FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Mark Lakeman

I just want to say a few things more about City Repair before I start telling you some stories, give you some context about how this very dynamic and creative, rather aggressive organization that never takes no for an answer, how we create and recreate the city that we live in.

It's very much a multi-disciplinary group of people. We're coming together with many different kinds of skills and talents, backgrounds and ages, diverse backgrounds and identities. But I think that one of the things that we share, besides the sense that we're alarmed by the state of our times, is that we have a great sense of opportunity about what we can do about it.

And we also share the awareness that cities, by their very nature, both have the benefit and virtue of urbanity, but they also carry with them the inherent structure of the city-state, which is very ancient. A very ancient design, geographically characterized by gridded layouts -- and I'll be saying a little bit more about grids and the fact that they're laid out in, sort of, very aggressive colonial processes. So we're aware that there's something about the city itself which is a problem.

And I know I stand in contrast to a lot of what you might have read. I certainly agree with the notion that it's in density, and it's in the concentration of urban settings, that we'll find the solution, by reducing our ecological footprint. And I mean, not only are there ecological solutions to be found in sharing land in a denser way, and containing our growth, and that sort of thing, but there's also the advantage and the opportunity of sharing our knowledge, meeting each other, falling in love, celebrating, doing all of the things that culture-building entails.

But at the same time, once again, there's something about the city which is rather different from the village, in terms of how it's organized, who calls the shots, who makes the decisions, who lays out the patterns that underlie, or that form the foundations of how we live.

So, in City Repair, we're saying that the city must be repaired, simply because it is the City. It comes from very ancient, aggressive cultures. There's something about the design of the city-state that marches across the planet, you sort of get swept up in it. You don't necessarily even understand how it works, its legal systems, its political systems. And most of us feel rather alienated from the experience of living in human community, because we don't seem to recognize what we see around us as ourselves, or as representing or expressing our nature.

So, City Repair is really about, kind of looking at the city and saying, Okay, so we're stratified, compartmentalized, isolated, and disempowered. Okay, and if that's true, and the result of that kind of relationship or set of disrelationships is resulting in an unsustainable, untenable condition that's highly frustrating, then the repair of the city *must* be about undividing and reconnecting and combining our vision and joining our forces together to really invert what turns out to be a great inversion itself.

Alright, so I'm showing you this image of a landscape in Portland, Oregon, in order to just remind you of the processes of Westward expansion. As people move across time and space, looking for a new beginning, as it happened on this continent, people were running perhaps from Western Europe, and crossing the ocean looking for a new beginning. Or people were coming from indentured slavery. Or maybe they were outright slaves, and they were freeing themselves, and they were moving Westward, looking for a chunk of the earth, a piece of the land, a place to stop and root and start again. And that's kind of the upside of the story.

And of course the down side, the dark side, is the by-and-large sustainable sovereign cultures that are being crushed in that mad land rush, seeking to start again. Sort of a crazy, mixed-up history, dark and hopeful at the same time. But it's a lot like the cyclical process of looking for the promised land, whether you're talking about the ancient Hebrews, or some of you in the audience that are looking to find a new apartment, or a place outside of town in an eco-village or what have you, you're wanting to find a place that's fit, where you can establish a better sense of habitat for yourself and for your kids.

So, looking at this, I mean, of course, looking for habitat is about looking for water, open space, material abundance, and even a transcendent quality of light, so that when you arrive, you feel like you belong there. But the way that places develop is very different, depending on whether or not people are in participation. So, I'm very strongly advocating the idea that we engage at a local level, and practice true grass-roots democracy, so I'll just weigh that now.

But for community, and whether or not our landscape works for us, the question, really, is to be or not to be: Will the community be engaged in a great, ongoing dialogue, or will they not? Even though as in this case, in this village here, in one of the hill towns of Tuscany, in Italy, even though there have been lords and kings walking this landscape for a long, long time, nonetheless, it is a place-based community. They have to each other's faces, they interact, they make choices, the buildings are embellished, they rise on the foundations of their ancestors, the pathways they tread go from one intersection to the next, and they wash like a great tide, these people, throughout the day and the night, building community simply by being outside in the Commons.

And of course, the intersections are widenings of the street, those are where the piazzas are found, just like in a Spanish village, those are where the plazas are found. And the idea, of course, by locating the great commons there, in the intersection, is just simply to recognize that where our pathways come together, so do our lives. This is the most profound principle of urban design, the intersection: the idea that you enable people to intersect, intersect however you can, to enable them to communicate and to meet each other, to facilitate events, things that happen.

Okay, so they come down at the beginning of the day, from the homes, the apartments that they live in, they live above the shops that they work in, that they tend to own, or somehow participate in. They themselves and their children are out running around in the commons throughout the day getting bread, or fruit, or clothes, or something, and just simply by being out there, they interact. They don't even have to talk about building community, the functions, the guts of community are somehow disposed, or integrated, so that it builds itself.

And on the right, it's an entirely different condition, something we're much more accustomed to on this land mass, on this continent. Where none of the people who have ever lived on this street or who will ever live on this street had a say in how the lines will be drawn that would underlie, or provide the foundations for, how their lives would be organized, or in this case, actually regimented.

None of them ever said, for instance, Hey, let's move the functions of living away from the functions of working, let's disintegrate those things. So when we come home at the end of the day, after working with people we don't tend to get to know, let's live among people that we don't tend to get to know. None of them ever held a vote on the right to say, Hey, what fun, let's give up the public square in the neighbourhoods where we lived. Hey, let's hold a vote, we never really needed it anyway, we just want to work the whole time. That vote was never taken.

You know, no one ever said, Hey, let's make everything bilaterally symmetrical as far as the eye can see, North, South, East, and West. And let's do it, in the case of the United States, to every city west of the Ohio River, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. No one even had a talk about it except for the Continental Congress in 1785 that blueprinted Roman colonial planning, and the Roman economic and political system, for that land mass.

And yet most Americans are never even helped to understand that this was done. And yet, this is why San Diego, Seattle, Portland, St. Louis, Chicago are all laid out according to the Roman colonial grid. But what effectively happened was the great commons of this land was converted into a commodity with one stroke of a pen. We should be told this, at least. Even though we might not be able to help it, in some sense, it's very important to know it, in order to act.

