Sept. 17 2010 12:00 AM

Small downtown event aims to draw attention to a big problem: maintaining public spaces

For one day, Lansing turned a small part of downtown from public parking to a public park.

By 11 a.m., local organizers of PARK(ing) Day 2010 had green Astroturf laid down across three parking spaces on Washington Square near Allegan Street. Ring toss boxes were set up to pass the time within the plant-lined space. Joe Manzella, vice president of local nonprofit Accelerate Lansing, said the point of the modest event was to create a dialog about a growing problem.

“We want to get people to ask: ‘What is a public space? How can we improve a public space?’” Manzella said. “And we need to remind people that we have to fund the public services in order to get things done.”

Accelerate Lansing, which is dedicated to the improvement of Lansing and local social causes, organized the event in conjunction with international PARK(ing) Day, an annual event started in 2005. PARK(ing) Day seeks to inspire city dwellers to transform parking spots into temporary parks. The event was a partnership with Let’s Save Michigan, another campaign to raise the state from “drastic job losses and the highest unemployment rate in the nation,” according to its website.

Joe Manzella, vice president of Accelerate Lansing, sits at a dining table on Washington Square as participants play ring toss at PARK(ing) Day 2010. Photo by Chris Galford.

The 2009 PARK(ing) Day event showcased 700 makeshift parks in 21 countries. This is the first year Lansing participated.

For those who couldn’t make it, today’s event was certainly no protest that would have filled the Capitol lawn. But for Manzella, that’s OK. PARK(ing) Day was meant to get people talking about the lack of funding for maintaining public places. Lansing is not immune to that problem, Manzella said.

“We are doing more with less every year,” Manzella said, praising city employees who maintain public spaces, despite shrinking budgets. He added that bringing back funding is of top priority, but how that will happen is anybody’s guess. “I don’t know. That’s the thing. Personally, I’d like to see people take the initiative in their neighborhood and work with the city.”

Manzella has made a career out of improving the aesthetic value of Lansing via public artwork and green spaces. It’s serious business for him.

“If we don’t have enough funds to take care of assets it has taken 150 years to build — if we let them rot — we are betraying all the hard work of the giants’ shoulders we are standing on right now,” he said. “And that’s not fair to the people living here and who will move here.”

Manzella said it cost $30 to rent the three spaces for three hours from the city, which was supportive of the event. “They didn’t even ask us what we were doing. They (city officials) made it very easy,” he said.

Ten to 15 people were constantly present at the site between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., Manzella said, adding that it’d be nearly impossible to estimate how many stopped overall, due to the steady lunchtime flow of foot traffic on Washington Square.

Bryan Robb, a University of Michigan graduate in urban planning who attended the event, said the day was about making Lansing more vibrant — if only for a few hours. While he said there is a lack of good public space in the city of Lansing, he said that in general he feels the city is moving in the right direction.

“I think it’s (the city) getting better,” Robb said. “The integration of different uses — retail, residential, and park land, all in our downtown, really have the potential to make it a vibrant, 24-hour city.” Raising awareness about public space, according to Robb, can help that goal.