Episode #46 City Repair: Planet Repair: Human Repair. Mark Lakeman on building regenerative cities to heal ourselves and the world
Mark Lakeman is the founder of the City Repair Project, as well as the founder and Design Director at communitecture, architecture & planning. Both organizations are Portland, Oregon-based world-changing initiatives that transform social, political, and physical infrastructure in order to embed permanent transformative effects.
He has also been lead instructor for the Planet Repair Institute’s Urban Permaculture Design Course for a decade. Mark’s work has been published by El Mundo, Dwell, Architecture Magazine, New Village Journal, Sotokoto, The Utne Reader, Permaculture Activist and many more. With City Repair, in 2003 Mark was awarded the National Lewis Mumford Award, and his collaborative work has been featured at the Global Venice Biennale Exhibition. Additionally, in 2017, Mark’s work in City Repair was awarded “Social Design Circle” global recognition by the Curry Stone Design Prize.
Here, he talks to Accidental Gods podcast about his life’s extraordinary journey from city architect to city repair – and how the world might look in 2030 if we got it all right.
Manda: So Mark Lakeman, of the City Repair Project and so many other amazing and really generative ideas: welcome to Accidental Gods. Thank you for joining us from Portland. It sounds kind of exciting out there.
Mark: Hi, Manda really lovely to talk with you today.
Manda: And, exciting? The fires?
Mark: All kinds of visceral feelings, including some terror and fear for the future. And yeah, very much a sense of betrayal too. I just keep thinking to myself, we read that this was going to happen three decades ago. Climate scientists gave us clear warning and it was front page news buried, of course, in the more conservative sources. But yeah, I remember reading very clearly that fires would jump in scale and frequency and here we are. And having done just nothing about it, I mean almost nothing. The agencies that could prepared and tried to inform people and help local communities have some sense of preparation and some technologies, and building codes. But overall, we only exacerbated the problem through political malfeasance, really.
Manda: And anyone who tried to make a difference, certainly my experience over here was that they had their funding cut quite quickly. So it’s been very hard. And I think we will move on to the actual topic of the podcast in a second. But I think it’s quite interesting that certainly over here and I imagine with you in the States, a lot of the narrative was that the. Western educated, industrial rich democracy is what Jonathan Haidt calls the weird communities, would be hit last when climate change began to really bite and that it would be the global south low-lying nations, Bangladesh, and it would be completely flooded. Other places would burn. But actually, we in the West probably would be growing more crops faster. That was a kind of a narrative that took hold. And I think that seems to me to be breaking down very fast. But I’m not sure it’s breaking down fast. We think it’s breaking down fast because we have a narrative that says this is happening. I’m guessing it’s not gaining traction with the people who think climate change is a Chinese conspiracy theory.
Mark: Yeah, I would say. I’m just I’m remembering a big initiative that we were part of a few years ago to we were funded, interestingly, by the Rockefeller Foundation to redesign multiple cities in the Bay Area as part of an initiative called Resilient by Design, in which Rockefeller, after Hurricane Sandy became persuaded very mightily that climate change is real and that they’re in a position to do something about it. So, they have been funding the 100 Cities Initiative and that they consider the Bay Area kind of the crown jewel of all of the of the leverage points that they can apply their power to. And so they were thinking if there’s a region in the world that has the capacity to act with concerted kind of vision, it would be the Bay Area with all of its diverse peoples and circumstances, it can provide prototypes for the rest of the world. So, we were trained up rapidly and were helped to learn that, you know, climate change is really just a disruption of all of everything that’s normal. It’s certainly characterised by rising sea levels, but it’s also punctuated by events in which multiple impacts combine at once. Sandy being one of the best cases. But, you know, in the Bay Area, we were able to see that in something like a 50 year time window, we will have events that are about, you know, where the weather, where the water levels themselves, not just to speak of the wind, driving rain, but the water levels themselves through combined effects will reach around 14 feet higher. But actually, that’s just a really solid guess. Yeah, it’s actually likely to be much worse than that. But when you consider things like water flowing into the bay, torrential rains driving the amount of volume that’s coming down a river way to multiple apertures into the Bay Area, and then you think about things like storm surges and king tides combined with sea level rise.
Sea level rise is only a small part. One of the things that we were able to establish because of a team of spectacular kind of ecologists that work on wetlands, we had a public presentation from that team. There were 10 teams chosen from around the world, and one of them was called Public Sediment. They were able to establish that the wetlands of the world will all die and that all of the ecological services that they provide.
Manda: Biodiversity loss just from that will be catastrophic.