So, going back to just the basic principles of urban planning, it's about facilitating communication. Not just the movement of goods and services, it's about helping people to build relationship. Everything goes on in the piazza, and I suppose you could say conversely that if you don't have a piazza, if your neighbourhood doesn't feature even one public square, how much is going to be going on? That principle of Build it and they will come, or, Build it and something will happen, what if it's not there? What if you think you have freedom of assembly, and nowhere to assemble?

In fact, in the United States, we have fewer outdoor gathering places, and indoor gathering places -- and I'm talking about non-commercial, open space, specifically social -- than probably any other country in the history of the world. And also the most acute social isolation and its associated problems, of any first world country.

So what is an intersection? Why is it so important? Looking at this aerial view of an African watering hole out in the savannah, you can see the pathways of animals and people leading to water, of course. They have to go to the source. While they're there, they sort of stomp around, they don't tend to attack each other as much.

Well, along with the rise of the village, at some point, the villagers tend to notice that, Hey, we keep building these villages around water, or around wells. Let's consider these things sacred. Let's associate them with our other symbols. And they realize that their village itself is an intersection of trade routes, because everyone's going to water. So this is a really, really foundational aspect of settlement. Of course, with the rise of the city-state later on, this diagram here becomes the Egyptian hieroglyph for City, and they're just saying, The city itself is a great intersection, even if it is built on the ruins of villages.

So let's look for a second at human habitat, ask for a second, What is democracy? and think a little bit about colonialism. On the left here, you're looking at an aerial view of a Dogon village. You could just as easily be looking at a Celtic village, if any still existed, in the sense that, every habitat consists of pathways and intersections and blocks. But a Celtic village was laid out much the same as this, with clusters of houses.

Notice the way that the block tends to work, it tends to be circular, and in the middle of the block, there's an opening. They don't have to come outside and say, Hey, let's find some common ground around here. They literally walk on it every day. So there's scales of the expression of the commons that work on a practical and symbolic level every day. It doesn't just work to facilitate their getting together physically, it says that there's a place where they all belong. So it's a very powerful symbolic function, as well. And then at the intersection, that's sort of the village scale, where commercial and celebratory activities happen every day, cyclically, seasonally.

On the right, we're more familiar with this kind of design. You can notice that at the block level, the commons, or the central open space, has been designed out of the fabric. Whoops! And then, at the intersection level, it's really just a place where you might collide, rather than converge. So, even though the fabric has to consist of much of the same stuff, for some reason, on the right, it's been regimented and sort of turned into a cellular order of repetition.

And that's because people who live in the grid there don't design it for themselves, as opposed to the one on the left, the Dogon village. They're designing this carefully, slowly, over time, and of course, the highest priority is the building of the social ecology, the social capital, the social networks. They're designing it for themselves, so it's all about sustainability for them. And on the right, a very different set of priorities has laid this out. We need to think about this deeply, because we ourselves have been disinvolved in the process of laying out the grids that we inhabit, of course.

So, looking, again, more deeply into this condition, let's just compare a couple of intersections. I know this is kind of an unfair comparison here, but I just want to point out: Siena, on the left here, the Piazza del Campo, which is the great, sort of concave shell-shaped South-facing piazza there. It was the great intersection, it still is, of the trade routes between Pisa, Milan, and Rome. And people would converge there, they would interact, they would trade, and then they built the village up around the space, and to this day, it works for all kinds of great gatherings and incidental activities, things like that.

On the right, another intersection. But again, it's the difference between to be and not to be. On the right, there hasn't been a place-based culture making choices for itself. You have a few planners who you never even get to meet that have laid this out. Your relationship to it is kind of binary. You wait for the light to tell you to stop or to go. Apparently, you're going somewhere else, because this doesn't get to really be a place. The difference between space and place, in this case, is that place is something that is an intentional choice, a decision by the community, and space is kind of undifferentiated and maybe used for one specific purpose. I think it's kind of interesting that the dominant institutions here both have arches, but that's about where the similarity ends.

The fact that the structure on the left is called the Palace of the People of the Commune of Sienna has everything to do with this getting to be a place. And the fact that this is sort of the feeding trough of corporate culture, if you will, has everything to do historically with the fact that this intersection does not get to be a place. It's the history of the rise of corporate power. It doesn't just take our money, or relegate us to a workforce, or concentrate power in its own hands, or control the media. It's an ancient, ancient story.

And yet we're all villagers. I mean, it was within the village that we first learned how to speak. It was at an intersection together where we shared information, where we learned how to sing, where we shared how to count, where we shared our stories. In some way, in some important way, we never decided to stop being that, to stop having those values, to stop caring about each other. Whether you're talking about people that are rooted in a place, such as in southern Germany here, where they have about a third the size of a typical American neighbourhood, they have 12 outdoor gathering places, compared to the typical American neighbourhood, without one. And I'm not talking about parks, I'm talking about public squares, very different in their function.

On the right, even a nomadic culture, they'll circle their tipis, and in the centre is this great commons that works as the public living room that they use throughout the day. And again, it's not just about the function, it's the symbolic impact, it's the symbolic function that matters the most.

So where's the village? I mean, you drive through the landscape, maybe you've got this impulse, like a bird looking for a nest, you know, Where's my village? Where's my place? And you'll see a laundromat calling itself a public square, you'll see a dentist office calling itself a plaza, or in this case, a restaurant calling itself a village inn. But you pull in there, and you're not going to find your grandmother waiting for you, or something.

But the fragments of the village exist. I mean, whenever you see some kind of gesture, like this little bench here on the right, which enables an elderly person carrying their groceries home to just rest for a moment. You know, some outward expression, that's a fragment of the village that somehow has managed to persist or endure. Okay, so maybe you sit on that bench, and you look at the hedge, and you look at the parking lot, and then maybe you think about buying some luggage, and getting out of there, going to find a real village.

City Repair does workshops all over the country, and a lot of other people working on this cause, placemaking, addressing the aftermath of the ongoing consequences of colonialism, we end up talking about village-based culture a lot, because it was sort of where the social ecology with all of these other dynamics of human culture-building, such as economics and politics at a scale that was comprehensible and was accessible, and in many cases, worked very well.

So, What happened to the village? What happened to my village? is a question that a lot of people ask. Well, I was teaching a high school class a few years ago, and these kids that I was working with were asking that question, and I was kind of curious myself. So, the kids went out and did some research. And a young African-American man brought this image in, and he said, I think I figured out why you guys are so crazy, in the class of mostly European-descended kids. He said, this shows a Celtic meeting house foundation is circular, the meeting house has been destroyed -- this is an archaeological excavation -- and it's overlaid with the foundations of a Roman basilica.

