For a virtual springtime addition of our Third Thursday series, we were happy to hear from urbanist, environmentalist, and UC Berkeley and CCA Lecturer John Bela about his many accomplishments and realizations surrounding the ways in which we interact with public and urban spaces. Currently, he serves as a Partner & Director at Gehl Studios, but prior to that, he co-founded Rebar Group during his time at Berkeley, and in a studio space in the Mission birthed a handful of ideas that we have become quite familiar with today, many of which have become increasingly important due to COVID social distancing.

Bela expressed his interest in the intersection between the formal and informal construction of urban spaces, framing examples as centralized and decentralized hierarchies, touching upon how we humanize skyscrapers and big cities. Where these things overlap create a true ecosystem – like the metrocables connecting the city center to mountainous villages in Medellin, and the half-abandoned Luxury tower in Caracas, now occupied by informal settlements. Not glorifying the informality, but finding the sweet spot between strategic and tactile, Bela introduced us to his ideas of urbanism, and the mindset that fostered his experiments.

Rebar produced a series of thought provoking ideas – including Bushwaffles, or soft, bright pink, inflatable wearable buffers between wearers and the hard urban landscape.

“Sold to the public via a vending machine, it is a piece of modular inflatable urban furniture – a pillow to sit on, float on, tie and wrap around you. Through strings it can be connected to other Bushwaffles. Two could form a mattress, three could be a sofa, and more could become a great seating area for a party in the park with friends.”

Interested by flexible urban spaces, Bela along with Rebar investigated an idea based around the shortest-term lease money can buy in a city – metered parking spaces. In the spirit of “user-generated urbanism”, Bela and his colleagues created some of the first parklets in metered parking spaces in San Francisco’s Mission District – introducing a completely new urban space into the typology. Working with Third Thursday favorite Reuben Margolin, Rebar created mobile parklets that traveled from neighborhood to neighborhood, parking spot to parking spot, loaning temporary green spaces to city blocks.

What started as a social experiment has taken a new meaning in a public health crisis – parklets in 2020 have provided reprieve from COVID social distancing protocols, restaurant closures, and feelings of isolation. The Parklet is now a permittable urban space, and has bridged an urgent need, as well as changed the fabric of cities globally.

In 2005, Rebar started Park(ing) Day – a global, public, participatory art and design activism project. It is a day where people across the globe temporarily repurpose street parking spaces and convert them to tiny parks and places for art, play, and activism. Park(ing) Day is Friday, September 17, 2021.