City Repair

Version 4, am 14.1.2007 07:30
web: all-volunteer grassroots organization helping people reclaim their urban spaces to create community-oriented places


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This is the third of three blog postings regarding the City Repair Project and it's community-level initiatives, which began in Portland, Oregon in 1996.

Over the last ten years our work has matured into a kind of multidimensional seed for change, building it's own social capacity as it has built over a hundred remarkably diverse ecological prototypes for community gathering and sustainable culture. City Repair is certainly as much about direct democracy as it is ecological placemaking.

In our first season of activity we knew that we had hit upon a catalytic approach to moving communities into action. As our core group, all located in one neighborhood in SE Portland, had been urged by our Native American advisor to "go beyond words" in our efforts to engender change, we decided to bring people together in spatial environments that physically demonstrated new ideas. Besides showing how a bioregional economy of sharing could work, or how to build ecologically, or how to make public art by the public, for the public, where the public lives, we decided that the best way to build a sustainable movement at the grassroots would be by making as many new friends as possible. This meant that we would have to have fun, in spite of ourselves, and fun is what we've been having.

I didn't really know how to have fun before I became involved in all of this. I was driven and deeply concerned about the state of the world, so much that I almost felt I could no longer afford the time to have fun. However, after working with literally thousands of people in the last decade, from homeless youth and adults to conservative business people and private school kindergardeners, I have become a much more social person, more confident and able to collaborate easily. As a result, I've learned a great deal on many levels, including a ton about human nature. Perhaps the biggest lesson that I've absorbed is that we each have many scales of self- as individuals, members of a family, of communities of many kinds, and at larger and larger cultural scales. From what I've seen, this means that we grow by engaging in all these contexts, and we only grow in limited ways if we don't. For Americans living in the acute context of isolation within neighborhoods lacking centers, especially in the suburbs, it means that we literally don't get to grow to be the kind of humans we would otherwise become.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, one of our first initiatives as a local, place-based culture was to subvert the grid directly, seize it and transform it into a community gathering place. Our strategy was inspired by the realization that human settlement patterns have historically located community gathering at intersections, or crossroads. In the grid of colonial expansion this is not able to happen, in fact the grid is designed to preclude it. So, we intended to set an example for everywhere else where people live in isolation within the grid, a precedent. The first project inspired a second, the next year seven more, the next year eight more, then twelve, then eighteen, then twenty six, and this year we'll see the development of more than fourty, and maybe even sixty more ecologically-oriented, democratically designed community gathering places. These are all in Portland, Oregon, and many more are happening in other cities from coast to coast. Incidentally, after some initial political challenges this process quickly became legal because of all of its direct, immediate benefits for local communities.

So, we bring people together to speak and listen. This can be kind of hard for some people who perhaps have never even learned the names of their neighbors. However, they inevitably decide to create a physical thing, a place to meet again, that reflects their local needs, ideas, history, visions, whatever they decide to care about and do. The projects can be small or large, and most if not all are entirely new to their contexts, yet provide an urgent, long neglected use. Some are as simple as solar-powered kiosks, where people have long needed a place to announce, promote, display, tell a story, or memorialize. Or, it might be a bench made out local, natural and recycled materials. Sometimes people build an entire building, affordable housing, community gardens, alternative transportation, or they reclaim a street and build all kinds of structures around a crossroads.

Each of these projects strategically addresses town, city, and regional goals concerning livability, community development, and sustainability. Compared to the way that western culture compartmentalizes individuals into specialized carreers, the integrative processes of "repairing cities and towns" through this work tends to expose participants to a more generalized set of processes that broadens horizons, builds visions, skills, and relationships.

Along the way we've been having incalcuable amounts of fun building and designing some of the most wonderful and outrageous prototypes for social change. One of my favorite has been to work with a group of homeless kids to create a gigantic mobile tea house shaped like a butterfly with a forty foot wingspan. Called the T-Pony, this astounding and wonderful idea has been traversing the gridscape for eight years, bringing people in the urban center together around tea, potluck desserts, and music. What it has inspired is beyond comprehension. What a story: "Homeless kids who have nothing and have been beaten down figure out a way to give to everyone"! From personal transformation to the inspiration of new ideas across the civic spectrum, such projects dare everyone to try out new, better, more worthy ideas.

Indeed, Portland has become the epicenter of green bulding in the USA, has the most bike lanes per capita hands down. Car travel per person is dropping fastest there and people are recycling more per capita than nearly every other big city. Are homeless kids and neighborhood residents able to do such outrageous projects because Portland is such a great place, or, just maybe, are they generating fabulous stories that travel across the social commons to inspire fresh new ideas and a greater spirit of openness? Our strategy for broad social transformation is designed to work through these kind of exhilarating grassroots initiatives.

As of 2007, the spectrum of City Repair's engagement is very broad. As a growing national network, we are at work in the streets in more than a dozen cities. The projects are happening at every scale. At the largest we have recently helped the Winter Olypmics of 2,010 design a fabulous, community-generated sustainable ice arena. Each of these works builds social networks and civic capacity before all else. What also results are new forms of community organizing and places for people to come together in an expanded awareness of what it can mean to be human in community.

For more information visit Our biggest-ever event will be held this coming May 18-27 in Portland, Oregon, and everyone is certainly invited to come see what on the earth is going on.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to be the guest blogger for December!

Mark Lakeman