or maybe to the cool-bag, possibly the flasks. Either way, permission had been arranged with Manchester City Council.

The exercise had a more serious purpose. The organisers, Friends of the Earth, had invited people to join them to help redesign a car parking space in Manchester city centre, converting it into a picnic park complete with ‘grass’, plants, deckchairs, tea, cupcakes and sparkling conversation – all as part of International Park(ing) Day.

In July, Hackney Council in London launched a scheme to offer local residents the chance to design their own ‘parklets’ to replace up to 15 parking spaces on Hackney streets. Each parklet was to occupy a single parking space, with the design determined by residents.

For this rain-lashed affair in Manchester, Pete Abel was often holding onto a parasol in order to prevent it being blown away, but took the time to explain more.

“After today, the idea is to get permanent ‘parklets’, so where you’ve got cafes or bars or whatever; there you can put in proper wooden benches with planters with flowers, but also some cycling parking. It’s just about making the public spaces nicer.

Abel continued: “They (TfGM) have just issued guidance for people who want to do this in their local area. It’s the money Chris Boardman has to do walking and cycling stuff. So they have given guidance on the types of things they can do and how much they should cost. They’re encouraging people to come forward and say, “We think this would be really great in our street”.

How would you go about this? Can you just commandeer a parking space for an hour?

“Well, no,” says Pete. “You could, but if you want you a permanent one, you need to talk to your council, because the parking bays belong to the council. But if you’ve got an idea, go to your councillor and ask: ‘Will you support us doing this parklet?’ Obviously you cannot put them everywhere, but the whole idea about today, Park(ing) Day, is to get people to think about how much nicer city space would be if it was designed for people, not necessarily for cars.

According to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the typical European car is parked 92 per cent of the time – often on valuable inner-city land. When the car is used, only 1.5 of its 5 seats are occupied and as much as 50 per cent of inner-city land is devoted to mobility, such as roads and parking spaces.

Looking beyond Park(ing) Day, Manchester Friends of the Earth are calling on the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, and GM council leaders to enable local residents to create parklets where they live or work to make our city space greener and more enjoyable.

“Imagine if our cities had fewer spaces for cars and more room for people,” said Catherine Thomson, Manchester Friends of the Earth co-ordinator. “We are inviting people to help us make parking spaces more sociable, fun and colourful.”

So if you have an idea, approach the council and see what happens.

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