It could be the way cities are starting to feel like airports, with Starbucks and other chains taking over the downtowns. It could be the iPods and cell phones: even when people are physically present, their attention is someplace else. It could be just a homing instinct that clicks in at times of stress.
Whatever it is, people today crave a sense of place, and also common spaces in which their lives can intersect in unplanned and serendipitous ways. They are repelled by a world in which space increasingly seems measured out by corporate accounting departments, and contrived for commercial gain. Even here in Point Reyes Station, we feel constantly the breath of money as it casts hungry eyes upon our space.
Key lots in town are coming up for sale. We could lose our small town familiarity and rough working edges, and we know it. So it was understandable that people packed the gallery space at Toby’s on Thursday evening to hear Mark Lakeman of the City Repair Project in Portland, Oregon. Lakeman is a leader of the neighborhood place-making movement in America – which he calls “social permaculture” – and people wanted to learn more.
Lakeman observed that the built environment in America is out of sync with inner needs as well as outer ones. It leads not only to the over-use of fossil fuels and therefore to climate change, but to a climate of loneliness and isolation as well. We search for meaning but do not “inhabit a landscape of it” – which is to say, a built environment that is conducive to social interaction.
For eons, people created settlements in circular and irregular patterns with gathering spaces built in. “The whole point of design is to encourage communication,” he said.
America however embraced the Roman grid, with its implicit assumptions about rationality and order. The grid dictated the layout of the Northwest Territories, and of cities as well: square blocks divided into square lots, and usually no gathering places at all.
The grid is designed for management and real estate. It is conducive to the movement of cars but resists a natural flow of life. In Portland, Lakeman said, there are 96 neighborhoods without a single common square.
The City Repair Project is trying to address that, neighborhood by neighborhood. Lakeman showed slides of the elegant murals that neighbors have painted on traffic intersections, and of the cob structures they have built beside them. These include solar powered teahouses and kiosks. The process of creating the structures has turned strangers into neighbors. “Intersections are where lives come together,” he said. They aren’t just for cars.
Lakeman was a guest of West Marin Commons, which hosted a talk by him about a year ago as well. That talk helped launch the Commons group, and the response this time was equally enthusiastic. There was much talk afterwards about how these ideas might apply out here. To join in this discussion, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or drop a note to PO Box 127, PRS, 94956.