When Communities Take Over Their Own Streets

Mark Lakeman

I had an amazing day in Portland, Oregon last week. I got a tour of sidewalks, front yards, and intersections all over the city where people have erected structures for people to interact and share.

Leading me on the tour was Mark Lakeman, the father of this movement in Portland. He’s founder of the nonprofit community transformation organization, City Repair, and he’s also the founder and leader of Communitecture, an architectural firm that focuses on projects that build community relations.

A typical 'Exchange Box' in front of a house in Portland.

I was quite inspired by what I saw. You see, the other broad-based efforts I’ve identified on to increase community interactions – co-housing and new urbanism – are quite limited in reach because both usually require building everything from scratch.

The innovations I saw in Portland, on the other hand, infused new opportunities for community interactions into existing neighborhoods at very low cost. The approach inspired by Lakeman is to add simple community-friendly facilities to sidewalks, front yards, and intersections. In other words, we can implement these ideas today, right at our present homes, to increase neighborly relations.Share-It Square's street mural

The first, and perhaps still the best, example of Lakeman’s genius is the intersection close to his house now called “Share-It Square.” On the pavement of the intersection itself is a mural painted by nearby residents and refreshed or amended every year. Surrounding the intersection on the four corners the many structures shown in the photos below:

Kids' Klubhouse

bulletin board

messaging chalk board

community newspaper dispenser (paper is 'The Bee,' and this is a hive)

exchange station

book exchange station

couch covered by a living pergola

tea station

From the photos here, you can see that these structures are made, heavily used, and well-maintained by the residents themselves. In addition, note that many homeowners in the broader surrounding area have erected structures similar to these, so the idea has spread to the entire neighborhood.

Not only do neighbors frequent Share-It Square everyday to pass away free time, but they also use it for major events in their lives. Many important events have taken place there, including many weddings like Lakeman’s last year.

Practically all members of the neighborhood have come to embrace the changes there. In a survey a few years ago, an overwhelming majority (over 85% in each case) felt that crime had decreased, traffic had slowed, and communication between neighbors had improved. In addition, Lakeman told me that real estate agents claim that properties in that neighborhood are much more in demand.

So how you do this in your neighborhood? Won’t your city’s planning department shoot you down if you erect a couch or message board next to your sidewalk? And what about the inevitable resistance from anti-change neighbors? Is this only possible in Portland? I’ll address these questions in a subsequent article.

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6 Responses to When Communities Take Over Their Own Streets

  1. Chuck Pletcher says:

    Mike – this is great! Any idea how it all got started? Wonderful pictures and some great ideas too!

  2. jgh says:

    “Freecycle” no longer seems very attractive to me. I’d much rather do an “exchange station”.

  3. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — I really glad to know about this. It’s inspiring. Thanks for the article. I’m going to show it to my kids and suggest we do something in our front yard — maybe a version of the mini-library.

  4. Morning Mia says:

    I live in the Whiteaker neighborhood in Eugene. Several years ago, some neighbors set up a “free shelf” outside their fence for exchanging books, shoes, and other small items. It was in a central location in the neighborhood, enjoyed by many — until people began dumping their couches, beds, garbage, and even a set of airplane propellers there.

    It has taken a few years since the neighbors tore the shelves down and put up a giant admonishment to get people to stop dumping there (although we still see occasional boxes of clothes and junk and a sofa now and then).

    Can you suggest ways to prevent this sort of dumping? Or is it just not suited to our neighborhood or town? I’d like to see more of these beneficial signs of community, without it getting out of hand.

  5. Mike Lanza says:

    Well, I’ve never actually run a “free shelf” or “exchange station,” so I can only offer what I observed in Portland. First, the exchange station I showed the picture of did have a prominent message that specified “no dumping.” It’s highlighted in that picture in the lower right. Second, I would say that ultimately, sidewalk features like these work if all the close neighbors are on the same page and help police it. That was definitely true at Share-It square in Portland.

    I hope that helps…

  6. Morning Mia says:

    Thank you for responding, Mike. Well, considering there is a large “no dumping” sign above the spot now (which did cut down on dumping, but didn’t stop it), I think the neighbors or other people who frequent the neighborhood are probably not quite on the same page. It’s a great neighborhood in many other ways, however, and a lot of people are very much involved in the community. So, we will just be satisfied with setting out boxes of free stuff in front of our houses for now!

    It’s nice to see the concept working in this area of Portland, though, and I hope the idea can spread and work for others where appropriate. Thanks for writing about it!