Mark Lakeman: Rebuilding Our Villages

Could re-imagining our public spaces help to weave a more connected and caring culture? Mark Lakeman, co-founder of The City Repair Project, thinks so. Lakeman has helped engaged and inspire the people of Portland, Oregon to reclaim and transform their public spaces. They are most famous for their “intersection repairs”, where neighbors redesign street intersections as public meeting places. They started with small projects, like a mobile tea house or little free libraries, but has now grown to over 18,000 intersection repairs, and has helped spur civic engagement, change city leadership and create big cultural shifts in Portland, such as an initative that successfully housed all houseless veterans and women in the city.

I got the fantastic opportunity to talk with Mark about everything from place-making, colonialism and the documentary he is a part of. Mark is one of my personal favorites in terms of people transforming our world, so it is definitely worth a read!

And, one last thing before we get to the interview. The City Repair project is embarking on  a documentary as a way to share their stories and inspire more transformation. They have launched a funding campaign, now in its final days. Here is the link to donate. Let’s support this good work people! I did it and hope you will too!

Sally: What do you guys do at the City Repair Project?

Mark: City repair is a lot of things. By definition it is a multiplicity of views coming together and finding common cause. The effects of City Repair through all of our placemaking in different communities is expressed so uniquely and diversely, always integrating ecological initatives being expressed artistically and being the fusion of local culture.

The short answer is: We repair cities. We think that cities are broken, because people are disengaged and polarized. They are regimented and organized in ways that are not participatory. From an ecological standpoint, you just flat out cannot do anything that way, because you have minimized the potential for feedback. People cannot take their local experiences and focus them into local solutions and have the power to make up their own minds.

Sally: How did our cities get the way they are? Where did that brokenness come from?

Mark: I think it is important for Americans to understand that we are in a framework, a colonial framework, that has a certain cultural impact. It is hard to call it “culture” when you are living in a colonial grid like we do in North America, because our understanding of it comes from such an inherently isolated place. Our understanding of culture is really limited by our experience of living in the geography of a grid and the systems that maintain it, beginning with the idea that the land is a commodity, not an ecology or a place.

To us, when we’re talking about city repair, we are talking about colonialism. Colonialism inverts people’s relationship to time and relationship and place and it creates a commodified reality. So we are not going to act like that. So if we are disengaged, we are going to reengage. Everything (our world) is doing right now is adding up to so much waste and isolation and evidently, increasing distress. So we’re just like, OK, what is the opposite? Because the opposite would be localization and place-based behavior and village like scales.

Sally: I have heard you talk before about making allies out of adversaries, changing leadership within the city to support more connection. Right now, it seems like our world is rife with adversarial attitudes and like people are getting pushed further and further into our camp. What I love about what you do is the bridge building work. Why do you take that approach?

Mark: If you asked me, right now, Mark, what do you think we should do? Our diagnosis of our cultural condition as a whole is that people are isolated and polarized. That is what we are trying to do, literally re-interpret  the common ground between us. In the American reality, (our common space ) is relegated to being a transportation corridor instead of a multi-functional social commons that facilitates transportation.

That is such a huge challenge for everyone that is trying to building this kind of urban permaculture. They are working on building the kind of advocacy that supports this. Fortunately, we are able to tell people how we got started. But we also have lots of stories for people who are in many stages of turning their local community movement and turning into a civic solution. This is a peaceful take over we’ve got going on here and it’s so inspiring.

Sally: How did you guys get started?

Mark: What happened was I was in a really upsetting circumstance in my profession, at a huge corporate job. There was a bunch of corruption that was exposed and I was really upset. I walked away from our society for a while and went on a seven year wander around the world, basically asking native people, “Do you have insights on the USA? What is wrong with us? What do we not see?”

And people would be like, “That’s an amazing thing! Let’s have dinner and really get into this.” So, that happened and I came back from asking people’s advice and I just decided to try out some ideas based on other culture’s recommendations. One of the things that happened when I was out travelling is realizing I lived in a grid. When I went around the world, various native people explained colonialism to me and said, “When you get home, look in various directions and see that everything is long and straight and flat. Go to another intersection and go to another town and see that everything is basically the same.” And then you start learning that that’s the National Land Ordinance of 1785, which basically laid out the essential structure of empire and regimentation and stratification and inequity. I think it’s the foundation of all our problems to live in a landscape that is fundamentally a commodity and not seen as an ecology or environment.

So, city repair basically inverts all of that. What were the pieces of the villages that used to exist right here? And how did they bring people together in a way that enabled them to be sustainable over thousands of years? They had a meeting house where they could share their ideas. And I’m like, Oh! We live in a fucking grid. So, there is nowhere to gather where you don’t have to believe something. Churches are around us, but you have to believe something and that is not going to encourage the building of democracy. So, let’s just reintroduce the pieces of the village that we are missing, and see if people would gather there and use them, and then meet and know other people them.

Colonialism is like a trick. We are designed into a landscape that isolates us by design, and don’t even know it. So, you just put in a little tea station at a corner. It is out there in public space, and causes people to re-interpret or re-understand their relationship with each other.  The space is not just impersonal and oriented towards being just a traffic corridor and a place for pedestrians and maybe some trees, but more than that. It changes how people understand their relationship to each other and the world, especially when they can interact with it. It revolutionizes their sense of what is possible in public space. Even if they hate it, they feel something. And it causes them to say things. And then their friends say things to them about what they think. It causes a conversation, because everyone is connected to public space, and the design of it can affect their disconnection.

Sally: A lot of times, communities only come together and mobilize when something is really wrong, like when they want to bulldoze a community garden and or put in a factory. But you guys are getting together just to hand out and have fun and connect. What has that done to the city?

Mark: It is really affecting people’s sense of common ground. People talk to each other, in incidental ways, and assume a sense of community with each other. People are just standing there in these mundane situations, like waiting for an elevator, or walking on the sidewalk, and people will strike up a conversation with each other, with less fear. That is a little surface expression that tells you so much more about what has happened within a culture. That transformation means that things are happening in all other levels of decision making throughout the culture.

Sally: What about the documentary that you all are making?

Mark: In the past few years, we have had such a strong increase in the number of inquiries about what we do that we know that we have to create a really spectacular tool for people to be able to see and know what they can do. We have been capturing a lot of footage and there is much more that we plan to create. We have an ambition to show all these different contexts, we’ve been travelling to Japan lately, we’ve been all over, and we’re capturing footage of these interactions to see how people are working in their contexts. Doing it is part of a network of people transforming their cities and transforming their leadership at the same time. It is an inherent, geomorphic, village making model, and City Repair is not trying to claim it at all, but it is a really effective Indigenous behavior kind of way.

I sure hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you did, please let people know by liking it, commenting below and sharing it on Facebook. 

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