Repairing Cities

I went to a talk by Mark Lakeman last night. It was inspiring (though a bit long)! Mark is one of the forces behind City Repair in Portland, Oregon. There is no way I can capture all of Mark’s presentation since it greatly benefited from the beautiful images he used (some of them you can see here). Instead, I want to summarize what Mark said that struck me as particularly interesting.

The most important thing for a community is to see each other, to have the ability to look into each others’ eyes and ask for help thus acknowledging our interdependence. The image capturing this idea is a circle of African kids sitting with their legs stretched into the circle, toes touching, feet connected. It is the beginning of class for them, which includes going around the circle to tell stories. A village that builds on this is a sustainable place and reflects the sensibility of the people who live in the place.

In contrast to this stands the grid system the Romans imposed upon the conquered villages and cities – imposed precisely because it is easier to dominate and control people who live on a grid. The grid breaks the connections. It alienates the (social) intelligence from the culture. Many empires adopted this grid-system to design their villages and cities, including the Spanish in Mexico. There is one crucial difference between these grids and those used in the US: The Mexican grid required at least one public space. The US grid does not even contain that. The result is disastrous: The US has the lowest number of social gathering places and, thus, the highest social isolation, with its accompanying problems, including higher suicide and crime rates.

The grid has another (capitalist) advantage: It moves a culture from an ecology to an economy. People living on a grid are workers who through zoning are separated from their work place (zoning requires that we have to commute to work). Intersections are no longer places to mingle but are places to pass through.

To counteract the effects of the grid we have to de-grid our cities. We can do this by first reclaiming our power: We don’t have to wait for The Powerful to change something. We can simply reach out and start by redesigning an intersection. The goal is to create an geomorphic village that has pathways connecting nodes around the fabric of the housing. The nodes function as gathering places – they allow us to look each other in the eyes and remind us that we are the village (or neighborhood). The first step in this process is to get people out of the house and get them excited about reclaiming their neighborhoods. City Repair does that by closing down intersections and then painting on them to create a space to connect with neighbors – and the work of redesigning the intersection is itself connecting. This is done strategically in public places to plant the seeds for connecting communities – for creating geomorphic areas that spread throughout a modern city transforming the grid into a collection of neighborhoods centered around public meeting spaces. This process seems to work best with the involvement of children because they are still connected with their natural sense of adventure that can bridge the grid-divide. The process builds on our inclination to work with metaphor. What we paint on the intersection, what stands and benches we place around it, become metaphors that help us reconnect to each other. City Repair functions primarily as facilitators helping people relearn how to ask for help and thus engender relationships. To start, it’s best to get together with people in a neighborhood and test the waters to see their receptivity. But most importantly: Just start and figure out how to do things as you go along.

One of the challenges of repairing a city when aware of the economic and social injustices inherent in current cities is to figure out how to reach out to all classes and races. Portland is predominantly white and most of the City Repair work has happened in (white) middle-class neighborhoods. I think a task still to be addressed is to ensure that our geomorphic villages not only bridge the grid-divide but also the divides that were still part of European villages (one example of more geomorphic places). Even though villages had public centers – the public, especially the citizenry, was limited to those considered worthy of being citizens: White men with ownership. We have to be careful when doing the repair work that we do not ignore the analyses of feminists and others who have pointed out the problems with the idea of universal citizenship. City repair seems to be an approach that can be very inclusive but as long as we live in a patriarchal culture with its heteronormativity and racism, we need to consciously counteract our tendencies to favor the in-group. Reaching across the grid is a great start but we need to be aware that our neighborhoods very likely reflect biases. To truly build an alternative way of living we need to bridge the other divides as well.

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Repairing Cities — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Walking around | Rachel's Musings

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