Mark: So many families of the tree of life not to even speak of their sequestrations services and go, yeah, and wave attenuation, that there is no way to augment them quickly enough to fight sea level rise. So we’re going to lose all of those things anyway. I just want to summarise by saying, you know, we learnt that it’s really a political problem, of course, and it’s going to play out more evidently than anything in terms of societal, economic, societal disruption. Food systems will be disrupted and then that will certainly be a launch pad for all kinds of unrest and disruption and repression and then just helplessness. And it’s really only the first 10 feet of of what could potentially be as high as a 200 foot sea level rise. The first 10 feet is where we get a chance to fight for the future. And after that 10 feet, everything’s out of control.
Manda: Ok, so I can feel a different podcast happening. Let’s we might come back to that another time if you have time, because that’s a very interesting thread to go down. But for now, let’s take a step possibly forward. I don’t know when in your timeline that happened to your origins of what got you to start the city repair project. If we can do that kind of as a run through of how you got to City Repair and then what it is, because it seems to me that is it is one of the things that could completely change the trajectory of where we are in this moment, in the midst of the pandemic with all of the political upheavals arising. It could be a game changer.
Let me say, as we go into this, that it’s the City Repair project and the fact that we use all of our infrastructure projects as a means to organise and build new community. To reskill people and to engender participatory design literacy. It’s that work that inspired Rockefeller to pluck us out of all of these other teams that were competing. We work with like more than 40 communities at once to get sort of training 40 communities and. They go all the implements and we’re sending them volunteers, and so we really enlist, we put a call out to the entire region that’s this huge barn raising. We’re basically like, hey, everyone, you know? And we’re very transparent about colonisation. We’re like, you know, we’re in a colonial grid. There are absent gathering places and we’re undertaking an initiative to restore cultures of participation and self-determination and therefore resilience. And one of the things that’s been programmed out of our lives is the barn raising. Goddammit, it’s back here. It’s happening all over the city all at once. This is our way into the twenty first year of doing this. So it’s you know, the plan has been to reinstill basically a point in the cycle of time that is supposed to be happening every single year as a cultural moment or ritual. So we’re in the twenty first year of doing that. But yeah, when we put out the call, people across the region respond because people want community.
Manda: That’s what we found in during the lockdown, is people are so hungry for community. And that being given the time and the space to create it seems like a huge way to give people the gifts of resilience and agencies of you’re not only promoting the concept of community, but giving them the tools with which to to connect to each other. Is that what I’m hearing? Yeah. So, can you give us a little bit of the history, the colonial groups, how you got to that? And then because in the UK, where the colonialism came from, we don’t have so many groups, but I think we still have a really disconnected urban centres. So let’s take a wind back, have a look at how you got there, and then look at where we could get to.
Mark: Ok, yeah, I’ll give you a really concise account. So the story of how we came to be able to understand the context that we’re in and be able to actually see it and then engage it creatively. As far as my own personal contribution to this effort is concerned, I’m going to play a key role. I basically am the child of two architects. I was conditioned to go into a modernist career thinking that design could change the world, which is like one of the few things about modernism that actually is is relevant, timeless and true. That design can be that, but it isn’t, as modernism would have us believe that it’s about form and it’s about sculpture and just about pretty much beauty. It’s more than that. Design is a tool for problem solving in any way. I’ll say more about that in a minute. But in my career, I was very fortunate to be designing the Bank of America building on the west end of the Morsan Bridge in downtown Portland. There was a huge toxic waste cover up that was disclosed on the last day I worked in this office and I was so disgusted by what I was hearing. And because Bank of America is sitting on this giant toxic waste cover up right on the edge of our river and the salmon come up the river and then people ingest the salmon. And then the cancer that ensues in people is just one of the symptoms of all of this irresponsibility and lack of vision, lack of commitment. So I quit and I really read the riot act in a very lovely way to my all my bosses. I got them all in conference room and I quit. I kind of quit at them for three hours, just doing all these diagrams of –
Manda: Mark, well done.
Mark: Thank you. You know, everyone gets a chance to do this one time per job. I basically told them that I had faith in all of them and that the reasons that they went into the culture of design was were still within them. And all these compromises we felt we had to make just in order to get the next job were all understandable. And at the same time, you know, we could stand for something more and we could attract a better class of client anyway, stuff like that.
Manda: Did it make a difference, do you think? Did it change the culture of the company?
