City Repair - Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize in Portland
What Peak Oil, the Village Building Convergence, Dignity Village and Straw-Bale Passive Solar Houses all have in Common
by Lydia Doleman and Mark Lakeman
With Peak Oil and Global Warming becoming issues that affect both worldwide culture and individual life choices, the times we live in become ever more intense. But, as Joseph Campbell once observed, “At the darkest possible moment the light will shine the brightest”. One way to put Campbell’s observation into practice is to live the brightest way we can in this dark moment, and to prepare for the inevitable changes in store as unsustainable practices of society have their head-on encounter with inexorable forces of nature.
Even the smallest good things we do can make an immeasurable difference. Like the ‘butterfly effect’ metaphor for action that describes the potential of a butterfly’s wings to set in motion atmospheric reactions that could cause a tornado 1000 miles away), we ourselves can initiate actions that lead to unpredicted larger events. Now is the time to create, grow, change, share, innovate, listen, give—and no matter what, never take our eyes off that prize.
As demand for oil increases and supply peaks (i.e. remains static, then begins to fall), we arrive at the threshold of decline for the petroleum age. Peak Oil presents the problem and the opportunity of power—the manifest power of “leaders” who have the authority to pass judgment and legislation, but who typically make really awful decisions based on skewed priorities; and the virtually untapped intrinsic power available within communities that have come to accept powerlessness as their plight.
Be it Peak Oil, global warming, population explosion, or our present crisis of leadership, the great dangers of our time merely reflect the essential problem of who has been making the major decisions in our society. Paradoxically, Peak Oil, like those other global threats, is linked to its own solution. The most important part of that solution is found right here, in our own communities, when we the people make consequential decisions on our own behalf. The cause and great danger of Peak Oil is our fragile social architecture. Irrespective of where national and international power lies, and how that power is used, it is our own, personally and locally derived power that is immediately available to us, and in that power lives the solution to our problems.
To be clear, the essential challenge of Peak Oil is not that humankind must soon find new fuel resources to feed a voracious industrial appetite, though that be true. Nor is it even the incalculable social instability that will inevitably result as ever-larger numbers of oil-dependent people are not able to meet their basic needs, though the specter of that dark future is undeniable. An industrial infrastructure dependent on limited sources of fuel, a transportation system that locates living places far away from working places, the disintegration of the social dimensions of our lives through zoning laws—these were not choices that local communities intentionally made for themselves. No, the essential challenge of Peak Oil will be confronted on a local scale.
We all seem to have forgotten how much richer and more beautiful life would be if our communities were truly healthy and strong. Whether or not we are prepared for the problem of Peak Oil, we have all the tools at hand to create the solution: Strong, interconnected and interdependent communities.
But, unless we quickly act, the cumulative impacts of the environmental threats we face will become so dire that all of life, or at least life as we know it, in the biosphere may be extinguished. This threat invites all people to directly participate in the reinvention of everything around us, to create a culture of participation where we live. Beginning in our own community, our collective solution then resembles our ancestral opportunity—to fulfill the experiential promise of living on the garden planet.
Can It Be That Simple?
To reiterate: Peak Oil is likely to become a massive problem for every community. There may be some rural ecoVillages that are resilient, diversified, and autonomous enough to cope, but as things are now, urban communities will not survive well when food is not available because transport systems have failed. As for the various scenarios such as “powerdown”, “soft landing”, or “mad max”, so much will depend upon our ill-equipped political leadership. However, the president, congress, and police are far more likely to contain, control, or even liquidate our communities rather than develop a more sustainable and adaptable infrastructure—remember New Orleans?
Antidote: Repair the City to Repair the World
The City Repair Project was born in 1996. We began to orchestrate a tidal wave of creative solutions just after we had realized that the global network of cities are an interconnected political and economic network, which are to a great extent dependent upon control systems and structures that must work similarly across the entire globe, irrespective of culture. We were inspired by the realization that we could accelerate the evolution of global culture through local action designed to effect systemic change. By creating true stories about real alternatives that work, we appeal directly to many other frustrated people in urban places, people struggling with the same essential challenges we find in Portland. We are able to offer effective strategies for changing the world.
In this context, the title ‘City Repair’ is actually a synonym for ‘Permaculture’. Just as Bill Mollison refers to Permaculture as ‘Planet Repair’, so City Repair is a way of recognizing our ability to effect permanent, sustainable, systemic change at the local level and in the urban context where so many problems are linked.
City-states, after all, are the historical political and economic infrastructure of colonialism, different in every respect from the function of villages as expressions of regional cultures. But, cities are almost always built upon ruins of villages. The pervasive reemergence of village patterns in cities will certainly change life within the global network of city-states.
