Locally, the success of events like Park(ing) Day have changed San Francisco's approach to urban spaces, particularly on land left dormant by the economic downturn. Rebar, the permaculture collective Upcycle, and former MyFarm manager Chris Burley plan to turn the old Hayes Valley freeway property near Octavia, between Oak and Fell streets, into a massive community garden and gathering space. Plans are being hatched for temporary uses on Rincon Hill properties approved for residential towers. "Green pod" seating areas are sprouting along Market Street and there are plans to extend the Sunday Streets road closures next year. And, perhaps most amazingly, most projects are being accomplished with very little funding.
How has San Francisco suddenly shifted into high gear when it comes to creating innovative new public spaces? The key is their common denominator: they're all temporary. As such, they don't require detailed studies, cumbersome approval processes, or the extensive outreach and input that can dampen the creative spark.
But San Francisco is starting to prove that dozens of short-term fixes can add up to a true transformation of the urban environment and the citizenry's sense of possibility.
EVOLUTION OF THE PRANK
Rebar began as a group of friends and artists who came together to enter a design contest in 2004. Passmore was a practicing lawyer and Bela was a landscape architecture student at UC Berkeley. They chose the name Rebar for future collaborations, the first of which was Park(ing) Day.
Passmore, who had a background in conceptual art before going to law school, discovered a legal loophole that might allow for anything from a burlesque performance to a temporary swimming pool to be installed in metered parking spaces. Bela recruited Blaine Merker, a fellow landscape architecture student with whom he'd won a design competition, to join the effort.
Park(ing) Day was a hit, getting great press and igniting people's imaginations. "We realized after we did it, like, oh, people are really getting this," Merker said. And Rebar was off. In the following years they added a fourth principal, graphic designer Teresa Aguilera, and took on a number of acclaimed projects: planting the Victory Garden in Civic Center Plaza, building the Panhandle Bandshell from old car hoods and other recycled parts, creating COMMONspace events (from "Counterveillance" to the "Nappening") in privately-owned public spaces, and designing the Bushwaffle (commissioned for the Experimenta-Design biennale in Amsterdam) to help soften paved urban spaces and create a sense of play.
Through it all, the group maintained its prankster spirit. When they were invited to present the Bandshell project at the prestigious Venice Biennale festival, Rebar members showed up costumed as Italian table-tennis players (a joke that mostly baffled other attendees, they said).
They told us every project needed to have a "quotient of ridiculum." Or as Bela put it, "That's how we know project has evolved to the right point — when we're on the floor laughing."
As Rebar found success, it was still mostly a side project for members who had other full-time jobs. "We were all playing hooky all the time," said Merker, who, like Bela, joined a landscape architecture firm after he finished school. "It just got worse and worse."
So now, they're trying to turn their passion into a profession, recently moving into a cool warehouse office and workspace in the Mission. "We're shifting our practice a little to have the same sort of spirit but trying to figure out how we can make that an occupation," Merker said.