Mark: Absolutely. Basically, to jump forward, kind of pole vault a little bit into the future about that particular question. Yeah, when I came back from seven years of travelling, basically when I went out and for seven years, I travelled to different native cultures just asking and this is a really short version. But I basically was saying as I would stop, spend time, make friends, learn, I was observing settlement patterns and the economies of local communities and how they would interact in a basically place based people with multigenerational communities where systems of indoctrination and institutions of coercion haven’t really taken hold or people are in active resistance. So I’m visiting different villages around the world and asking, do you have any idea what the hell is wrong with me and my people, you know, and not making it all about me the whole time? It kind of you know, everybody knows that. I’m really curious to know what they think. So I got to hear a lot about people’s views of colonisation of the entire Western Hemisphere. And you don’t think of it that way when you’re in the Western Hemisphere. You know a bit about the story, but you just kind of go into denial because you have to pay your rent and get on with your life. But I was really visiting people who were, in a sense, refugees, a particular Mayan group in southern Mexico and Chiapas, right at the onset of the Zapatista revolution. So, I was there to observe very much in a kind of permaculture mode. But before I had ever learnt of the word permaculture, I was there to I basically knew, I said it to myself this way. I want to know what people are like because I don’t think I do. Something’s wrong with everywhere I’ve ever been. And I had already travelled broadly. Somehow it felt as if systems were out of balance and there was this constant breaking of continuity, historically, culturally. So, I got to learn about colonialism from people who had been resisting it for 500 years. And one of the most lovely things was when someone said to me, first of all, this person said, you don’t even know who you are. You don’t you people don’t know who you are. You don’t know what’s happened to you. You think you are the conquerors. Ha. I mean, I’ve been I just been crying and apologising for the impact of European colonialism in this case, like, no, no, no, no, no. You guys only did this because it was done to you so long ago. You don’t even know who you are. He said you need to go home, stand in the closest street intersection and look at it all in all directions and notice that the lines are long and flat and straight, and then understand and walk a block away and see it’s the same and walk to another town and see that it’s the same, and then realise you’re in a giant and violently and just inconceivably violently imposed infrastructure. And then he said and then try to find out when your family first came into contact with those lines. And if you can discover that, then you’ll learn who you actually are, because that was the last time your people had a voice. And of course, that takes me back to England. That takes me back to a Roman invasion, the utter destruction of my people there. I’m Mark Lakeman, and I think that we came from Lake Land, actually.
Manda: The North of England.
Mark: Yeah, yeah. But I don’t really know, and I’ve got to investigate that more. That was some excellent instruction. And when I did, I mean, oh, my gosh, while I was there, I saw so many things that revolutionised my sense of our relationship. Humans, human beings, relationship to each other. Like I got to see an actual geo morphic village generated by people as an ecological climatological geographic response in which architecture is not an imposition or it’s not a formal exercise. It’s a result of participation that absolutely fits them like a like the shell fits a snail. And, you know, a place of such incredible equilibrium, even though there was poverty and even though they were to a great extent refugees and having to kind of, you know, contend with the government and the invasive cultures around their perimeter, you know, Campasino culture, trying to destroy rainforests to get more arable land. You know, there was all of those dynamics. And at the same time, I saw social architecture that exceeds anything we practise in this highly evolved city of Portland in anything I’ve read about theoretically in a book, like this starting point of how they see each other in the sense of interdependent interdependence is an entirely different level of seeing themselves as being part of a greater whole, intergenerational.
Manda: And connected to the more than human world around them? Did you see much of that sense of interconnection?
Mark: Yeah, there was a thing that happened that changed me forever. As I sit here, I’m a different person. So imagine I’m just this this guy who’s gone through all of this confusion and conditioning and in part of sports teams were smashing each other and really taught to define my sense of worth by how I contend with other males, especially, you know, part of, you know, subtle and overt misogynist conditioning. So here I am in this moment and I’m just about to leave. And this young trickster fellow who, OK, first of all, to see all of the men and women all wear white tunics and all have beautiful long hair, and they’re entirely uncharacteristic of what you basically see in my culture. This is the Lacandon Maya, and they’re quite distinct from everyone else because they are the only unconquered group. So we’re in that kind of context and we’re in this for this kind of sort of sacred space, which just looks like an ordinary palapa. But the ground is covered with banana leaves and all of these incense burners with the faces of the kind of characteristics of nature, kind of deities. And someone’s been singing for three days, inviting the creative force of the divine to to sit with us. And it freaking showed up. You know, it makes me shake just to think about it. Anyway, yeah, while I’m sitting there, and this trickster guy had just been really he’d been my guide and he’d been teasing me the whole time and kind of tricking me into really looking at myself. Finally, he’s just talking to me with a serious overtone. He asks me, well, have you gotten what you came for? You know, do you think you’ve learnt what you were seeking? And I you know, I was just so affected by, like, certain spectacular things that happen, subtle things just watching the way they would interact and especially their dialogues as whole groups and how they would actually arrive so effortlessly at a decision. As he’s sitting there talking to me this butterfly lands on his shoulder, and he leans back and he’s balancing like he’s sort of on a lotus petal or something. He’s balancing just on his butt with his hands out like this and his feet are forward in the air. And he obviously had a very strong abdomen as he was balancing. And he just with the flick of his finger, he just sort of suggested that the butterfly fly following his hand. So here’s this little butterfly flying above his hand. And he does this thing like this with the butterfly flying between his hands as he’s kind of moving it around -.
