Building the Future NOW
The City Repair Project’s Village Building Convergence and the Significance of Natural Building
by Lydia Doleman
The City Repair Project may be known for its painted intersections and urban cob bench installations among other great community works. However, it all began in Portland, Oregon, in 1996 as a localized response to the global-sized realization that all cities are part of an interconnected network of economic and political forces. As all cities rely upon similar institutions and social mechanisms to function across the globe, actively changing one part synergistically benefits the whole. The interconnected nature of urban centers allows for a maximum exchange of new ideas at its best, or perpetuation of systemic stagnation at its worst.
The philosophy behind City Repair is that the revolution, in order to be successful, must take place with people in a place using what they have. It doesn’t require extra funding or infrastructure; our collective place-based creativity can engender the authentic and community reflective change.
We may live in a so-called democracy, but we do not inhabit a democratic lifestyle. This is due to the fact that we dwell in an illusion that someone other than ourselves and our community has most of the power. We are not, during our patterned daily existence, building sustainable relationships with people or places. In fact it has literally been proscribed out. This patterned daily existence is our social architecture and is invisibly perpetuated and unconsciously inhabited by us all. When we are disconnected from each other physically (race, gender, poorly planned and grid-based cities, poorly designed buildings, etc.), economically (class, accessibility, property values), socially (ageism, sexism, you-name-it-ism), and spiritually (apathy, no sacred places, judgment, numbness), then no technology we throw at our world’s or our own problems can be solved without perpetuating the problems we harbor.
Fortunately, the problem is the solution.
If we positively and collectively engage the problem we can engender beneficial and relational change. We all share similar struggles, but are isolated on micro and macro scales. The best way to begin positive change is to transcend isolation and begin together. In this context, City Repair is a fractal of what Bill Mollison refers to as ‘Planet Repair’. We all have the ability to effect sustainable and systemic change at a local, urban (or rural) level where so many contemporary problems come to a head. As we begin to repair these concentrated nodes of human culture, we reweave the social architecture of culture. With each positive transformation a story is born that is relevant everywhere. As the story spreads it gives birth to the next, and so on and so on. Likewise, there are now City Repair Projects in as many as 13 cities, including Canada.
A Watershed of Transformation
In City Repair, whether we are reclaiming and transforming intersections, installing water catchment systems in parking strips, or building affordable and natural housing with homeless people we are doing very important work to prepare for possible eventualities such as peak oil, economic or environmental catastrophe while maximizing community fulfillment by practicing real-life engagement. All of these actions are part of a conscious strategy towards a sustainable future based on proven ideas and lessons that have been developed in many rural settings by permaculturalists and natural builders, and then infused into the urban fabric.
City Repair’s projects are intentionally located in high visibility public right of ways and intersections. This serves to expose urban communities to highly developed ideas and prototypes that foster community networks, instill familiarity with democratic and co-creative processes, and provide relevant examples of sustainable economic, social, cultural, and ecological principles.
May: Building the Village: People Engaged in Place
The Village Building Convergence (VBC) is a 10 day community building extravaganza that takes place in Portland, Oregon, annually at the end of May. It is an interactive gathering of hundreds of people from all over the globe, with the focus of ecologically reengaging in place. This year, more than 35 communities will be building ecological and place-based projects during the convergence. The VBC is host to a myriad of workshops (natural building, mushroom cultivation, body ecology, square dancing, etc.) and guest speakers such as Starhawk, Penny Livingston, Malik Rahim from Common Ground in post Katrina New Orleans, to local builders and community organizers. For ten days a temporary village blossoms in the city. We eat together, build together, learn together, dance and teach together. This gathering is a living ecology of transformational community consciousness.
The primary daytime focus of the Village Building Convergence is natural building. A form of community building by, for and of the people! When a neighborhood asks itself ‘how do we build relationships and structures that reflect our sustainable values? How do we transform our undemocratically designed neighborhoods into more than just reflections of property lines, political greed, the history of colonization, zoning laws that disintegrate living and working and perpetuate a chronic sense of isolation? How do we literally create the world we wish to live in?’ The answer we have collectively realized is that the best way to rebuild community is by literally building it! Using non-toxic and low-tech materials we are able to practice democratic collaboration by building with materials that express an ecological mind set and methods that are intrinsically inclusive. Natural building embodies the principles of permaculture, but above all else is recognized for being the most fun and engaging way to build.
Why Natural Building?
As the dimension of permaculture that addresses human shelter, natural and/or ecological building primarily reflects the priority and necessity of localization. In the urban context our local resources are a colorful variety of materials from reused building materials to the most popular natural building constituents of clay, sand and straw. In Portland, The Village Building Convergence has seeded the urban landscape with over 70 localized, ecological prototypes and has turned words like cob, straw bale and light straw clay into household words. The focus on building materials based on proximity fertilizes an emerging local economy, increasing an awareness of the availability of these highly relevant materials.
Part of the strategy of City Repair is to infuse the urban fabric with places, objects and buildings that are reflections of the evolving collective cosmology of humans with nature and with each other. In this way we directly build the fabric of place that is missing and in the process practice a new awareness. What better way to express that than thru the visible locality and relevant history present in recognizable place-based material choices? A community that sees connection in their surroundings and recognizes their inherent birthright to shape the place in which they live is an empowered community. Natural building is a great exercise in practicing this form of empowerment.