And so, this is an image of your own village-based culture that was destroyed. And we sort of sat around looking at that. And what you're seeing is kind of like the idea of a square over the circle, in the Celtic meeting house, just like in the Native American tipi, in the Native American church to this day. People sit around the periphery, they can see each other's faces, they're in some amount of participation, sharing songs, sharing stories, that sort of thing. So along come the Romans, and they smash the meeting house, and the first day, they start to build the new meeting house over it.

But the problem isn't just the square, it's not just that the basilica was square. It was really an overturning of the paradigm all at once. And I'm not saying the Celts were perfect, but they did have a cosmology that was talking about themselves in connection with the cycles of time and space, in relation to nature and each other. But what we're seeing here is that the Celts were in some degree of participation emphasizing community, and in the Roman basilica, only one official voice would speak from the official manual of truth, with everyone else just sitting in rows, listening to what the new perspective on reality would be, with themselves sort of fitting into a hierarchy of power.

The excavation on the right showing men and boys who died defending their circles is kind of typical of these kinds of excavations. Usually the women and the girls are carried off to become breeders for the empire. And that's a harsh fact that should really piss us off.

But looking at this Monopoly game, I came back from some travels a few years ago, before the founding of City Repair, after having traveled quite broadly and sort of seeking answers among several indigenous cultures in Central America and North Africa, and in North America, as well. And at one point, I think it was a Mayan man, said to me, It's like you live on a game board, and if you don't know the rules, and you don't have resources, how can you play the game? You really can't play, just sort of serve the interests of those that do.

So I came back from that experience, and I had a lot of such immersions, trying to kind of unmake the things that I had learned, especially in architecture school. But at some point, I just kind of started to itch around the need to take another look at a Monopoly game. So I laid out this game, sort of arranged the money and laid out the cards, put the chance and community chest cards in their place, and kind of put the stuff around the edge. And I thought, Okay, I see how this game works.

It's really seductive, it's kind of fun. You look at the little game tokens, yeah, it's fun to be a schnauser for a little while, or a hat, or a little soldier, or a car, that looks fun. But then I looked deeper, and I realized, Wow! So, you're building houses in order to tear them down, to build a hotel, so building in order to tear down. And of course the objective is to get land from other people, until only one person's left, and everyone else apparently no longer exists.

But I kept looking at it, and I was like, Wow! There's no social capital building here at all! I mean, in fact, look at the commons. The only commons space is the jail and the parking lot! That was really interesting. So I mean, I started realizing, Oh, this game is played to end. This isn't about a game that goes on and on, this is a game that actually is designed to end.

And only later did I realize that the rules of monopoly are actually a condensed version of the National Land Ordinance of 1785. So when you play Monopoly, you're actually playing the geographic, political, and economic infrastructure of what? Of Roman colonialism. And you think it's a game that's actually fun. But notice, nobody's celebrating any birthdays, and you don't actually have interactions with other people.

So one of the native people that I managed to talk with one day, I actually was apologizing to him on behalf of my gender and my race, and I was crying, and he was holding my face in his hands, and he was like, No, no, no! You can't just take all of this upon yourselves, you've got to realize that it was done to you, as well! And not only that, it backfires upon you! Like, for one thing, you don't even know who you are! And he's like, at least we know who we are. He said, You don't even know what happened to your people. You don't know what brought you to this place. If you don't know what happened to you, how can you know what to do? How can you even know what to do when you don't even know who you are?

And looking at Los Angeles and the tracts of housing that people are living in, they're so repetitious. I mean, it was also pointed out to me that we work our whole lives just to pay for a place to live. And that's part of how colonialism backfires on people. I also learned since that time that the models for land development in our country are top-down. They come to us thanks to the banking industry and the federal government, and all kinds of other interests, including, you know, automobile manufacturers and stuff. And they're wanting to encourage consumption, grow the economy, but also, I'm sorry, according to Jonothan Rowe, my good friend and author, it's designing social isolation, as well, to make a more complicit political culture. So, I mean, no wonder we consume in the way that we do, especially Americans, because there's something that we need, desperately, that we won't find without finding each other, I'm quite sure of that now.

Okay, so I'm going to take you into Portland, Oregon now, to show you our great experiment with that city. But in order to do that, I'm going to use the metaphor of the revolt of the pawns. Just to remind you of the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and how that worked. I mean, people were marching in the streets, they were saying, you know, we want to be equal, we want to be more than equal, we want to be uniqual, we want to take care of the planet... There was this huge upwelling where people were testing What is democracy? What is like to have a voice? We don't know... And so people were standing up. It wasn't just about the images that are used to represent the 60s and 70s in the media, it was a very exciting time. And that change process is certainly accelerating and hasn't really slowed down since that time.

But what happened in Portland, Oregon is kind of like this: One morning, the players woke up on the chess board, and things had somehow changed. A darker one had come over to this side, and a lighter one had gone over to this side. And because they had met in the middle and traded stories. (This is actually how I play chess, try this sometime =). So they start to talk with the other pawns, saying things like, Okay, remember how it went yesterday? It doesn't have to be like that. And the other pawns were like, Yesterday? What's that? And they're like, No, no, no! Yesterday, we came at each other -- remember how this whole thing works? They divide us up according to superficial differences, got the light ones here, dark ones here. We're playing warfare on the grid! This is our lives, folks!

And so they were trying to persuade the other pawns to just think about the state of their existence, and the fact that the game was basically designed to end. You know how it works? At the end of the game, the only survivors are the patriarchs, and they broker a deal, you know, and they go on to the next game. The rest of us die! The pawns go first, and then the tall ones, the oppressive ones with funny hats, they come after us, and they attack each other. It's all unsustainable! Like, if we're going to save our society, we've got to stand up for everybody.

Okay, so we managed to get into small groups with facilitators, and they were sharing stories, and there was a lot of hugging, and like, you know, talking about abusive childhoods, but then they went back to confront their oppressors! And of course, the oppressors, there was a lot of defensiveness and denial on their part, and they were saying, Who, us? What? We never did, we didn't take more than our share. We worked a million and a half times harder than all of you guys, to deserve all this that we have.

