“If we were designing cities from scratch, would we choose to create the car-centric, parking-dominated spaces we have now?” asks Victor Pontis, the organiser of WePark. “Probably not.”
In response, Pontis decided to turn a public parking space near San Francisco City Hall into a temporary outdoor, co-working office space. Around a dozen people, including a handful of knowledge workers and at least two people between jobs, have arranged themselves in folding chairs around two portable tables.
Several workers slurp lunch from takeout cartons before heading back to their indoor offices. One young professional has brought documents to read in the sun before a meeting. Late in the day, a cyclist pal rides up and plops a candy bowl on a table, announcing: “Just like a real office!”
The San Francisco stunt went viral on social media and WePark groups have coalesced in Bristol, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, with plans to turn public parking spots into temporary office space in the weeks ahead.
Pontis – the founder of Scooter Map, an app that helps riders locate electric scooters from multiple companies – says he was inspired by a mobile bicycle parking station that can legally occupy a parking space. Like that project, WePark is based on the notion that low-fee public parking could be used for other purposes.
Instead of a spot for a car or motorcycle, the space near City Hall became a vehicle for productive co-working, and for casual socialising. People were on their devices – the City of San Francisco provides free public wireless internet – but between pecking away on their laptops and lunching, they also chatted.
One woman plunked down a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and was soon joined by a younger man. As they sorted pieces, she shared her job-search struggles, and he shared that he had moved to town four years ago for a tech job and felt conflicted about gentrification. “Thank you for acknowledging that,” she murmured, explaining how many of her friends had been driven out of the Bay Area by skyrocketing costs.
Pontis believes congregants fostered a supportive atmosphere simply because people gathering in public places can create inclusive, safer spaces. “No one at WePark felt like they needed to lock up their bikes,” he explains. “People were leaving bags with others when they walked to get coffee. People were coming over, talking to us and engaging. We had one parking spot. What could we do if we have more people in more spots?”
WePark is reminiscent of several real and imagined projects, including an episode of the American sitcom Broad City that included a gag about taking over and renting out sidewalk space.
In Southern California, Santa Monica startup founder and comedian Gray Bright has some experience with this kind of stunt-as-a-statement. Bright has a desk on wheels that he used when he hosted a late-night internet talk show, and he took the mobile workstation to a parking spot on Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. “It’s one of the most expensive spots in town!” he laughs, noting he paid mere dollars to work beside a waterfront high-rise.
But WePark most mirrors another San Francisco brainchild: parklets. What began in 2005 as a similar idea to transform parking spaces into modular, portable parks eventually morphed into the global PARK(ing) Day movement, where cities around the world convert roadside parking spots into more green and sociable spaces.
Despite their popularity, San Francisco’s parklet installation stalled between 2015 and 2018 when the city planning department put applications on hold to transition from the pilot programme to its permanent phase.
Since the agency started processing applications again late last year, there has been tension about restaurants paying tens of thousands of dollars to install parklets to extend their service footprint. Some critics say this confuses members of the public, who are allowed to occupy the charming seating spaces, no purchase required.
Now WePark has gone global. In Southern France, a remote worker set up on narrow road in Toulouse and paid €1.50 an hour. And WePark groups have also coalesced elsewhere, with organisers in Bristol, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon planning to stake claims on public parking spots in the weeks ahead.
While Pontis admits WePark has an intentional tongue-in-cheek quality, he says the project makes an important statement that public space should be for anyone. “You can use this space even if it’s just asphalt under the sun,” he says. “You just need a desk and some friends.”