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.
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.
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:
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.