City Repair: (re)Building the Cities We Want

[This piece is also running over at worldchanging.]

This month's edition of YES! Magazine has an inspiring short interview with City Repair co-founder Mark Lakeman. 

City Repair, for those who don't know it, is a Portland based volunteer run non-profit.  They earned their stripes by helping communities take intersections, parking lots and other unpromising pieces of pavement, and transform them into meaningful social places.  Their Projects page has more details on “placemaking”, their excellent Depave spin-off, and other creations.

In the interview, Lakeman emphasizes the way that spaces affect how we relate to each other.  Reclaiming an intersection may at first seem to be about beautifying the neighbourhood.  But really, it is about building community:

"The power of what we do is we start with the idea and the belief that we can make it happen. If it has a social basis, if your primary goal is to build networks and relationships, then you attract all the other forms of capital that begin with the social. That's the magic. That's the key."

It's an elegant and empowering way of looking at the relationship between community and the urban landscape.

"Public participation” can often seem like a market survey.  It's done as a way to harvest preferences and opinions from the public.  But – whether it is projects like City Repair in Portland, Santropol Roulant and Rooftop Gardens in Montreal,  or Green Change in Toronto – every city has examples that show how much more communities have to contribute.  As always, the trick is knowing how to link and build up from individual projects to create larger shifts in how our cities are built and lived.

Below are a few excerpts from the interview:

"For most of the history of humanity, we lived and worked in the same places, integrated, and everything we did would deepen our relationships to each other. The greatest product of that way of life was our cultural cohesion and our stories – we weren’t isolated the way that we are now.

But 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."

"There’s so much we need to change, but I really don’t think it's going to be all that hard. We just need to say, "There's nowhere to sit around here? Well, we need to create some places to sit. People aren't talking? Then we need gathering places." You look at the problem of a particular place and you address it. People start to get excited; the void starts to get filled. The projects are small, but they keep coming as revelations."

"When did we stop believing we had a say in our own reality? ...

The beautiful thing happening now is that dozens and dozens and dozens of people saying, "Yes, I have my power," and then creating these physical expressions of what it actually looks like."

Games Over: Vancouver After the Olympics

[The May edition of ReNew Canada is out and running an expanded version of a worldchanging post that I did on the green legacy of Vancouver's Olympics.  I had a chance to do interviews for the piece with Brent Toderian - Vancouver's Planning Director -- and Rob Bennett, the head of the Portland Sustainability Institute. The opener is below and you can download the PDF here.]

Vancouver’s Olympic Village and Convention Centre were the media-pleasing centrepieces for what was touted as the most sustainable Olympic Games ever.

But headline projects can be a double-edged sword. While they embody admirable principles, they risk absorbing enormous amounts of a city’s energy and distracting people from the fact that the city itself has changed very little.

For Vancouver, these two ultra-green developments are icons of a larger shift. Rather than being exceptions that prove the rules of unsustainable urbanization, they have helped change the rules. The city has used these two developments as a springboard to push the limits of green building practises
throughout the city.

Both developments are about as photogenic as it gets. The mixed-use Olympic Village—one of only two LEED Platinum neighbourhoods built so far—is a green
builder’s fantasy. Powered by district energy and local renewables, with a greywater system and a carbon-zero building, it’s been called the world’s greenest neighbourhood.

In the early days, when cities were just pushing their way onto the environmental stage, one or two successes like these would have been enough to establish a city’s green cred. But too often cities get stuck in the individual project stage. After having pushed their way onto the stage in frustration over the lack of climate change action at higher levels of government, cities too become better at making promises than delivering results. In fact, only a handful of cities in North America have managed to meet their emissions reduction targets.

[Download the rest of the article in PDF here.]

Digging Up The Streets in Montreal

When I'm walking through a city I have a game I play, you've probably done it too:  I imagine what you could do with all the open space if cars suddenly disappeared. You get a taste  when you stumble onto one of the pedestrianized downtown malls that are becoming increasingly popular.

But making window-shopping more pleasant just can't be the apex of the new green metropolis.   And what about spaces outside the downtown?

Yesterday here in Montreal, the borough of Le Plateau Mont-Royal announced plans to close 10 to 15 residential streets and convert them into parks, community spaces and farmers markets. The first street will be closed in the coming weeks and the rest done over the course of 2010. Here's a short excerpt from the local coverage:

"Mayor Luc Ferrandez announced the borough will close off one of the Plateau's north-south streets to cars, and next year dig it up to expand a local park.

The move is a first step toward undoing decades of urban planning that favoured cars over people."

Ferrandez and the Projet Montreal party swept last year's election by promising projects exactly like this one.  Residents strongly supported a platform that focused on the environment and community space.  Now that those ideas are starting to transform the city's streets, the borough has become a bit of a living laboratory for reclaiming and greening urban neighbourhoods.

I'll watching with interest to see how things play out on the ground. 

(thnx Toby)



This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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