Seizing space

How Rebar and other artsy renegades reignited a movement to reclaim the urban environment
The Parkcycle from Parking Day
Photo by Andrea Scher;

San Francisco's streets and public spaces are undergoing a drastic transformation — and it's happening subtly, often below the radar of traditional planning processes. Much of it was triggered by the renegade actions of a few outlaw urbanists, designers, and artists.

But increasingly, their tactics and spirit are being adopted inside City Hall, and the result is starting to look like a real urban design revolution — one that harks back to a movement that was interrupted back in the 1970s.

One of the earliest signs of the new approach emerged in 2005 on the first Park(ing) Day, the brainchild of the hip, young founders of the urban design group Rebar. The idea was simple: turn selected street parking spots around San Francisco into little one-day parks. Just plug some coins in the meter to rent the space, then set up chairs or lay down some sod, and kick it.

It was a simple yet powerful statement about how San Franciscans choose to use public space — and the folks at Rebar expected to get in trouble.

"When we did the first Park(ing) Day in 2005, JB [a.k.a. John Bela] and I were just prepared to be arrested and hauled into court," Rebar's Matthew Passmore told us at a recent interview in the group's new Mission District warehouse space. "But nothing like that happened."

Instead, City Hall called. 079_realcover.jpg Rebar's Blaine Merker, Teresa Aguilera, Matthew Passmore, and John Bela at their carfreee space at Showplace Triangle

"We got a call from the director of city greening, who said this is great, I want to meet with you guys and talk about how the city can support this kind of activity," Passmore said. "Much to our surprise, the city was totally responsive as opposed to shutting us down and imprisoning us."

Bela said the group discovered that Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration was looking for just the sort of innovative, cool, environmental ideas that were Rebar's focus. And that connection merged with other people's efforts — like sidewalk-to-garden conversions being pioneered by Jane Martin, the urban gardening and bicycling movements, and the unique public art that was making its way back from Burning Man. That created a catalyst for a wide array of city initiatives, from the Sunday Streets road closures to temporary art installations that began popping up around the city to the Pavement to Parks program that creates short-term parks in underutilized roadways.

"It was a single interaction five years ago, and now we have things like Sunday Streets," Bela told us on Sept. 18's Park(ing) Day, in which various individuals and groups took over more than 50 parking spots around town. "It's about reclaiming the streets for people."

Park(ing) Day itself blew up, becoming a worldwide phenomenon that is now in 151 cities on six continents, and one that the Mayor's Office is planning to turn into a more permanent plan, with the regular conversion of some parking spots on commercial corridors into outdoor seating areas.

"You had a few guys and a girl who had an idea and now it's an international event," Mike Farrah, a longtime Newsom lieutenant who now heads the Office of Neighborhood Services and has been the main contact in City Hall for Rebar and similar groups, told the Guardian.