Industrial construction views natural as ‘labor intensive’. Once again the problem is a solution. Looking thru the lens of permaculture we see that ‘labor intensive’ is an opportunity to engage the community, to increase participation, increase collective ownership and engage in democratic decision making. The virtues of natural buildings being low-tech and non-toxic, we can incorporate the dimensions of the community that normally get relegated to the sidelines if not out right denied access, like children, women and the elderly. Thus, the spectrum of who is reflected in the building and the physical architecture of a place is broadened exponentially.
Incorporating and building with the entire community is democracy in action. All players are considered valuable, capable contributory members of the work in progress. There is no need for the top down model of the meritocracy because the methods themselves are in most cases easy to learn and do with a minimal amount of education. Through natural building we can create opportunities to practice inclusivity in a world that attempts to grow us all in a monoculture of lonely individuals. Plus, who doesn’t love to play in the mud?
The methods involved in most natural building techniques are inherently human scaled. For instance, cob construction is clay, sand and straw mixed together in the correct proportions with tools as simple as your feet (and some friends’ feet for an increased fun factor) and a tarp. With those few things you can build an entire wall system of a house, or a bench, or a kiosk, or an oven or some wonderful co-created piece of ecological public art. In communities where there may be language barriers a visual demonstration can be enough for a person to participate. Children are masters at making mud pies; cob is great tool for involving children and relaying to them that they are also valued contributors.
Cob has its beneficial limits, only so much can be built in a day, allowing time for non-work activities. There are usually no power tools involved creating a worksite that is quiet enough to be social, unlike hearing-damaging conventional construction sites. Clay not only is known for its curative properties but is also a joy to work with. The playful nature of getting covered in clay is healing in many ways.
Natural Community Building
In Portland alone, City Repair and its Village Building Convergence events have now co-created over 100 structures, 60 major sites, over 100 community events and 20 city-wide celebrations! Projects like the Dignity Village, a guerilla initiated, legalized transitional village run for and by homeless people, chose the use of natural materials not only to emblematize their ecological visions, but also to create opportunities to democratically engage the villagers in the building process. A community that builds itself both literally and figuratively is an empowered community. Dignity Village now boasts the most ecological and affordably built structures per capita of any community within the city of Portland with one straw bale and 10 straw clay dwellings!
When we talk about affordability most people ask how much this type of community building costs? There is no predetermined cost for this type of building as it is priceless.
If you do not have an excited and engaged community and you do not have a relationship with your local resources, you will have to throw money at the project which will almost certainly yield unsustainable results. The Village Building Convergence draws upon the greater community and its inherent social capital to source out available materials, and to participate and learn while having a much larger experience beyond just building. We source many aspects of the projects for free. One of the best things about current cities is their bountiful waste streams! Projects that could conventionally cost a lot of money in labor and materials can be done for very little within the context of a creative and resourceful community.
True human habitat restoration renews a sense of spiritual connection to shelter, nature and each other. As we see more and more natural building in the city, we see more connections forming, including growing relationships between neighbors and neighborhoods, between citizen and city official, and between farmers and city dwellers. A healthy social ecology is based on healthy and sustainable relationships. What natural building does that is so subversive in an age that engenders isolation and privatization is that it brings people together. Every one needs shelter and everyone deserves a healthy home. It fosters community responsibility and ownership. It sends us down a road to talk about things in the sense of ‘WE’ not ‘I’ because we are reminded through these building practices that we very much need each other. Just as Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center refers to “EGO-NOMICS”, so we can begin practicing “ECO-LOGICS” where value is prescribed by a healthy social ecology and not the distorted calculations of the GDP or the DOW JONES industrial index.
At a certain point we begin to ask, “What is sacred?” What can be bought and sold and what cannot? Filtering through these questions we begin to realize that our communities are not for sale, our public space is not for sale, our air, our earth, and our children are not for sale. We begin to wake up and see the world thru different eyes.
Take the same lenses and look at a natural building project and you see human scale, life as sacred declaration of human community, and deeper still is the story of love and abundance. You might even hear the embedded messages in the building. To give is better than to receive. Love your neighbor. Practice random acts of kindness. Buildings are full of messages as they are extensions of culture. That is why it is imperative that architecture return to the realm of the community.
Revolutionizing the Revolution
With public dialog being saturated with global warming and peak oil and the general cultural state of mind being one of escapism and depression, we are in a time where we must concentrate on accentuating and activating the positive. Now is not the time to just hope for something better, now is a time of action. We all possess a tremendous amount of transformative power.
Participate in revolutionizing the urban fabric with music, democracy in action, neighborhood empowerment and be enlightened by the great speakers of global change. Dance in the delicious dirt of regenerative design! Be enveloped in collaborative community construction for 10 days with us at the 7th Annual Village Building Convergence this May 18th thru the 27th In Portland, Oregon! As one community empowers itself to transcend the grid we can all rise together!
Contact us a www.cityrepair.org for more information.
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.