Manda: Like a kind of Tai Chi movement, almost.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah, very, very fluid and beautiful like that. And it lands on his wrist and he’s just holding it up so I can see. And he moves his restoring the butterfly hops to his other wrist and goes back and forth, the butterfly hopping back and forth. And then finally it’s on his finger and he leans forward. He says, Now put your finger up. It took a while, but he kind of had to coerce it in using Mayan words, obviously trying to persuade the butterfly to land on the the white man and below the white man’s head out his own butt, which is what happened. Then finally, Butterfly jumped over and I just sat there and it was the most beautiful moment, to have an insect apparently choosing to land on me. And then it just kind of flew the different parts, my leg, my shoulder, and I just felt kissed. Anyway, that’s only one story. There was an anthropologist there whose work I had been reading, and he said to me when I met him, he’s like, I have never left since the late 50s, the things that I saw in the way that these people interact with animals. I could tell you story after story, and he told me some of them, he’s like something is going on here and it is available to all of us. How our consciousness could be if somehow we could recover and live in a more integral way and have more repose and not have to work so hard all the time. So, he said, I’ve never left and I’ll probably die here because I need to be near this.
Manda: Yeah, why would you leave? So why did you leave, Mark? Because you could have stayed maybe.
Manda: Well, I was there long enough to have my mind blown. I was always actually I was inspired by the story of Gaugin and how he had left to go, kind of seek this imagery in this story that he wanted to bring back to France and then exhibit. And I think he was just very much hoping to have a kind of a transformative effect, not just on the world of art, but on culture by depicting people who just lived it with just a fundamentally different paradigm. And I was very inspired by that. So, I invented this kind of travelling art studio. It had kind of lights that would go out to different sides and it had compartments for storing paintings and then travelling libraries, and all my equipment. And right when I got there, the Zapatista revolution started and I managed to have a letter from the Na Bolom Institute, which means House of the Jaguar, which would give me a passage through the military lines and into the Lacandon Maya. Very lucky that way, to have had that. Only two days before everything hit the fan. Yeah, the beginning of city repair was really a lot of what you might call R&D, getting out, developing more of a stereoscopic view of the world, learning more about the design of villages as an expression of people’s values and vision, being integral with their action.
Mark: You know, and you could say that it’s sort of this cliché of the white man going out to try to find the Garden of Eden by looking at so-called untouched, naive or whatever indigenous people. And I think that it wasn’t quite like that. But I could I wouldn’t blame anyone for seeing it that way. But the truth is that there is such tremendous value for any person who gets out of the Western construct and goes just to look at other people respectfully living in the world. So I was well advised. And when I came home to Portland, Oregon, I did stand in the grid and I did in my neighbourhood in the intersection right next to where I always lived and looked and I saw, I finally saw it. And I had learnt in architecture and planning and in my career about the grid, I’d learnt that it was a colonial imposition. But they never connect the sociological impact. Didn’t really help you understand not only what’s really been done to the land and to the people who lived there, but also what it does to the people who occupy now that we live in this kind of quiet desperation with all these incredible consequences that we can barely glimpse playing out in our lives. So, I looked and I saw, oh, this is rather like a graveyard. Everyone’s well organised into this little grid, but we’re all elsewhere. We all leave where we live to go elsewhere, to earn the money, to pay for where we can barely get to be. So we leave the home zone to go to the work zone, scarcely realising that zoning is actually an artifice that is imposed across the continent. And, you know, we’ve got all these brilliant causes emerging like New Urbanism, which would have us a shorter distances to walk and more, you know, no no food deserts and parks closer by. But they are failing still to see that when you have a professional class of designers designing whole landscapes and the whole thing is really driven by somebody wanting to make a gigantic amount of profit, and it may not even be necessary to the culture or really even needed by the people who live there. And it’s not respecting any kind of place based story that pre-exists. But that’s our condition here. And it’s just normal for us all to live in products and not realise that the neighbourhood itself is really a development product. It’s not a village in almost any sense, except that we live there and we might still call ourselves Villagers’, which is really what takes us to city repair. That’s the thing we do. We’re saying, we understand your context. It’s possible for you to understand how it is you come to this place where you feel like you have to ask other people for permission to have agency where you live. Like, how did that happen?
Manda: Because I’m guessing it doesn’t happen in Mayan villages.
Mark: No. They just get up in the morning and they’re doing whatever they have to do. They’re like I was told, you know, what drives our economy is figuring out how we’re going to mentor our children today.
Manda: Ok, we have a ways to go. But so you came back to Portland, you stood on that intersection and you changed that intersection. Can you tell us a little bit about that very first kind of revolutionary intersection transformation?
