WCMT Fellowship 2016 research: innovation in participation in public urban green space. Portland, Oregon, US
‘What makes a place great?
Public places are the geographical glue that binds a community together. These spaces are friendly, secure, distinctive and well-integrated into the community fabric; they are places for democracy, sociability, gathering, collective memory, communication, connection and local economic vitality. Enriching people’s experience of public life and providing a platform for activities where people have a sense of community ownership, great places evoke a sense of identity and provide a focal point for for cultural exchange and transformation.’
City Repair’s Placemaking Guidebook (2nd Edition) – Chapter 1, Context
As part of my research, I was looking at ‘placemaking‘, at the innovative ways that cities are enabling cohesive neighbourhoods and reclaiming public space. One of the projects I was recommended to meet up with was City Repair, a grassroots organisation that has changed Portland for the better from the streets up.
(All photos within the this blog taken from the internet, photos in ‘galleries’ by me)
The City Repair Project facilitates artistic and ecologically-oriented placemaking through projects that honor the interconnection of human communities and the natural world. The many projects of City Repair have been accomplished by a mostly volunteer staff and thousands of volunteer citizen activists.
‘The City Repair Project is an organized group action that educates and inspires communities and individuals to creatively transform the places where they live.’
City Repair’s Placemaking Guidebook (2nd Edition) – Chapter 6, The City Repair Project
Mark Lakeman, the co-founder of City Repair 21 years ago, is a national leader in the development of sustainable public places. Over the last decade Mark has directed, facilitated, or inspired designs for more than three hundred new community-generated public places in Portland, Oregon alone.
Share-It Square, on Sherret Street and 9th Avenue in the Sellwood Neighborhood, was the first community-initiated and community-built project in Portland, first constructed in 1996 for $65. When a group of Sellwood neighbors, began building an unauthorized gathering space, a Portland city official’s response was, “That”s public space. Nobody can use it.”
Mark Lakeman was one of the local residents who designed and implemented the project:
“Our cities and places are no longer ours. We’re not building our own places; we’re not designing them to fit our own needs. Our lives are zoned like we’re a resource to be managed. We’re housed here, and then this is where we work in order to pay for the housing we barely get to live in. Mixed use here. Monocultural use here. Parking garage. Maybe a waterfront here. Park. Park. It doesn’t add up. None of them are really whole.”
“The neighbors chose to transform an intersection, because a crossroads is a gathering place where people come together. In America, our great archetype is the main street, which is not really a center. It’s just a flow. It’s a movement corridor, and you have to yell across the street because there isn’t a place in the middle. There isn’t a social commons that you can attain and occupy.”
Intersection Repair: Sunnyside Piazza, Southeast 33rd Avenue, Portland (2001 onwards) – a City Repair project
Before the project, neighbors were complaining of noise, speeding, drugs and abandoned cars. After meetings and workshops facilitated by City Repair, the community decided to paint a giant sunflower in the intersection. They received support from the city and neighbors. Over 700 interviews with residents suggest that the community experiences more happiness, health and safety because of the repair. This piazza features the organizing power of the Fibonacci spiral geometry with trellis installations, a community information kiosk, cob benches, and rock gardens.
I met up with Kirk Rea from City Repair, to find out about their work, on a rainy October afternoon at Sunnyside Piazza.
“Permaculture gardening, natural building, community based art – they all make up ‘intersection repair’. The ‘repair’ is reclaiming the piazza. Streets have become mainly for traffic and cars, whereas they never used to be. Intersections are crossing points. We’re ‘repairing’ the neighbourhood in terms of social and physical relations. Reconnecting relationships is the primary role – painting, permaculture, making, that’s just the means to do it: food and beauty while connecting us together.”
“The movement came from the neighbourhood, and the vast majority of projects come from community interest. 21 years ago, this was a new concept, and painting and natural building in the city of Portland was illegal at the time. Developing garden space and natural building is key to City Repair’s work. Over time, the City has legalised intersection art – of course they wanted to harness that creative problem solving energy! Cob building is now permitted, and slipstraw insulation we’ve also helped to legalise.”