Okay, so what happened was, fortunately, those pawns, they said, Don't hit! No hitting, no hitting, you know, it doesn't have to end. So somehow they managed to convince people to get out of their boxes, change some of their behaviours, and get into a different geometry, and kind of mix it up a little bit. And somebody said, Hey, I've got a lot of time on my hands, somebody else said, Hey, I've got some ideas. Somebody else said, I've got way more than my share. And they started to try out some new ideas.

And of course, if they hadn't fundamentally made a shift, then they would have just overthrown their oppressors, reinhabited the oligarchy or the plutocracy or whatever you want to call it, and started the game in the same, old way. So, of course, hopefully this revolution, this creative revolution is about inclusivity, celebration of diversity, hopefully a lot of forgiveness, and new ideas.

Okay, so Portland, Oregon. We have the Interstate Highway Act in the United States, where the Federal Government and Detroit colluded to force an infrastructure on us that would encourage consumption and the rise of the automobile culture. I'm sure there was a parallel in Canada. The destruction of our mass transit system: General Motors bought up all of the mass transit in order to encourage us or force us into automobiles. The National Land Ordinance, of course, and the grid.

So I'm showing you this panorama just to emphasize in this view of Portland, Oregon, that the same stuff landed on Portland, Oregon, just as happened elsewhere. And this is an important point to emphasize, because what we've undertaken in City Repair is a series of solutions that are prototypical, that apply wherever these same infrastructures have been laid out, that disinvolve people.

We were very intentional in having that notion, and part of it was, we had become aware of how empire structures work. They homogenize in order to control. There has to be a certain kind of consistency in order to maintain control over a whole society. So, knowing that, you also know the great vulnerability of empire, which is that any local solution within that context can serve to inspire all the other localities, because they're facing the same essential challenges.

So, here we go.

Back in the 1970s, there was something that happened. It was kind of like a "100th Monkey" event. Not that you would have heard about it. But that Greenway there, on this side of the river, there was a great partnership, kind of an upwelling, a will to take the Westside Freeway off of the riverbank, and install a mile-long People's Park in defiance of the State Department of Transportation.

This is a very powerful thing. It just somehow made sense to enough people everywhere in the social culture, including the political leadership, to do this. And then we went downtown. And this somehow made us famous across the planet. Like, What? Standing up to the power of the State to make this happen? And even getting funding for it?

We went downtown next and we seized the rooftop of this 2-storey parking garage on a weekend, against the will of the Mayor and the City Council. We took it, and we painted the rooftop with this great, beautiful graphic. And of course the news media was up there, with their cameras broadcasting on the TV, you know, Look, a bunch of radicals have seized the rooftop.

But what we were doing was calling attention to the fact that we didn't have even one public square in the entire city, not one public living room, and things like that. But they were erased, because we were using them. But, we built one, in Portland. And it had this incredible catalytic effect. It was so inspirational to a city that had never even known what this could be like. It was a restorative effect, in fact. But it wasn't just that you could use it every day, or that all of these big events happen there. It was its symbolic impact. It said that there is a place where we all belong, where time and space is not for sale.

It inspired an incredible spectrum of things that were broad and deep across the social culture: the rise of community cooperatives, farmers' markets, community radio stations, television access stations, all sorts of innovations in terms of transportation. We actually stopped freeways from cleaving the southeast quadrant of the city into thirds, saved all those neighbourhoods, took all the billions of dollars, built a regional transportation infrastructure, mass transit, and took the remaining money and built 96 neighbourhood associations to further engage the civic, or engage the population in civic actions.

So we accelerated what was already kind of underway. There's so much to say about what's been going on in Portland, Oregon, and it's going on faster and faster, and deeper and deeper, and more incredible all the time. But this image on the right of the region is just looking at the urban growth boundary designed to contain growth, concentrate it along logical transit corridors, and think about the region as a whole system. And of course, this is a good idea. Many places in Canada are probably undertaking this already. But this kind of looks at the big picture in Portland, it's affecting other cities.

And that's kind of the principle of City Repair. We've learned through the tradition already going on in Portland that if you do something in one city within the overall system that's economically and politically interconnected, you stand to affect the entire system. So we're just kind of working on an old idea that was taught to us literally by our parents.

Okay, so at the start of City Repair, we had a bunch of children of those activists of the 60s and 70s, myself included. And there were several of us sitting around, and we had about $15 in our pocket, and we thought, you know, there's just got to be a way for $15 to change the world. You just know that there'd be a way right under your nose. Where's that domino that you can push that would knock down the next, and the next, and the next, and the next? Where's that pressure point in the body of the culture that you could push?

So we thought, Okay, let's just take another look at this. Is there a way, we asked ourselves, to clean up the river in this generation? To make it so that people aren't living on the streets, destitute, in this generation? To overcome the incredible economic injustices indemic in the culture of the United States in this generation? Is there a way to stop having the news media dominated by interests external to the city, in this generation? How could we do it? What could we do with fifteen bucks?

And so we just said, Okay, let's look at how one person lives. Because we know this about the revolution that we're seeking: it's got to be something that everyone can do, where they are, with what they have. So we thought, Okay, let's look at how a typical mother lives. She starts the day in that black square there, she goes north, she's part of a roofing team, she fixes rooves. She drives north in her car, she gets in a truck. She goes way over to northwest Portland to fix a roof. At the end of the day, she comes back, she goes to pick up her child at school, then she goes to the doctor, comes back, picks up some food, has to run downtown, too, and that's only part of her day, and everyone else in the grid is sort of flying all over the place, with this massive impact and heavy cost to the environment, and building almost no social connections, no social relationships at the same time, in most cases.

So we stopped and we said, Okay. So, somehow, everyone has to be able to participate in this revolution where they are, with what they have. Okay, then that must be what they do in order to revolt, because they're not able to do that now, to participate with people where they are, with what they have. So we just thought again about that principle of democracy, the idea that the Greek city-state, if you want to use that model, was broken down into subsets, or village scales, in which Greek men, anyway, had some sort of right of participation.

Okay, well, there have been better cultures, certainly, in world history, through which we can talk about participatory involvement in our society. But just looking at the Greek city-state, we said, Okay, well, using that model, you know, she probably could just fix the roof right next door, or her own is probably leaking. And what about all the doctors, what about all of the people that are teachers and those that know how to plant and how to cook and how to dance and how to take care of children. What about all of the connection that could be happening that isn't? So we thought, Hmmm... You know, How could we start that process?