Mark: Yeah, OK. Well, because I was really well coached and not just by these Mayan folks, but also by others, and especially including Cheyenne architect named Elk River. My way of approaching this was to see that in terms of design, like, OK, if we were villagers, there would be a programme of places and spaces that would accommodate and facilitate interaction and exchange and creativity. And looking across the sweep of the neighbourhood, I’m like, oh, it’s just housing this really. And then there’s maybe a bus stop on the perimeter to take you elsewhere. We’re missing the entire spectacular programme that would otherwise bring us together. And if we actually lived and worked with each other, you know, our health indicators would skyrocket, our crime indicators would plummet, domestic violence would probably be extinguished. And also, all of these other challenges related to drug use and traumas that children are going through. If we were to affect an essential repair of the connectivity of people to each other right where they live, to the point where they would say, oh, yes, we’re all very creative, aren’t we, with the thousands of people living here? And we all go away elsewhere to work with thousands of other people, but never here, never, ever freaking right here, except maybe a block party and barbecue. So we started to engender that programme of places and spaces. And before the intersection, there was actually another more fundamental radical project based on two things: the time I spent in Oxford having tea in the afternoon with people, the way that everything just stops and people may create this moment in time to just be together, that was fused together with the movement of the mind meetinghouse and kind of this architecture of being integral with nature.
Mark: So my friend, Elk River, the Cheyenne I had mentioned earlier, he said it needs to be spatial. You can’t talk people into or out of things into a better world. You have to model it wordlessly. So for me, that meant creating something. I won’t go too much into this. But while I was in Oxford at the Bodleian, I was digging in to a lot of different texts. And I came away with a bunch of really interesting suggestions from older cultures about how the world would be changed, like people having visions about the world being changed. There were three visions in particular that were inspirational to me, and one of them was in this ancient Coptic notion that a designed thing would be key to changing the world. Another one said that there was this moment in nineteen ninety six where something – and they didn’t use the word nineteen ninety six, but it was like four thousand years from now, which happened to be nineteen eighty six – something amazing would happen and maybe it’s a design thing. And then there was another thing that I read about, the key moment of Moonday, or Lunes, the day of the Goddess. And so this special intervention was created. We need a new mythological landscape. We’re fighting against forces of such tremendous violence and what we have is actually more powerful, it’s our creativity and love and our beauty and food and community with each other. How can we create this strategically in a way that suggests, well, that would engender an awakening and a creative urge broadly.
Mark: So this tea house was created and essentially it was a gigantic space. It was woven into a living garden of fruit trees and flowering vines and stuff. And it was just a gigantic thousand square foot literally, I mean, the shape of the womb. You can actually find the sunlight to see the floor plan of it. But when you look at it, you’re like, oh, my God, it’s a giant child. So the organs and the brain and the heart of it comprising different features of the space, and you would enter it through a very sacred portal and go to this to kind of tunnel into this space of total inclusivity that had trees coming up through it and branches from the trees coming down through the roof and just enlivening the space. And then when you went into it, everything was just free in the sense of space, just with all these different levels. And then the fact that everything was made out of branches and some of them were alive and there were trees that everything was attached to, you couldn’t. It just was really going into a dream. But the intent was to make it feel like you’re back inside your mother.
Manda: Where is this Mark?
Mark: Southeast Portland, in Sellwood.
Manda: OK, and is it still there?
Mark: No, no. It was is built basically to exist long enough to catalyse the energy for people to go out and seize the street. Wow. OK, so it was really like a like a booster rocket. So it was the first way of addressing the isolation in the neighbourhood. Just thinking about the US only. Every neighbourhood is deficient in gathering places. And here’s one intervention that will be relevant to all neighbourhoods. So, this is a prototype that will inspire people to learn and also to act. So, it was made out of 10, 10 rooms that all broke apart a certain point once the city found out about it and they said, you can’t do that. You haven’t asked permission. My friend Elk River said the first thing you’ve got to not do is ask permission. Yeah, just it’s like you’re crossing a line, and everyone needs to realise that they’re all on the same side of that line, you know, disempowerment stuff. So, it’s like, you can’t ask permission. So, the city came along, said, you can’t do this. Oh, my God. And by that, they were too late because hundreds and hundreds of people in the neighbourhood were now connected and they all stood up. They got off the couches, they turned off their TVs, they organised, they fought back, and they wrote letters and they got the TV and all the media involved. And suddenly it looked like the city was trying to beat up this little neighbourhood that had just made something out of garbage, natural material. And it was quite a drama, quite a creative drama. And we won. They had to back off. And at that point then we moved all the energy out into the intersection.