City Repair says that the mother of all problems is that, individually and collectively, we are not directly creating our local realities in concert with the people around us, who we engage our lives with, come to love, and who propel us with inspiration and energy. With respect to Peak Oil, therefore, we feel that all short and long term solutions begin with joining our individual energies within communities of mutual support. We build from there. Our strategy towards attaining a sustainable future is much like the template many ecoVillages are using, in the sense that we are bringing people together to build relationships, even as they also build alternative, localized structures and systems that are ecological in nature and tend towards self-reliance. What makes us unique is that we empower local, urban communities (neighborhoods) to creatively interrupt the city Grid in order to transform streets into active, social commons.
Our perspective on Peak Oil is similar to other crisis-preparation scenarios: Prepare by creating self-sustaining life-systems with good people who care about you. Fortunately, this is the kind of work we should all be engaged in anyway, because it generates self-empowerment, skill building, stronger community identity, ownership, networks of new relationships, and even personal growth. We do this because, as imperfect as they may be, human communities tend to make creative, largely sustainable choices when local people are able to make decisions for themselves based on their own direct experiences within the economies and places where they live.
In City Repair, whether we are engendering new community organizations or building community gathering places, installing photovoltaic systems to light community kiosks or setting up water catchment systems, we work to prepare for every eventuality. The most important scenario to prepare for, though, is the one that brings us maximum fulfillment within a community. In City Repair, we see this as birthright work, a way to live with others in spite of any system or structure of oppression. We also see this work as THE solution. Authorizing ourselves to directly create the lives we intend to live—and then creating—is the most essential action of all. It is not a negotiable choice that others can have the power to approve or decline. It cannot be dependent on budgets, anyone else’s ownership, rules, laws, or power structures.
Un-Divide! Re-inventing the Urban Gridscape with Gathering Places:
The Village Building Convergence
City Repair has helped Portland, Oregon fashion numerous unique and creatively functional variations on community gathering places, both permanent and mobile. We have sent enormous, butterfly-shaped teahouses out into the city Gridscape in order to bring people together and inspire awareness everywhere that gathering places are virtually absent across the American Grid. As a result, communities throughout the city have become inspired to initiate and create many new self-organizations and community gathering places that reflect local cultures and priorities.
The biggest way we do this is during an annual event called the Village Building Convergence (VBC). This year, the VBC will simultaneously activate more than 30 communities to come outside, join their energies for ten days, live and build places as Villagers once again, as they practice living in a sustainable, local culture.
Through the VBC, we redress the terrible impact on our communities of the national land ordinance of 1785, which blueprinted Roman colonial Grid-planning over the North American continent. The Grid has worked to retard the development of communities because it is a monolithic design that intentionally converts the natural world into a commodity, omitting the gathering places that would otherwise exist at the crossing of pathways, or intersections. The Grid defeats the human pattern to intersect. Through it, we have inherited a devious Roman paradox—that while it may be our nature to connect and “love our neighbors”, the roman Grid is designed to isolate and control conquered villagers. To counter this, the VBC brings people outside to change their world directly, and regain the awareness and the power to intersect and act directly with their communities. A very good thing indeed, since democracy literally means ‘people joining in a place’. Through the enormous local impact of the VBC, City Repair is working to build the real strength of democracy. Practicing democracy as we build ecological places that reflect local economies and relationships is surely the social foundation for sustainable culture-building. Thus, the VBC is a reflection of the human capacity to love, given a focus upon the landscape, resulting in culturally-reflective places where peoples’ lives are able to intersect.
During the ten days of the Village Building Convergence, people come together to share knowledge, meals, housing and creative experiences. From all over the country, guests arrive to participate in the various community projects around Portland. During the day, there are a numerous workshops ranging from Village design to democracy, making biofuels to permaculture design, communication and mediation, rocket stoves, sacred arcology, and much more. In the evenings there is a grand vegetarian meal that precedes the gathering of hundreds of people in the main venue to attend presentations and musical events. Past presenters include Toby Hemmenway, Penny Livingston, Starhawk, and a who’s-who list of natural builders from across the continent. One of the most popular evenings is Monday night, when the ‘Moonday Tea-House’ event converts an entire urban landscape into a mystical community world. Last year we gathered for a relaxing night of socializing and drinking tea on mountains of pillows under the fins of the Tea-Whale, and the bamboo canopies of the T-horse and T- pony, both mobile Tea houses.
Of the many community-building tools employed during the Village Building Convergence, some of the most successful are fun and empowerment through natural building. Located strategically in public streetscapes, natural building processes work synergistically to build social cohesion and a sense of place while simultaneously demonstrating healthy living. Natural building isn’t just construction, it is a comprehensive building philosophy that mirrors and relates the principles of permaculture. Building together as a community, while using our immediate resources in terms of creating shelter or structure, we cultivate an awareness while we build connectedness and relationship to the place we are in. In Portland, we see our beautiful trees, our rich clay soil, our river rock, our broken up sidewalks, our discarded materials, as resources to be in relationship with, because when we build with what is directly around us we foster connections and responsibility while weaving more relevant stories into the fabric of our pathways. This creates a more intimate relationship with the place we live in.
