Environmental activists present strategies to build community

Mark Lakeman and Marisha Auerbach presenting at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op

Neighborhood streets and intersections in Portland, Ore. have become public gathering places and people have reported that they’ve felt much safer in their communities, a testament to community building through the City Repair project – the topic of Mark Lakeman and Marisha Auerbach’s presentation on Permaculture in an urban context Wednesday night, hosted by the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.

City Repair is a small grassroots nonprofit organization, founded in 1995 in Portland by a group of neighbors, that facilitates multiple “placemaking projects” geared toward reclaiming one’s neighborhood and inspiring alternative ways to think about what it means to have a community gathering space and to put those thoughts into action.

The night’s presentation featured a “how-to” examination of the multiple strategies neighborhoods have taken to engage with one another and build a safer and more self-sustaining community in the hopes of inspiring others to make a change in their neighborhoods, even here in Sacramento.

“What do you think we did in the space between our houses before cars existed? What we don’t do anymore – talk,” Lakeman said as he began the presentation.

Lakeman is the founder and promoter of many community building initiatives in Portland, Ore. including City Repair and The ReBuilding Center, and Marissa Auerbach is an active practitioner and teacher of Permaculture – an ecological design system modeled on the relationships built in nature.

The two have been traveling around California for the past two weeks, their 26th and final city being Sacramento, presenting on the topic – Village Alchemy: Permaculture Strategies for Transforming the Urban Environment. The presentation highlighted their collaboration in City Repair in the hopes that others would be inspired to create the same type of change in their neighborhoods as well.

“Portland, like everywhere else, has been beset by an absence of gathering spaces,” Lakeman said. The presentation focused on the sustainability behind the relationships humans can build with each other, and the problems they have building and maintaining such relationships with the modern design of the city block.

The presentation oscillated between Lakeman’s City Repair Project and Auerbach’s experience in several community Permaculture projects, which include garden installations, seed saving and growing food year-round in both urban and rural locations.

Auerbach has been collaborating with City Repair since 2005 and has assisted in the installation of many gardens and community projects in Haiti, Nicaragua and Vietnam.

One way of enhancing community, Auerbach said, is sharing a meal with people.

“I want to encourage more people to interact with their food system,” she said, “Everyone expects food to come from the country and it doesn’t have to be so.”

The vision behind City Repair is simple: in city blocks based on the grid structure, it’s more common for people to become isolated and not know their neighbors, Lakeman explained, their lives have become “zoned.” Lines are drawn between workplaces and living space, much in the same way lines have been drawn between each other in a community. Through its projects, City Repair seeks to return the communal gathering spaces of communication back to the neighborhoods.

“Everyone from the world came from a village network,” Lakeman said. “Our blocks no longer have open spaces, even though our ancestors lived that way.”

He explained the structure of a village as a circle, before what is now recognizable as “the grid” came into place. The circle represented a community gathering space through which networks were created as people went about their daily lives, crossing paths with each other.

The imposition of the grid came into place in 1785 when an ordinance was passed placing the Roman Colonial Grid over any towns to the west of the Ohio River.

Featuring Permaculture and natural building techniques, the City Repair Project seeks to put the circle back on top of the grid. Composed almost completely of volunteers, the organization sets up events each year called “intersection repair,” which helps communities reclaim their neighborhoods for a day, turning the nearest residential intersection into a community gathering space.

For each project, neighbors in a community gather to come up with a design for their intersection that most often includes painting the intersection and building amenities to place on each corner, with each neighborhood telling a different story.

Corner installations from past projects include community gardens, cob benches – naturally built structures comprised of clay, sand, and straw – a communal library made from scratch, a tea house, a puppet theater for neighborhood children and many others.

“With each of these installations, each person leaves with their own idea and inspiration,” Auerbach said.

Stemming from the first “intersection repair”, more than 300 neighborhoods have reclaimed their neighborhoods and the vision has grown nationwide and even internationally with similar intersection repair projects completed.

About 15 persons were in attendance, and many who left the presentation that night said they are looking forward to implementing similar projects in Sacramento.

“I think Sacramento has a lot more potential than it realizes,” said Dominic Allarmano, 34, an educator and facilitator from Sacramento. “There’s a lot of life force here, but the people right now aren’t really connected to each other that much yet. The neighborhoods don’t oftentimes have that character – it’s not in the rhythms and patterns of life here yet.”

Allarmano said that he previously lived in Oregon and knew about the project, and he is excited to get something similar going in Sacramento.

“I’m just really lit up that this is happening in other cities across America, and we need it to happen here in Sacramento,” said Tara Sheen, 46, from Pleasant Grove, also in attendance. “We have great community here; this would be easily done. It just needs to be presented.”

Sheen added that she is involved with the Permaculture movement in Sacramento and that similar projects can be implemented in Sacramento.

“There’s some good people that would be willing to come on our side that have already been trying to make stuff happen here,” she said.

Wrapping up the last night of their speaking tour, both presenters said that they hoped to inspire others to implement community building projects in their cities and that all it takes is a little motivation to get it started.

“I think that there’s a whole host of options of how people can choose to gracefully adapt to the future, but it requires stepping up and looking at what your needs are and how you can meet them using what you have,”Auerbach said.

Lakeman said that he hoped the presentation planted a seed and gave everyone a bit of insight on how they might be able to go about change in their communities.

“I would just say to Sacramento: Start anywhere you want. You will change the world, just start wherever it makes sense to you,” Lakeman said after the presentation. “Our communities are not engaged, so all these things are going wrong, and every one of those situations is an opportunity for somebody to get involved and turn it into right livelihood.”

For more information on the City Repair project and the work that has been done in several cities, including Los Angeles, click here or see them on Facebook.

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