We took over the intersection. We built all these features on the corners. All of it was illegal. And I knew that. But the neighbours, the neighbours were just like, well, why shouldn’t we build a little twenty four hour book station on the southeast corner? And why shouldn’t we put a place for children to share toys, and adults to put fruit and vegetables out on the road? Why shouldn’t it all be beautiful and sculptural and statements of recycling and ecological design? Why shouldn’t there be a giant playhouse wrapped around the tree of a northwest corner, and sky-scaping bench for an entire family to sit on on the southwest corner and a twenty four hour solar power tea station? I mean, there were all these different amenities. We were basically like, OK, what’s the programme of a really successful village heart? Let’s treat this like a garden and we’ll put all these little starts into the human space, really treat ourselves as an ecology and we’ll use ecological principles for engendering kind of a growth and an impact cohesion. Anyway, that was all illegal. And we painted the entire surface of the street with these concentric colours and these lines going in all four directions. So we were really reclaiming the crossroads. Actually, you know, city repair is really about treating everything as a crossroads to say wherever pathways converge, that is where lives come together. And if we keep nurturing that effect, we will regenerate human culture, because after all, that is the very first move of urban design or a village design. Where do the pathways cross? That will be where activities and functions are clustered. So we support that, and the community builds itself.
Manda: And you worked with the police rather interestingly, so that when they were called, they were on your side?
Mark: Yeah, we were kind of very pre-emptive about it, proactive about it. We knew that there was this tall, kind of terrifying looking, but very sweet, almost seven-foot-tall policeman named Ed. And we set up an arrangement with him so that every Monday these two really wonderful little girls would be waiting on the corner for him at seven o’clock with chai tea. This was before Chai was really even known in Portland. But we’re making chai and usually chocolate cake or some form of pie. And he would show up right on time and a lot of the time we could get him out of his car to come into the tea house, which was I mean, I remember the first time he walked into it, he just was like, oh, I’m sorry, because it is such an intimate space. We said, No, no, no, no, come on. Come on in. So we were doing – you know, people always joke about cops and doughnuts. And we were being we are sort of saying, well, you know, rather than waiting for this terrible moment where everyone’s mad at each other and you’re in a protest and that’s the only time you talk to the police, let’s build a relationship with him like this is this is one of the things I learnt from these various advisers, as I was visiting my travels, like we’re actually all on the same side.
Mark: And if you’re polarised and sort of tricked into thinking you have to fight over unsolvable issues, then you’ll remain trapped. But if you can just act from a place where we actually see each other’s common humanity and then afford each other that dignity and respect, then act. Everything you do actually starts to invite people in to share that with you and then give that offer that back to you. So that’s how we treated and that’s how we engaged. And Transportation Department got mad.
Manda: Because you’re blocking a highway.
Mark: Yeah, we were messing with the right of way and said I am paid to stop things which are bad, but I’m not paid to stop things which are good. And he said we will not even be reporting this and Transportation is going to have to be the one to engage you, and they’re going to get mad. And he said when they do call the police. So that’s what happened. We’re like literally across the table now. We finally brought Transportation to the table. And I need to say we call them. We we said we have a proposal. Your own website says you want to engage children to do things in public space. You want to clean up streets and build stewardship and all this sort of stuff related to liveability. And they said, well, we talked, and we said, oh, there’s 22000 street intersections in the city. And on the other hand, all these ancient villages around the world where intersections are actually things like piazzas, gathering places. So, we’d like to repurpose one, after all, as public space. And they said, OK, so this is what we have to say. That’s public space, so nobody can use it. It’s direct quote, like, wow, this is amazing.
Mark: It’s like watching the movie Brazil, it’s like we’re just punching ourselves in the face now is like, you know, it’s public space. So maybe the public could use it. And, you know, when we met with them downtown and we looked across the table, it was just absurd. They were saying, you know, you can’t do that. You don’t have the power. And then our answer was, OK. So if that’s true in our neighbourhood, then that’s true in yours, that nobody anywhere at all has power of place. And we live here our whole lives, we pay for our we pay our mortgages for 30 years. And you’re saying that we have no power, the space between our homes does not bring us together. And we said we’re trying to do this not only for our neighbourhood, but for everyone in the city. And really, we were thinking about all cities because again, as we were coached to understand these ordinances that engender isolation through design, apply everywhere across the entire empire construct and the vulnerability of empire is that whenever there’s a place based innovation, it can be replicated across the entire construct of design.
Manda: And what did Transport do when you presented them with this concept?
They were mad, they were mad, but they also said, OK, but because we had continued to engage them respectfully and we never reacted to their attitude. We left them room. We left them the chance to stand in their own dignity. And they said, the truth is, this is our favourite problem and we have an entire wall dedicated to it. We love this thing and we just we don’t feel that we have the discretion to be able to, you know, to be able to support this. And the truth is that after that, I mean, after the whole thing happened within a couple of months, the city council unanimously legalised it and they reprimanded the Department of Transportation. They said, you never do this again. When somebody comes forward with a constructive proposal that’s connected, like we were citing the benchmarks and the goals and objectives of the region and all the way down to the neighbourhood that are unmet perpetually. And they said they’ve come with you to you with an organised proposal and you just say no, like from now on, always freaking ever, you know, entertain it and bring it to our attention.
Manda: Right. And was Portland a particularly progressive place at this point? Is that why they said that? Could you imagine that happening in, I don’t know, list of a very, very reactionary places across the states? Would they still say the same?