In fact, by using natural building as a model, we are refuting the traditional notion of builder-as-expert; instead, we empower people who formerly may never have felt that the world of building was open to them (grandmothers, children, and women especially). This helps democratize the social architecture of the built environment that all people inhabit. The human landscape can instead begin by being inherently participatory. The labor-oriented nature of natural materials and techniques becomes a great asset, calling communities to work and shape the world together. Adults can have a sense of pride in the place that they live, instead of the old world dominated by specialists and toxic materials that have no intrinsic meaning. The process of natural building in public space is above all enjoyable. Mixing the cob with your feet as you dance, building and plastering, makes adults feel like children again as they tap into a deeper level of creativity, while children also gain a sense of empowerment through being involved in building places.
Dignity Village—“Case Study” in Social Capital
One of City Repair’s most significant efforts to empower a community through the natural building model is Dignity Village, begun in the year 2000 and built by and for previously homeless people. After a legal challenge that overturned Portland’s notorious ‘anti-camping ordinance’, civil disobedience actions followed by months of very public community organizing efforts led to a legally sanctioned, self-organized village that was able to establish itself on an acre of land in north Portland. With a fluctuating population of 65 to 80 people, they quickly established a self-governing infrastructure, tent shelters on pallets, a fabulous solar-energized community gathering place and council dome, a library, toilets and showers, laundry facilities, and an office with phone and internet service.
Formerly homeless individuals became democratically elected chair people, treasurers and secretaries, and were living in a much more stable atmosphere within the context of community. Women living at the village were infinitely safer than they had been on the streets. No drugs or violence were allowed. As they formed the village vision, there was more than just a self-serving attitude about transcending homelessness—the villagers wanted to create a model, something everyone, homeless or not, could aspire to. They wanted to demonstrate the inseparability of ecological and social sustainability.
In April of 2003, in partnership with the City Repair Project, the first straw-bale dwelling prototype built in the city was constructed. It modeled a handsome, solar-oriented craftsman style 14’ x 18’ abode with a water-catchment system and earthen plasters, combined with nearly all recycled materials—all for a price tag of $500. This success became a well-publicized testament to ecological and affordable housing. In 2004, as part of the Village Building Convergence, Dignity Village began to replace their tent structures with a residential natural building ‘Mecca’. Five strawclay, passive-solar houses were built in the 10-day period of the VBC, bringing together a boldly diverse crowd—from Christians and Republicans to homeless folks and anarchists, all working toward the same goals. Even the soon-to-be mayor joined in the mud. Five homes were completed, for the amazing cost of $250 each. Into the future, as the village has built more homes, the per-home price has fallen even lower, as more relationships have formed and more efficient ways of on-the-spot recycling have been discovered.
Dignity Village is a living solution to the crisis that Peak Oil presents us. As a group of individuals they have utterly simplified their needs, reduced their resource consumption, and, through self-governance, eliminated entire infrastructures of waste—be it political or industrial. What they are building is propelled by a vast accumulation of social capital, which expands all the dimensions of community, including the spiritual.
Saving the World Requires a Local Solution
Building stronger local communities is directly relevant to global energy transition because sustainable patterns of working, living, and consuming can only be established by communities, for themselves. Indeed, working with our neighbors has everything to do with ‘saving the world’ because it is only in that context that community values are actually expressed, heard, and reflected in actions that connect us to our place. The culture that maintains an awareness of future generations will work to sustain itself, whereas we know that a group (say, a corporation) whose highest priority is their quarterly return on investments is not likely to make sustainable, community-friendly economic decisions. Ultimately, how we view our resources is a reflection of how we view our selves and each other.
What brings most people joy? Togetherness, beauty, feelings of love, connectedness. Regardless of the current geopolitical situation, all of these keys to joy are accessible and are part of the patterns that help weave the deepest solutions. The human spirit is beautiful, and indomitable. People are inherently social and creative.
Peak Oil is merely a symptom of a deeper, grander challenge, the remedy for which lies in a fabric of rewoven relationships. Thus, surviving Peak Oil requires the same solution that every profound global challenge requires—sustainability, community and healthy relationships. As we survive every local or global challenge, our goals and our destiny as a larger community will remain the same—to fulfill the potential of our experience living on the earth, in community with each other.
Mark Lakeman is a world traveler, eco-revolutionary designer and sometimes guerilla activist, and co-founder of the City Repair Project. He is presently working with numerous inspiring visionaries to produce this year’s Village Building Convergence. He is also working to engage the local community of Whistler, BC in the design of a major new facility that will serve as the icon for the Winter Olympics of 2010.
Lydia Doleman teaches ecological construction and creative community development practices in both northern and southern hemispheres. Her work in natural building is the most daring and ambitious in the NW region, transforming ordinary opportunities into spectacular, new forms of artistic expression. Her work with homeless people at Dignity Village, to build affordable housing at $187.00 per dwelling is a miracle, and her “Women’s Carpentry” courses have been life-transforming for scores of women. Lydia is the lead builder in the City Repair Project.