In 2007, John Bela of Rebar Group debuted an idea in San Francisco called a Parkcycle--a chunk of turf and a tree on wheels. Six years later, the Parkcycle has grown into a fleet that's currently cruising around the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan, an ancient city on the Caspian Sea.
"It's a pedal powered park, and the basic plans are available on our website," Bela says. "The idea is that anyone can download the plans, and if a bunch of people create their own Parkcycles, they can pedal out in the city together, and shape their own public space."
The Parkcycle Swarm ended up in Azerbaijan by way of Copenhagen, where Bela had designed the latest version of the Parkcycle with the help of Tim Wolfer, from the Danish art and design firm N55. With Wolfer, Bela elaborated on N55's XYZ CARGO, an open-source frame that anyone can assemble on a bike without welding. Bela also fitted the Parkcycle with a fold-down steering panel, aluminum tube steel, and a "landscape surface" you can pull out like a table extender for Thanksgiving. Living grass or astroturf blankets the surface, and the whole 22-square-foot frame folds up and can be bolted to a standard European pallet for easy shipping.
A year prior, Bela had presented his first Parkcycle in Hong Kong, where he met an artist affiliated with Yarat, a public art collective based in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. After giving the Parkcycle Swarm a test run in Copenhagen earlier this year, Bela and his team nailed four Parkcycles to pallets and shipped them down south. The Baku exhibition launched in September, when Bela spent a couple of days navigating the city's bike-friendly historic districts with local artists, as well as its new eight-lane highways.
"Generally, people respond to the piece with laughter. You roll up, there's this green carpet--sometimes it's living grass, sometimes it's a tree. And that's an invitation to chill," Bela says. "The traffic is very hectic there, but much to my surprise, truck drivers drove past us and laughed and smiled and gave us the thumbs up."
Bela sees the Parkcycle Swarm as a riff on the peer-to-peer car sharing networks emerging in cities across the globe. After Baku, he hopes to take the Swarm to Brazil, or anywhere else that might be willing to commission the work.
Still, Bela acknowledges that the Swarm is more of a curiosity than anything else and isn't meant to replace deeper investments in public spaces. While the cities of Copenhagen, San Francisco, and Baku have welcomed the Swarm, it has yet to test its mettle in more traffic-clogged cities that are less friendly to bicycles. "It doesn't compare to a true public park with a 100-year-old tree, but part of the novelty of it is pedaling them around," Bela said. "You can bring your own park to a place that's otherwise filled with concrete and asphalt."