Mark: I would say it’s kind of a yes and no, because like just like, you know, after we did this, we were in Washington, D.C. to the planning bureau. And they’re like, no way will that ever happen here. And then it happened four years later. So, Portland, Portland is on this kind of spectrum of cultural recovery, like a lot of places, like everywhere really is. And we were building on progressive momentum, like we have an incredibly progressive planning culture that was frustrated, always being conscripted to just facilitate thoughtless development. But nonetheless, we’d accomplished like world boundaries around all cities, making all waterways, public, and riparian zones.
Manda: But they’re public, so nobody can then use them. Right, because that’s the that’s the definition because nobody can go near it. Because it’s public now.
Mark: Yeah. You can sort of access it, but you can’t really do anything, and you can’t get to it. It’s complicated, but, you know, it’s all in transition. I consider all these all transitional steps toward a better world. Messy and imperfect, imperfect.
Manda: You did that first intersection, and as I understand it, there are now thousands across Portland and other areas in the states where intersections have been reclaimed and humanised. Is that right?
Mark: Yeah. We literally don’t know how many there are now in the United States. I stopped being able to count the number of cities that have replicated the ordinance. And in most cases, our city bureaucracy is helping the bureaucracies of other cities to basically liberalise public space. And other cities are replicating their ordinances. We have three favourite ordinances here, one for transforming street intersections, as many as any neighbourhood ones for free.
Mark: And now, as of a couple of years ago, all of the streets that connect all those intersections in all residential zones are up for reinvention, for free,
Manda: For free, as in this city will pay for whatever is required if the residents create a plan of what they want?
Mark: Well, like that it’s actually for free in terms of the initiative has to come from the neighbourhood has to be placed based and it has to have a certain amount of support, a certain percentage of support of local residents within a two block radius, around any amount, any intervention have to a minimum of 80 percent of the people, which is quite a low bar because the city really wants to incentivise these things.
Manda: Hang on, 80 percent is a low bar.
Mark: Yeah, I think a lot of-
Manda: We struggle to get over 50 percent to agree to something. Yeah. So, I’m really interested. You said when you were with the mayor that you were really watching their decision-making process. Can we talk a little bit about what they did that we could replicate?
Mark: Thank you. Yeah, OK, so most people are familiar with obviously ideas like consensus or Robert’s Rules, different ways that people come to arrive at decisions, set agendas and get something done within a focussed period of time or recently, systems like sociopathy or dynamic governance tend to be preferred over consensus for good reasons. OK, well, so I was only familiar with some of that when I was with the locking down mid 90s. But what I saw I still have never seen here, except now in the community where I’ve personally been working like, I’m still in the same neighbourhood. Part of my commitment to transformation is to remain rooted in that same first place and not leave.
Manda: Where you were brought up?
Mark: Yeah. So by being able to be there, I get the benefit and I really recommend this for everyone to do this for their own lives, to be resident in a place, to choose their place and set down their roots, and be there to watch the continuity over time and to be really engaged in it and helping it over time, because it’s, I can’t imagine a richer living experience, and to do that. And I have been a traveller, so I understand the difference. Anyway. So what I saw in the Mayan community, it it it is possible basically just described two situations having to do with conflicts on their perimeter where Campasinos were cutting down the rainforest and burning in order to get more arable land, and they’re coming into the Lacandon reserve, which has been set aside to protect this basically Neolithic people. And so that then there’s a conflict with Campasinos who then are brandishing guns, and the Lacandon are yelling at them and telling them they have to stop and they have to leave, so that kind of thing. And it’s really scary for the community because the Campasinos a lot of them are violent and they drink a lot of alcohol, and there are murders that happen, and the Lacandon are very non-violent. So, I saw this dialogue, the two dialogues. One was about letting me stay in the community, whether or not they would let me stay, and the other one was having to do with this conflict on the perimeter. In both cases, there was a big gathering. All these men and women were able to come, and they all came into one large kind of architecture and it was not even big enough for all of them. So, they were into these little subgroups and the individuals who were walking back and forth. And sometimes someone would get on a table and yell so that everyone could hear them. And it seemed chaotic. But was what was happening was people were talking to everyone they felt that they needed to connect with. So, things people were aggregating, and the groups were rejoining and then kind of separating and it was kind of moving, punctuated by people saying things loudly across the whole group. And sometimes everyone would stop and listen, and other times they wouldn’t. And then they would suddenly disperse, and I asked, well, OK, what did I just see happened? Oh, right, OK, so the way things work here is that we’re basically, I’m having to paraphrase, but basically we’re this interdependent, cultural, totally paraphrasing, the people who are most directly connected to the issue have now heard from everyone. They act on behalf; they use their own judgement to act on behalf of everything they’ve just heard. It’s their job to integrate everything that they just heard everyone say. So the group doesn’t get to tell someone how to use their judgement. Everyone gets to act on behalf of this greater whole. I’m sure there must be times when they sit there and then they actually come to a certain deliberation. But what I saw in action and heated moments was just that and I think when they were deciding whether or not I could stay, it was probably more sociocratic, like who doesn’t want him to stay? But everyone suddenly dispersed, and this person said, OK, you’re good, so I got to stay.
