With a background ranging from performance art to biochemistry, John Bela took a unique path to becoming a landscape architect. His fascination with nature and cultural spaces led him and his collaborators to feed a meter and turn a San Francisco parking space into a public park for a day in 2005. The action inspired Park(ing) Day events around the world as well as San Francisco's "parklet" program.
How did you start working with urban spaces?
I started my education at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied sculpture and performance there for a couple of years. And then I got interested in kind of expanding the scope of my education, so I left art school and got interested in plant biology and ethnobotany. I did some research down in South America and eventually ended up working for a phytopharmaceutical company for a year. I went all the way from the traditional medicinal uses in the jungle to the most advanced kind of biotechnological processes for producing medicines from plants. I moved to the West Coast, pursuing another job with a company called Shaman Pharmaceuticals, but the company folded, so I started seeking other directions in my work. I landed at UC Berkeley, studying landscape architecture and environmental design. What had interested me about being in the jungle was the relationship between nature and cultural artifacts, and at Berkeley I found a strong focus on social and ecological factors in design that privileged public space.
How did that evolve into the Park(ing) Day project?
In San Francisco, the street or other public right-of-way accounts for a quarter of the city's land area—more space than all of the parkland in the city combined. Over several decades, there was a shift from the streets as a social space to the streets as this kind of engineering tool for moving and storing vehicles. We now allocate about 70 percent of the street to vehicles, but in San Francisco, it's not illegal to do something other than store a car in a parking space. So that offers an opportunity for intervention by an artist, someone who's interested in this way of thinking that may be outside of the kind of dominant paradigm in terms of how we use space in a city. Part of the impulse with Park(ing) Day was to exploit a loophole in the parking code for public benefit. We withdrew across the street, and we spent some time observing. Eventually, people stepped off the sidewalk and started using the park. It was a success. We circulated images of this two-hour guerrilla-art intervention on the Internet, and people all over the world started contacting us. We decided that we couldn't really go and set up new Park(ing) Day installations across the globe, but we could share the idea. Inspired by the IKEA model of assembling a simple piece of furniture with a really basic set of instructions, we decided to make a how-to manual. All we asked is that the space be used for some kind of act of generosity or public benefit.
And now, at least in San Francisco, this is an official practice. How did “parklets” come about?
So the way that it unfolded is that, in 2010, the City of San Francisco Planning Department created something they called the "Pavement to Parks" program—literally taking underutilized slots of roadway and transforming them into these little mini–public spaces. Inspired by Park(ing) Day, the department decided to try the same process at the scale of a parking spot. They asked Rebar and a couple other designers to prototype what would be a semi-permanent version of Park(ing) Day. It ultimately became the parklet program: The city issues a permit for a business or resident to transform a parking space into a mini-park. But the crucial thing—and this is what Rebar really fought for in negotiating with the Planning Department—is that this isn't a café-table-and-chair permit. The parklets have to be mini–public parks. The property or business owner is in charge of designing, building, and maintaining the space, and the city has the right to issue or revoke a permit for occupying the parking lane. The public gets a small extension of the public realm of the sidewalk into the street.
How has this changed the city’s approach to planning?
Park(ing) Day was a guerrilla-art installation, which tapped into a process of user-generated urbanism or interactive placemaking. Park(ing) Day began to impart that you can test spatial ideas with a really low-cost intervention that can make visible a set of design ideas that doesn't take a long time to do and can be used to rapidly prototype or iterate a potential solution to a problem. Over the last five years, even city policymakers have been adopting guerrilla tactics in order to achieve their long-term strategic-planning objectives. When you get a set of these parklets popping up along a street, you know these are an expression of a set of values and aesthetic ideas of an individual café or business owner or private resident. You have a super-nuanced streetscape that is highly varied and highly responsive to different needs.