More flowers, fewer cars: the rewilders turning parking spaces into parks

As more towns and cities bring in measures to curb traffic and the number of cars on the streets, the idea of converting parking spaces into “parklets” is gaining traction. These tiny green parks are part of a trend in urban rewilding by individuals that is boosting biodiversity across the world.

My partner, Xavier Damman, and I moved to Brussels in February 2020, a month before lockdown. We live in a typical Brussels house that has no garden and just a mini terrace. It has a garage but we don’t have a car. There is a 12 sq metre area in front of our garage door where no one can park. I have green fingers and love gardening so I figured I could turn it into a garden. Then we started getting letters from the council saying you can’t use this space for gardening, it’s for cars. We wanted to create a conversation about use of public space – why, if you are a car owner, can you privatise a public space?

In May 2020, we woke up at 8am and saw a text from a neighbour saying ‘where is your garden?’, and it had just disappeared. My partner put up posters saying ‘missing garden’. Then we discovered the council had come at 5am and taken it away. They took it to the public waste disposal centre (who luckily watered it and took care of it).

A week later, our neighbours organised a party, and they brought so many flowers we were able to start a new garden. We discovered that if you put your garden on a hand cart it’s allowed to be on the street, which is written in some obscure 150-year-old law. So we got back our old garden, put it on the hand cart and walked it home through the streets of Brussels. We paid a ticket – €28 for the whole year. We haven’t really heard from the council, they can’t do anything any more.

When I arrived in this neighbourhood I didn’t know anyone, and now we know everybody. I have my garden to thank for that. We need these public spaces to heal society, I strongly believe that. I’m a mum with three teenage boys. I want them to be free in our city and breathe fresh air. That is their right. Our kids love it, but they think their mum is crazy. Our garden is called a Citizen Garden and now there are three more in Brussels, made by people inspired by what we did. We had no idea what this would become – we just wanted a garden.
Leen Schelfhout, Brussels

We didn’t have authorisation when we created our first parklet in Brussels in 2020, it started as a whim. We were inspired by the Citizen Garden. In this city, there is a car culture so there is congestion everywhere. In the highway code it states that you can’t park five metres after a pedestrian crossing, but in practice cars park in these spaces all the time. My colleagues and I took advantage of that legal grey area and laid down a green mat that demarcated five metres and put a planter on it. Then we planted a bunch of seeds that grew into plants for local bugs. It’s a nice sunny spot. In the end it was only there for three months because cars kept intentionally bumping into it and eventually destroyed it.

When the local council came and cleaned it up we got talking, and they said they would work with us as part of their effort to green the streets in the European Quarter where we are. This time we’re getting a bike rack too, partly to protect the planter but also because we like bikes, and the council has put a concrete block behind it to stop people bumping into it. Now we have strawberries, lavender, thyme, and a bunch of wildflowers growing. We had a nice orange tree but someone stole it, so we put a thorny rose there, which people couldn’t yank out. It’s outside our office and my favourite thing is walking up to the window and looking at people admiring it as they walk past. No one is going to do that with a Fiat Panda parked there.
Mark Preston, Brussels

I used to be a Labour councillor for Hackney Central and my wife, Rita, and I wanted to support what the council was doing. We created our parklet two and a half years ago. My wife is chief gardener and I painted it in anticipation of the Queen’s jubilee, to look especially good for the big day. Over the years, I had been lobbying for the council to make parklets, so we can use our streets in a better way. The council started doing some commercial parklets and then a few years ago it opened the scheme up for residents. What is important is having streets with seats, where people can watch the world go by. Rita has planted lots of flowers people can enjoy as they sit there, such as forget-me-not, verbena, geranium, agapanthus and honeysuckle.

I paid for a sign identical to the typeface of the council’s street name plates (which I originally helped design). I called it Princess May Road Community Parklet, so people knew it was for everybody. Just today, I saw someone sitting there reading; three youngsters turned up and sat down for 10 minutes. Some people stop and have a cigarette after a night out. Apparently a guy with a guitar did a little concert the other day. Workmen often come up to me and say they really like it because it gives them somewhere to sit and eat their sandwiches. Anybody and everybody. My surprise has been how easy it’s been – cigarette butts are the worst thing we’ve had to contend with. I’m now helping another Hackney resident to make one.
Vincent Stops, Hackney, London

My wife and I moved to Ilfracombe from London, in June last year. I’m from California but I’ve been here for 20 years so my identity is in flux. We had the opportunity to live in a little house on the border of National Trust land, right by the coastal path. The house had two parking bays. My wife’s got green fingers and I’ve got “fish fingers” – I used to be a marine biologist. This is a seaside town steeped in history, with piracy, trade and invasions, so to have the nautical theme seemed like an obvious move. I joined the local Facebook group and posted: ‘Hey we’re looking for a boat we’d like to fill with dirt and flowers to put on our parking spot.’