We looked at the city as a whole, we compared it to village-based cultures that have many more gathering places and ways to connect, much stronger local expressions of culture, and times fewer indicators of strife, you know, crime, across the board. And we thought, alright. Well, we noticed by these comparisons that Portland alone was missing between 1500 and 5000 outdoor public gathering places, alone. So we thought, Okay, let's put one of them back, and just see what would happen. Just like with the public square downtown, but let's apply this now to the neighbourhoods. I mean, you know, the idea of public art where the public lives -- why not?

So the first thing that we built was this modest little gathering space here on the right. It doesn't look too impressive, it was built for about $65 just using some yard debris, some old windows. There's about 1000 square feet. It worked every Monday night, it was like a potluck, people brought desserts and tea to share, some chai. But the thing was that nothing was for sale, and it was just a place for neighbours to sit down and say hello and interact.

And for a neighbourhood that had never had anything like this, it had a phenomenal impact. 25 people the 1st week, 35 the next, 50 the next, 75, 150, 500, and then we couldn't even count anymore, people couldn't even get into the teahouse! They're flooding out onto the adjacent yard, all around the adjacent intersection on all the other yards, with these silly Americans all just having dessert and tea. Well, I guess the American revolution was about tea, but not just about dumping tea in the Boston Harbour, it was about gathering in secret around tea, to organize against the British. So, I don't know, there's something about tea.

Anyway, so that worked. We actually managed to attract the city government, to tell us that we couldn't have it. And this was rather intentional on our part. We knew that if the neighbourhood embraced it, in time, when the city government found out about it, and told them they couldn't have it, then the neighbourhood would have a cause together, no matter what their political orientation might be, they'd actually have something in common to fight for: literally, the commons.

I should say, we were inspired by a Native American man named Elk River, who kept wandering through our neighbourhood. A very short man, kind of looked like that character from Star Wars, Yoda. He'd sort of hobble through the neighbourhood and every now and then, he'd stop. One time, I remember he saw some kids drawing chalk circles on the sidewalk, and he just stood there, and he said, Wow! Circles! What a great idea, circles! And he's looking around, and he's like, Why is everything so straight around here? All the lines are straight. See all these lines?

And we were standing around, going, You know, he's definitely trying to tell us something. And then he left. And he would come back every now and then, and say things like, You know, only you have the right to decide whether or not you'll have a gathering place. If you have to ask permission, something's wrong. And then, later on, he would say, in another visit to the neighbourhood, You know, someday you're going to see a line, and you're going to decide to walk across it together. And if you're doing it on behalf of even people that think that they are your enemy, you'll carry the day, and everyone will understand that you're doing it on behalf of everyone.

Okay, so, farther down the story, the neighbourhood has gotten together, 500 houses are now in some kind of connection with each other, landlocked houses, defined by busy streets, no parks or public squares there, except for that little tea house. Here's the neighbourhood historian Eileen, she's talking about Westward expansion, colonialism, the grid. These neighbours are upset because kids have just been hit trying to cross the street to get to a park, and she's explaining why there's no gathering places, why there are no parks, the idea that the land was just a commodity from the beginning, and we'd never been involved from the start.

People are kind of upset about it. But you can see in the model on the right, of this little cardboard model of an intersection, they've drawn a little circle around it, because Eileen has just told them, that in the villages of their ancestors, the intersection was a place where their lives came together. And Eileen also brought these along to that meeting: these standing goals and objectives of probably every North American neighbourhood, that somehow mostly never get accomplished:

  • Building community by fostering communication, sharing, and collaboration
  • Providing a gathering place and a neighbourhood forum
  • Enhancing safety and liveability, calming, beautifying
  • Providing adoptable models

The people in this meeting asked themselves, why wasn't this done over 100 years ago? Why wasn't this square one in the grid, and then we build upon it afterwards. Why does this remain an aspiration?

And so they looked at the fabric of the grid, and probably because of Elk River, who was talking about circles, at some point somebody said, You know, if somebody put the grid, or the squares, over the circles of our ancestors, by God, maybe it is time to put the circle back.

So that's what they did.

Now they called the Department of Transportation, and they said, Hey! We've got this great idea, we'd like to present it to the City Council. We think it could have a really restorative effect on the neighbourhood. We know that it will slow traffic, we know it'll raise livability standards, and it won't cost you a dime. We just need to present the idea.

The Department of Transportation said, Absolutely not, that's never been done before. You know, we can't have that happening. If we even let you present that idea, then the City Council will get mad at us. And we said, Oh! Well, we're already mad at you! And then we said to ourselves, Oh, yeah, right... but we don't have power. It doesn't matter whether or not we're upset.

And then they said this one thing that was just over the top, and that was: And besides, it's public space, so no one can use it. (Laughter). I mean, at that point, we were like, Wait a second! Did you hear what you just said? How about if we just say that completely differently, and say that that's public space, so the public can use it? And they were like, Oh! You're going to get us in trouble!

So we decided to go home and get ourselves in trouble. We didn't really want to get them in trouble, we wanted to work with them, and in fact, this was part of our strategy. This has been a City Repair strategy from the beginning: Treat people with respect -- even if they're profoundly confused. I mean, especially...

So, in advance of this day, when we came out to paint the street without permission, we were building these little structures in an adjacent yard about a block away: a place for neighbourhood news, a 24-hour tea station, a family-sized bench, a kid's clubhouse, a place for art and poetry, all these trading installations, a stage, and a little library. And of course, what we were doing was we were seeding a garden of the village, we were regrowing the village heart, with all of the functions and amenities that you'll find. You'll save your money, go to Europe, go to Africa, you'll find all this vitality at the village heart. So we were saying, we can have that, too, we ought to have it.

Alright, so, we're out there painting, little kids and grandmothers, and along comes Ed, the simply gigantic policeman, drives up to the square, or rather the circle, and sees us painting out there. And nobody's running away, we're just standing there with rollers, smiling at Ed. He gets out of his car, he looks around, and he just says: I ain't touching this. He backs away, drives away, and never even reports us.

Now, we learned something that day. Probably Elk River had helped us with this, but... there's this old saying, It's who you know -- that has something to do with social networking. But that's not the actual saying. It's that you know, it's that you have relation to or with other people, that opens doors and windows of possibility for all things to happen. We'd been bringing Ed, we'd been inviting Ed to the teahouse the whole time, so he'd become our friend. Of course your friend isn't going to crack your skull for painting circles on the street.

