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Of parks & parking
You couldn't build Forsyth from scratch today

John Bennett is newly appointed executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.

On March 8, I spent a chilly but pleasant evening in Forsyth Park along with a couple of thousand other people.

We were there to see a band called of Montreal that sounds like it's from Canada but is not, and Royal Canoe, a band that actually is from Canada. The free performances were part of the third annual Savannah Stopover music festival.

Whenever I'm in Forsyth Park, I'm reminded that it truly is a wonderful public space. At different times of day and during different times of the year, it can take on a completely different character.

The first time I experienced Forsyth Park as an adult (I visited Savannah many times as a child) was on a Sunday afternoon in late August 1993. Just out of graduate school, I was in town for a job interview.

The park was full of people playing Frisbee, walking dogs or simply sitting in the grass enjoying the last days of summer. It was so idyllic; it almost looked as if it was staged for a movie or commercial shoot.

After seeing that, I pictured myself among the happy folks I saw. I knew I had to get the job.

More than a decade later when I worked in a building nearby, I'd walk through the park to the Sentient Bean for coffee most mornings. I'd often see the same folks and would exchange greetings.

Some of them I knew only from the park. I rarely saw them elsewhere.

At lunchtime I'd often seek out a shady bench on the north side of the park, which is surprisingly serene compared to the activity and vibrancy of the open areas.

Because of its varied spaces, the park can accommodate a variety of activities.

The Forsyth Park Farmers Market. Picnic in the Park. Pick-up basketball games. The greening of the fountain.

Runners and walkers orbiting the perimeter. Homeless people lining up for hot meals on Sundays. SCAD's Sidewalk Arts Festival.

Kids enjoying the playground. Sleepy students napping in the sun.

The Earth Day Festival. The Jazz Festival.

Tennis matches. Drum circles. Actually, I'm not a big fan of that last one.

Still, from routine moments that pass without much notice to special events that are anticipated all year long, Forsyth Park is remarkably versatile and absolutely essential to civic life in Savannah.

If you tried to build it from scratch today, however, you'd find yourself in a world of trouble.

None of it would be allowed, no matter how beautiful or beloved. The Arboretum, the fountain, the Fragrant Garden, the central promenade — none of these would be permitted for one simple reason: There's not enough parking to meet minimum requirements.

It is truly astounding that even a place so accommodating to so many citizens would never be approved today because it can't accommodate our cars.

Thankfully, the organizers of Savannah Stopover knew the bands they booked, coupled with the appeal of a night in Forsyth Park, would be powerful enough to attract people even if they had to park farther away than they would like.

What's more, they partnered with the Savannah Bicycle Campaign to provide free valet bicycle parking, which permitted people to leave their cars at home. Concert-goers were free to enjoy the music knowing their bicycles were being watched over.

The Savannah Music Festival is doing the same thing this month, with the Savannah Bicycle Campaign staffing secure bike parking at performances by Old Crow Medicine Show on March 22, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell with the Richard Thompson Electric Trio on April 3, and Tedeschi Trucks Band on April 4, all at the Johnny Mercer Theatre.

By encouraging people to ride their bikes, Savannah Stopover and Savannah Music Festival organizers aren't discriminating against drivers.

Quite the opposite, actually, for when people decide to go by bike instead of driving, they free up parking opportunities for those who drive, either by choice or necessity. Perhaps drivers, and not just cyclists who avail themselves of the bicycle parking service, should drop a few bills in the bicycle valet donation jar to support these efforts.

And lest you think the idea of encouraging people to bicycle to major events is simply for treehuggers, consider this: The RBC Heritage will offer free bicycle parking again this year on Hilton Head Island during the golf tournament, April 15-21.

According to WTOC-TV, tournament organizers will offer parking space for up to 1,000 bikes on the tennis courts at Harbour Town.