Someone offered an old boat called the Golden Tulip. I was digging a wildlife pond in the back garden so two tons of soil from there went inside the boat. Suddenly strangers would come up to me and say ‘you’re the guy with the boat!’ when they saw me. The carpenter down the street said we should build a dock, so I brought cleats and tied it to the dock – if it rains a lot you don’t want it floating away! Now I want to get driftwood, lobster pots – over the years it’s going to turn into something ridiculous. All our neighbours have been really supportive, and people have started thinking about putting plants on their front parking spots. We’ve got echium, delphiniums, erysimums, scabious and foxgloves – which the insects love. After living in London for 20 years, I feel as if I can finally breathe.
Ian Winn, Ilfracombe, Devon

There is a real shortage of green space in Islington, and a massive waiting list for allotments, so an obvious way to increase growing places is to repurpose parking places. We asked the council to set up a scheme so that instead of a parking permit, you would get a permit for a parklet. That was over three years ago and for whatever reason it couldn’t be achieved. So three or four of us got together and started building planters from two large pallets. On a street of around 150 flats and houses, there were probably five complaints. Then the council started issuing notices saying the planters had to be removed. We’ve had periodic tussles about it. One of my neighbours said, ‘if you don’t like the city go live in the countryside’. Initially we had a lot of vandalism. We had a policy that as soon as it happened we fixed it. Some cars drove into it deliberately. But then people decided it wasn’t so bad after all.

Now, instead of a car we’ve got frogs and a colony of ladybirds. People come by and pick herbs. When someone first said ‘meet you at the planter’ I nearly fainted with joy. It’s a green oasis, and has become a focal point for socialising in the street. I really love that. When we have spiders spinning their webs in the autumn you can hear children shouting and laughing.

We try to prioritise pollen-rich plants such as birdsfoot trefoil, rosemary, lavender, campion, foxglove, cosmos, nigella, as well as edible things like red chard and parsley. We’ve got two small rowan trees too. It’s amazing how much food you can grow. The street has become what my elderly neighbours tell me it was like in the 1950s – people come out and chat and play.

Islington council now says it will work with us to make the planters permanent. If that happens it will be hugely important. I think the goal should be to repurpose 20% of car parking spaces, with a stretch target of 50%.
Lynne Friedli, Islington, London

I live in Summerhill in inner-city north Dublin. It’s an area that has a lot of illegal dumping of rubbish and a lack of green spaces – there is about one tree for every 300 people here. I live in a cul-de-sac, off an industrial side road near a school, and one of the main reasons we made the garden was to send the message that this is our community and it’s taken care of. We named it Kellie’s garden after the boxer Kellie Harrington, who grew up in this part of town. She won gold in August last year, when we made it, and it resembles a boxing ring – square with a trellis on the back wall. Eventually there will be trees to represent gold, silver and bronze.

We found out from Dublin city council that no one had a claim to the land. People have been living on this street for 90-odd years, they knew nothing had been there, although cars randomly parked there. It took three months to complete; the plot is 2.5 by 5.5 metres and we were awarded €2,500 from the Ireland Funds. Everyone got together and did lots of different tasks. The goal was to get flowering perennials. It’s quite a shady spot so it will be challenging to see what grows – we’ve got foxgloves, campanula, jasmine, lavender and three cherry trees, which have just gone in with the help of a local builder who lent us his tools to break through the concrete. Everyone is pretty delighted, and it’s a symbol of what our community can do together – it’s so nice to see things grown rather than freshly dumped rubbish. One of the great things is that everybody knows each other better. I’ve lived here five years; I knew people a bit before but now I know them properly.
Mel Gardner, Dublin

We used to have concrete paving slabs in front of our house in Edinburgh but we dug them up when we moved in three years ago. Ideologically, we wanted to create a space that would be alive and beautiful. Selfishly we wanted to have space to grow food, and to enjoy. Originally we did add a load of muck and biochar, but mostly we’ve added the composted grass from a neighbouring housing estate, which the contractors dumped. It rots down to lovely stuff with loads of worms. The hardest thing is how public it has been. Over lockdown I worked in a room above the garden and would hear people discussing it. Some people said ‘what a mess!’. Some people really loved seeing the pumpkins. We did a pond and I’m hoping that our resident frogs will eat the slugs and snails. We’re growing all kinds of things – potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, rocket, sunflowers, chives, chard … loads of stuff. And it’s only 4 by 4 metres. It’s full and glorious.

When I’m working in it, loads of people stop and talk. They like reminiscing about eating homegrown vegetables when they were young. People love giving advice, most of it brilliant, some of it a bit loopy. This year, I’ve had a couple of blackbirds that have been a total pain. They’ve really liked the worms and in digging for them have pulled up potatoes and all the young carrots. Someone has just offered us 90 Victoria plum trees! I want people who walk past to be able to graze on it – I imagine people eating apples, raspberries and currants from the pavement. One day, all the cars will be gone and we’ll have everyone growing food outside their houses.
Alfy Gathorne-Hardy, Edinburgh

I’ve lived in my house for 14 years and cars were forever stopping outside to text or answer a call, and they’d just leave their engines running, making my front window rattle. I met Brenda Puech, founder of People Parking Day, who set up the parklets scheme in Hackney four years ago. There were seven or eight of us at the beginning and we were the Hackney parklets vanguard – it was all possible thanks to Brenda’s campaigning. Personally, I like gardening. I like having more beds to plant stuff. I’ve actually run out of space so now I’m planting stuff on derelict land on the estate over the road.

Gardening also gives me a chance to make the street nicer. People chat because of it, and I really like that. It was originally two big planters, but during Covid I added a seating area. There’s a bus stop nearby and a sixth form college. Students used to hang on the street corner but now they come and sit in the parklet and chat. It attracts the odd fried chicken polystyrene container, which is a bit annoying but I think oh well, that’s just gonna happen. Somebody did nick a lavender once. It’s petty stuff but generally people love it. My favourite thing is hearing people say they love it. It makes it seem like it’s really worth it.
Alice Roberts, Hackney, London

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