So, we're out there dancing these old circle dances, and of course, this is why it was so successful in building community, it's just the barn-raising, it's not even a new idea. It's an old, old idea that is our absolute birthright. Get together, do something that uplifts the common life. Build relationships that way, dance, eat together, wake up the next day with new ideas, not so afraid of each other, or the world. And of course, you know, in City Repair, we do a lot of installations: living rooves, straw bale walls, bioswales, but those are not the foundation of sustainability. It's this. It's this: the idea that we even care, that we identify with each other, and that we feel joy out in the commons, that gives us the will to do, not even something, but more.

Okay, so they rebuilt the 24-hour tea station, into the world's first solar-powered 24-hour tea station. A few different families got together, one father could weld, one of the mothers could do mosaic inlay for the counter there, a carpenter built the roof, but involving all the kids, you know, teaching the kids how to use tools. And so the neighbours maintain the hot water in the thermos there, and then keep the cups clean, and make sure there's teabags and honey.

Here on the right, this is a really great one. People are always asking us, what about all of the vandalism? They're like, Well, how do you deal with it? It must be terrible. Everything looks so delicate there. It must be attacked constantly. And our answer is really simple. Okay, so what we did was, we went out and rounded up the most likely looking suspects to begin with. You know, just those kids that have that certain look in their eye.

So we rounded them up and got them involved in the process to begin with, before they could do anything wrong. And what you're seeing here are 4 American boys, 4 different families, you know, there destiny is to have a separate bank account, a separate social security number, and they're told they're going to be judges separately by Jesus and go to a separate place without their family, and all that stuff. And here you have 4 American boys.

What we did was we said, Okay, kids. We don't have a budget, we have nothing. How are we going to build the kids' clubhouse that's wrapped around a tree? How are we going to build these tables and chairs you want to make? And they just said -- kids just know instantly what the answer is. They're like, let's go to the beach, all our families! So, we went to the beach for an afternoon, collected all this driftwood, brought it back, built most everything around the square, and just used the paint that was in our garages, and the old pieces of plywood.

So you see these 4 boys that are standing on something that they helped to create. They're holding tables and chairs that they all own together. And the answer to the question is: It doesn't get vandalized. They don't attack it, of course, and then their friends don't attack it, and the other kids, they're too busy now making their own places, don't attack it either. But what this suggests about the nature of the urban condition within the city is very powerful. If our kids are lashing out, it's probably because they don't see the world around them reflecting themselves, or even their families.

And what is so-called crime coming from, if not economic injustice and social isolation, and a few other factors?

I should say, before I forget, the City Council legalized this whole process in a couple of months, not only for this neighbourhood, but for all 96 neighbourhoods of the City of Portland, to an unlimited number of street intersections. Now, this is kind of cool, because if you're used to having to buy land to do something for your community, it's great to just be able to take it, you know, and not have to pay one iota of tax money. Not to have to do any fundraisers to support its existence. So that every nail that you pound, every minute that you spend can be a step forward.

And that's what's happened with the Intersection Repair Ordinance. The City Council of Portland called this the Intersection Repair Ordinance because they recognized that the imposition of the grid, and its concurrent tendency to disinvolve people from their own world at a local level was effectively breaking the community. So by allowing the community to reengage at this level, we repair the community by repairing the intersection, and vice versa. So, it's the smallest and only place-based subset of government in the United States that's established through this ordinance.

So here's their vision of world peace. And of course, very naturally, they're saying, Well, people will be out biking, they'll be walking, they won't really need to drive anymore. They'll have localized their economy. They won't need to pay for politicians, because they'll be working for themselves. And there won't be really as many fires or crimes, so they won't really need those infrastructures. Maybe they won't have to work quite so hard, and need to consume so much, because they'll be so busy nurturing their social relationships. So there was this notion that world peace looks like a profound transformation where we live, and it probably needs to be in right where we live.

We're driving the architects of the city crazy, because they're not used to the notion that you can be metaphorical and whimsical, or even humourous with your work. But that's what happens when you're involving the community. People that aren't so terribly trained, even traumatized in their training to think that everything has to be rectilinear and time and space has to be for sale. You know, the rest of the community is still able to use a metaphor, and is still able to access naturalistic imagery that's powerfully symbolic and has ancestral associations.

So very logically, here in the Sunnyside neighbourhood, you see the neighbourhood taking the emblem, their emblem, the sunflower, their logo, and laying it down on the street. They're applying the Intersection Repair Ordinance, of course...

At first they did this installation, and they were just certain that they wouldn't put in any benches in their future master plan, because they didn't want to accommodate homeless people. But then they noticed that homeless people were helping them paint. And they said, Still, no, no benches. The next year they built a solar-powered recirculating fountain that cleaned all of this runoff, and the homeless people were helping with that. And then they faced a retaining wall with this mosaic glass, and then they built a solar-powered kiosk and installed bio-swales, and next year, these beautiful trellaces on the corners, homeless people still helping. And then finally, the next year, they built benches! Which says a lot about overcoming our fears. Just by knowing people that before we were afraid of...

We'd pretty much figured that it was an absence of democracy that led to the homelessness to begin with. Besides everyone's personal problems, and each individual case. So what happened here is the anti-camping ordinance of the City of Portland was overturned in the year 2000. It was found that people were being criminalized just for being impoverished. So it was overturned, and a group of homeless people began to camp, even though the police continued to enforce the ordinance.

So, you can see though, that from the beginning, they were clustering their tents in affinity groups, represented here by circles, and then there was a representative fro each of the tents to an overall council body, and they were trying to practice some sort of representative democracy.system. They ended up overcoming their opposition by the police, partly through the emergence of this very carefully crafted vision, which was saying, Look, if we could just have a piece of all this residual land to stabilize for a little while, we'll show you a village.

We'll create a place where we'll capture the sun, we'll capture the rain, we'll become self-sufficient. We'll work as a mechanism, because we know what to do, to transition people off the street, in where they can learn how to participate, where they can become stable and healthy. And then they'll transition back into the society. And in the meantime, you'll get your walkable neighbourhood, you'll get your prototype for sustainability. The City Council was saying, Please! Some neighbourhood come forward and work with us on voluntary simplicity. We've got to come up with a global warming plan. So here these homeless people stood up and they said, Us? How about us? And the City Council was like, No, no, no, not you, not you. You couldn't do it.

