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."


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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.

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