“City Repair works with schools, non-profits, businesses to create projects. To ensure consensus around what a neighbourhood wants, we organise training – giving skills to people who want to do the project. We’ve developed the methodology, for example the permit for an intersection repair requires the four corner houses to all give consent, and there must be 80% consent within a 2 block radius. There is process that has to be gone through – such as the intersection painting can’t be too distracting or have words. We focus on the organic – the Sunnyside Piazza community wanted a Fibonacci sequence. The street is also re-painted every year with a community event.”
Renee Pype, from the Sunnyside Piazza Intersection Repair core group comments on the effect on traffic: “We didn’t change traffic signs whatsoever at Sunnyside Piazza – it’s still just two stop signs on a four-way intersection. But cars now often stop at all directions, and they always yield to pedestrians and cyclists in the Piazza, whether they have the right of way or not.”
Intersection Repair in brief (from the City Repair book)
- Start Conversations: straightforward yet profound, initiating conversations with your neighbours is a significant gesture and the foundation for any community project.
- Widen the circle: make continuous efforts to include and engage every part of the neighbourhood Widening the circle of participation is the essence of Intersection Repair.
- Build partnerships: collaborate with the people and organisations that are already working to build community; strengthen your neighbourhood fabric
- Explore possibilities: Envision potential projects or events that can serve your residential area.
- Develop a vision:
- Steward your place
I asked Kirk about funding, and how City Repair is sustained:
“In the last 10 years, it’s been grant funding, grassroots, a bit shoestring, sustainable, low-tech. We get a good amount of donations, like sand and clay donated for builds. It’s activist, volunteer run mainly. There are 2 part time paid people at City Repair and the rest are volunteers, like me. We also have started a consulting offer and we can raise fees that way.”
And about how he came to be involved:
“I was on the Social Arts Practice / Arts Major at Portland State University, and City Repair came in for a sustainability project, and they helped to create an orchard and an earth bench on ODOT (State Transportation) land. Art that benefits society was of real interest to me: environmental art, earth art and social practice – City Repoir blew my mind because it was the synthesis of all the good things I wanted to do. The aesthetics are driven by the natural materials and how they can be shaped and made into things. We need to use modern technologies and materials – green roofs for example.”
And what about the difficulties, the challenges City Repair faces:
“The difficult parts – the ‘edges’ – is dealing with classism and fear, for example the fact that by making more benches, space and community gardens, people think the homeless will come more. Our projects are grassroots. We work with the houseless, with different communities. Right now we’re building some tiny houses for the homeless for example as well as other projects like Dignity Village.
“Who doesn’t have access? Who has less ability to participate? Houseless communities, communities of colour have disproportionately less of those benefits such as canopy cover, trees. Wherever trees are planted, ‘livability’ goes up. There are dilemmas and issues – a community orchard will raise property values, but if we don’t plant an orchard, then that community is not benefiting.”
“We are demonstrating that localization of culture, economy and decision-making is the foundation for a sustainable future. We actively build our community capacity and celebrate the strength and beauty of our collective dedication to create a world of cooperation. It’s Hippie love children meeting City officials, it’s people coming out of the forest meeting people coming out of skyscrapers!”
Later on, cycling around Portland, I come across a distinctive City Repair project – the Hawthorne Hostel’s Community Cob Bench – a circular natural build on the side of Hawthorne – a main road running through the city. A space for the homeless, for people to meet, a shelter. It’s such a beautiful thing to find in the city.
Here’s a link to City Repair’s Placemaking Guide Book
And watch Co-founder of City Repair Mark Lakeman talk about the work at his TED talk:
Badass democracy – reclaiming the public commons: Mark Lakeman at TEDxSantaCruz
Mark Lakeman is an unusual urban designer, social catalyst, and a place making pioneer. As founder of the design activist cultures of the City Repair Project, communitecture design collaborative, and Planet Repair Institute, Mark’s work challenges conventions of thought and action, and even dares to suggest that much of history, that seems long past, may not yet be settled. His work to transform the American colonial grid into a network of intersections of convergence and cultural expression has become a movement that spans the continent. With more than 350 projects in Portland, Oregon alone, the projects emerge from communities as outrageous fusions of unheard of functions and irrepressible forms, in which design is employed as a means to bring people together. As a son of Portland, Oregon’s visionary culture of design activism, Mark helps keep his city on the edge.