So anyway, they got their land, and one of the first things they did was, they transitioned as fast as they could, out of their tents, into whatever housing they could create. And this, by the way, I consider it one of the most interesting and creative passive solar buildings that I've ever seen, built for nothing, and certainly far more interesting than most of the architecture we see being built around us these days. But, you know, invention in adversity, creativity in adversity.

And then another, one of the first things that they did was to create a commons for themselves. They said, you know that dome in Olympia, Washington, or in Washington, D.C. Well, those domes were taken from indigenous people, anyway, they were the great council gathering places of those cultures. Let's take 'em back. So they call this the Dome of Democracy, and actually, it has a round table with 12 chairs, because they fancy themselves to be the Knights of the Round Table, kind of returning to help remind us of something profoundly important.

But then they also built this other part of the commons, here, which they call the Witches' Hat, but it's kind of a fusion between Italian piazzas and kivas and other kind of forms. It's a very diverse community, but it's made entirely out of trash, and it's incredibly inventive, and more beautiful -- passive solar, naturally lit -- more beautiful than any other community meeting house in the city.

This is the village store on the left, the first strawbale passive solar strawbale house in the city built for less than $500. The wind turbine on the tower there powers the lighting system of both the store, the Dome of Democracy, and the Witches' Hat. And they kept getting more and more creative, more and more skilled. This little prototype here, it's a straw-clay building, it's actually straw saturated in a viscous solution of clay, and then packed into a stud-frame wall, and then it dries. It provides the insulation, and then it's plastered with earthen plaster. It's a very ecological prototype built for $187.

So the premise of this is, people doing for themselves, being resourceful, finding what they can, and receiving contributions, definitely, but working together is a solution. Not just to low income housing, low cost housing, but also to skill-building, to pride-building, to identity-building, culture-building, community-building. And a lot of these people are veterans who've lost part of their bodies, or even parts of their mind, but they got this incredible common vision of service, that somehow they dare to think that they can inspire the rest of us to stand up for ourselves, as well.

It's the notion that you focus on building human relationships, that must be your first goal, in developing a sustainable society. That causes us to share. And then, you know, the economic capital that we need. Capital is really only needed minimally. And then this great wheel begins to turn, of sharing, basically. So this is the economic model by which we do the village building in Portland.

The first year we did this, in the year 2001, there was one project. The next year, there were 7, then there were 12, then there were 18, and then there's about to be 30. But, what we do is we build in clusters, as you see here, so that these things don't stand in isolation, and people don't just see them as a one-off.

In fact, if you listen to a conversaion in a local cafˇ, you'll hear somebody saying, Did you see what they did at 35th & Main? And someone will say, No, no, it's at 33rd & Yamhill. And someone will say, No, it's at 37th & Taylor. And then they'll keep talking, and then they'll realize it's actually also happening in another neighbourhood not far away. And these days, it's happening in all quadrants of the city. This is something that happens simultaneously.

Thirty communities this year will be working together for 10 days, out in public space. They'll have dialogued together to decide what they want to do, the first catalytic thing that will help change the whole neighbourhood. They'll have designed that project together, they'll fundraise, and then they'll do all of the political preparations, then they'll build it. And then at the end of May, it will be done. So now I'm going to show you some of the things that have been going on.

In this case, this is another earthen structure, a cob bench that's all weather. It resists rain, snow, ice, because it's treated with linseed oil at the completion. But it commemorates a Native American woman that used to live in this area. And that's Lynn that organized her neighbourhood to work on this. And then on the right, pre-schoolers that wanted to commemorate the dragon from the Neverending Story, one of their favourite characters. And again, it's an all-weather cob bench.

So these things are basically made out of earth, and they don't melt in the rain, because of how they're design, how they're created. In this case, on the left, this elderly couple that lives in the yellow house behind has given up their front yeard, because they're identifying so strongly with their neighbours. And they've given up their yard as a location, for the neighbours to then build another one of these all-weather cob benches. They just asked that the theme of roses and tobacco leaves be integrated into the design.

Here again, another household, giving up part of their front yard to create a little gathering place for the community. So people actually perceiving that they can go over the lines and invite other people, even strangers -- Gosh, what a notion! -- to come onto their space, to just linger for a while, overcoming their fears.

On the right is certainly one of the most popular and special desitnations in Portland. This is called the Memorial Lifehouse, where a young man named Mat Sheckel was crushed by a large truck that went through the stop sign, a few years back. His bike was locked to the base of the stop sign, people kept bringing flowers and momentos. He was a very popular friend in the alternative transportation culture. His mother would come and sit on the corner and cry.

And finally one of the neighbours, the woman who lives on this corner, who had held Matt when he was dying, in his last few moments. She came out and just invited people to just take a piece of her property to make a memorial to Matt's life. So when I saw this thing rising, I thought, Well, that's great -- you know, glass mosaic, a love seat, a story of the wheel of Matt's life, by his mother; that bicycle wheel with the photovoltaic panel that swivels, that the neighbours turn in the morning toward the rising sun, and turn again at the end of the day toward the setting sun. That's great. The pillar of cob that glows at night with the sun that the solar power that's stored inside of the pillar, that's great, it's all great.

But then I thought, How many other lives have passed, unmarked? I mean, the only monuments I can think of around my city are ones to dead presidents that I've never met. You know, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln. You know, how many lives? How many births? How many events pass? So, we looked at this, and we started to look again at planning and architecture school, and we looked again at the 5 essential pieces of the formula for placemaking that you're supposed to find wherever you live. From The Image of the City, by Kevin Lynch.

We asked ourselves, How do we know the boundaries of the places where we live? How are they marked? How do we know that we're passing in and out? And, in fact, where are the gateways -- that's the second thing -- that tell us when we're moving in and out of a place? Where's the center, the cultural heart, where people come together, and they know they can find other people, and they can go to participate, and be part of a rich culture? Where are the monuments that tell us the things that are happening? Where are the supportive nodes, the subcentres that support the centre? We realized that it almost didn't exist in any of the communities of Portland. And that was motivational, to realize so much was missing.

Here's another example: Same principle. Day labourers from Guatemala and Mexico, working with 25 local businesses that have invited them to come out and create places to sit. And the businesses were basically saying, You know, you guys are always standing around, looking for a job, at least you could create a place for yourselves to rest. The man on the left is leaning against one of the solar-powered shrines to the Virgin of Guatalupe they created as part of this project, also there on the right. So a great kind of fusion that's started to happen between people at that location.

On the left, the Poetry Plaza. A place where this woman in the green dress gives up her front yard for local students to come and write poems on rocks and tiles, and for people to leave original poems in that little mailbox there, for people to just come and take and to leave. So this is what people are saying: I can give up this space that I have, and enable other people to access it.

So, again, we're just supporting people to help them to do things that they want to do for themselves. Placemaking is that isn't bred in the bone, as Jim Kunstler has said. If we don't continue to practice it, we could lose it in a generation. So those of us that understand how to do this really need to help the others that might have forgotten, or don't know quite how anymore.

So, it's a very exciting thing! You just build an example, people experience it spatially, and then they can start to talk about it, and then other people will want to do it. So for the natural builders, or ecological builders that wanted to do this for a living, they created it, and now they're doing it for a living, and other people, more and more people are getting to do it. So, sometimes you have to take a stand, forget about getting a reward, do what you believe in, and then returns will come.

This is another earthen building that was built at a pre-school as a little gathering place and sanctuary. But of course, we're not just doing this for fun. It's not just that it's inherently sculptural to work with this material. It's also very structural. You can build up to 13 storeys with this stuff. The thing is, we're offering an alternative. We're saying, you can actually build habitat, without destroying the forest. We can still breathe, and have houses.

On the left here, this always reminds me of a comment that a transportation official made one time. Now there's a lot of different kinds of people that are invovled in these projects. These folks on the left appear to be fairly normal. Who knows for sure, but... The transportation official said, What do I do when people say to me, It looks like a bunch of hippies have been doing this work?

And fortunately, one of the women on the Board of Directors of City Repair said, You know what? You don't even dignify somehting like that. What if somebody said to you it looked like a bunch of women did it? Or it looked like a bunch of people of colour did it? You don't dignify that. Just tell them this: Children were involved. At last! All the things you see around you, children haven't been involved, so no wonder there's no sense of humour. You know, people who still have a sense of a whole emotional spectrum, who can employ metaphor, were involved in this work.

So, in this case, you had the community getting together at a pot luck, and they wanted to decide what they were going to do together in the coming spring. So, they asked the kids, Well, what would you like to do this year? And the kids said, Well, let's do a newspaper dispenser for our local newspaper, the Sellwood Bee. and the adults said, Wow! That sounds cool. What would it look like? And the kids said, Well, a beehive... duh! So this is probably the world's first beehive-shaped cob newspaper dispenser. But it's very popular, you can barely keep it stocked. People just love to go there. And it's a wonderful way to attract people.

And this is one of our central strategies, beauty. Beauty, humour, helping people to feel good about the world that they live in. I think it was Bill McKibben that said that if you really want to subvert people, then just have more fun than them. So that's definitely what we're up to.

Here you've got some people having fun. These two doctors for some reason decided that building a frog-shaped cob pizza oven in their front yard would help make the world a better place. And they're laughing about it, too. But what they do is they close down the street. They have a block party in front of their house, put these huge tables out, and they roll dough. They fire up the frog, all these condiments, there's kids running around, families are out there making pizza together.

You know, at the WTO [Protests] in Seattle, people were saying, Who's Streets? Our Streets! And this is just saying, Our Streets! Right where we live, our streets. We're not going to go to Seattle to fight about it, we're just going to take them back, right where we live.

This is one of the biggest things that we've ever done. This is a building that's entirely made out of all-recycled and natural materials, even the steel is recycled. It's a facility that takes stuff that's going to the dump, filters it, and sells it back to the public, old 2 x 4's, toilets, stuff like that. Tons and tons of stuff goes out of the waystream, including what the building itself is made out of. On the right here behind that cyclone fence is the location of this fabulous gathering place. It's the seccond permitted cob structure in the city of Portland, after our glorious food coop.

But this is what it looks like on the backside. It's kind of a conical half-cylinder. These lovely details, the texture on these tree-like columns was made out of spoons, thousands, millions of little spoon-marks. And that's what it looks like in its finished form, but it's made out of earthen masonry. It's just absolutely fabulous. But we keep oing this to demonstrate to the building industry. This stuff is being publicized all over the place, it's so popular. The urban culture of Portland is now natural building-literate, because of how strategic we've been in locating these things in public spaces.

This isn't such a spectacular thing, but what I am saying by showing you this ... is that it's just profoundly important to embed our new understandings and visions and awarenesses as a society in the physical landscape around us, so that we can see that our understandings are shared, and that the world is changing. So we can't just have everything be budget-driven, we can't wait for the Prime Minister or the President to make the changes for us. We have to be doing it directly. That's what democracy's about.

So, this is really the point, to be or not to be. Are we going to continue to walk around in a Roman formulation for our landscape, that is really designed to regiment us and divide us and isolate us socially? I mean, this was the gig. And it's not even the Romans, it goes back to the Assyrians, if you really want to know, it's about 5000 years old. We're told in the United States all the way through, even college, even architecture school, that it's the Jeffersonian grid. But it's much older, and it began as a way to isolate people.

Now maybe our planners aren't aware of this anymore, and maybe it's just become utterly normative. But we've got to understand that this was supposed to be a place where our lives came together in some fashion, and then all of these possibilities emerged from the interactions that we would organically have there.

So what's at stake? It's not just that we don't know the people around us. I mean, this just reminds me: The Romans instituted a state religion that said something about loving your neighbours, but then they laid 11,000 grid castrums, they were called, down upon people they were conquering all over the place, to divide and isolate them, so that they could subjugate them and exploit them.

So it was a great paradox. Love your neighbour, as something to aspire to, when all indigenous cultures, you know, for them it's not just about loving, it's about enjoying localization, enjoying local culture, having enduring families and participating, not just living in a hierarchy. So there's so much here at stake. I'm not saying that we can fix history. But we can certainly redirect the flow of our lives.

Okay, my sweetheart Lydia often shows this slide here on the right, a butterfly, just to remind us of the theory of the butterfly effect, the notion that even the fluttering of a butterfly's wings can effect even massive climatological patterns. And so, that's just to say that anything we do can have a profound effect, and that we really just need to undertake it. So, on behalf of City Repair in Portland, and all the other places in the country and on this continent that are doing it, thanks very much for having me here.