Manda: And so, what happened with the Campasinos?
Mark: Well, I didn’t get to see what was happening on that edge. I imagine that the Lacandon would try to engage them constructively, anyway. But I didn’t get to see how it was resolved, except I know that there wasn’t further violence or at least that I heard of and I probably would have heard of it. But how this then comes back to our community, I can say that I wanted to come home and inhabit that, and I wanted to scale it up. And I thought that what I had just seen was so inherently human to like our spirituality, our physiology or psychology, that I thought that if people would have an experience of that kind of collaboration, that it would tend to root and replicate.
And City Repair was really based on that idea that we model stuff. It’s so enjoyable and largely because there’s food and music involved and people are connecting and making friends and finding new lovers or whatever, you know, whatever it is that that that the that the mode or the concept replicates in original forms. So, in my neighbourhood, I can definitely tell you that that social culture is the main piece of architecture that persists and continues to grow. We have been doing this now for 20 years and every single year we reinvent the cultural space of the intersection. Every year we sit down, and we redesign it and then we reinstall it. So, there’s now twenty four, twenty five layers of community murals on the street surface. And we get together in the early springs to restart the process, but we don’t get anything done and everyone’s so happy to see each other that that doesn’t matter. And then we’re like, oh well, you know, we’ll reschedule. We do that every year. Like, Oh yeah, well we’ll reschedule. And then everybody comes back with thoughts to share. And, you know, there’s different ways that things go round and then there’s kind of popcorn style of people suggesting things and kids always go off on their own and the adults think they’re getting things done. And then the kids come in with their ideas. The adults throw aside everything they’ve been figuring out and the kids take over and the kids are way more creative and hilarious. So then the adults say, all right, well, we’ll do what the kids want every single time it goes like that.
Mark: And then by the third potluck, you know, a final design is presented, you know, people with serious artistic skills or it just turned out that people found so much fun and fulfilment in playing these kinds of roles in their community. And to me, you know, my goal was like, how do I trick people into coming back into their village or sensibility?
Manda: Have you found also that people are more inclined not to have a work zone and a home zone, that they’re staying home to do something that allows them to earn a living within the community? Has that worked?
Mark: Yeah, and I would say I’m part of the evidence I’m citing. But I mean, I’ve seen it in all these other people as well. But see people go from basically being conditioned to like have an identity that is cultivated within a perfunctory society, like they play a specific role and then, you know, defining themselves by how hard they work to actually learn how to just be in time and share stories and to find fulfilment by being present. That’s actually one of the most important things to realise. I’ve been thinking about this over and over, like how do we help people realise that this is personal?
Mark: People are so polarised over insolvable kind of abstract causes or issues. And for them to realise like sustainability, resilience, things related to the transformation that we seek in infrastructure, actually the real benefit is personal. It’s felt in terms of your own peace of mind, your own health, the health of your family, whether or not your parents stay together.
Manda: Or you stay together.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah.
Manda: And not just not being in a world where… I remember in the days when I used to have a kind of paid job that I really didn’t like, I would wake up every hour through the night on a Sunday night, counting down to Monday morning, wondering how I could not have to go to work. And I imagine there are people still doing that less, because lockdown kind of began to break that down. But it also seems to me that whatever we call the structures that are holding onto business as usual are desperate for us to go back into that kind of annihilating, horrendous, soul destroying existence. And that what you’re offering is the capacity to go back to: we don’t need to do that. And we don’t need to necessarily go. Live in a straw bale hut in the middle of nowhere to do it, we can bring that sense of wildness that otherwise happens in in remote rural communities into the centres of our cities. Is that a fair assessment?
Mark: Yeah, it absolutely is. There’s so many different ways that we can talk about it from different angles too. This is something I’m thinking about a lot. You know, I would love to help the most wealthy and powerful to question things themselves, like how much this is really enhancing my quality of life.
Manda: Do I need another mega yacht? Really?
Mark: Really. I basically think of it this way. You know, all you really have I mean, beyond what you kind of think you possess is the surface of your senses. I feel about yourself and obviously your relationship to the world and other people affect you. But really, it’s how you’re feeling inside and your surface area that is what you really have as a quality of living experience. And I would say most of the very wealthy people I know are having a miserable experience within their surface area. We can’t give up on that strategy of trying to have people appeal to people’s humanity and invite them to join us at the table of culture. And I think, you know, I’ve seen I mean, I’m in touch with various progressive developers who are just absolutely thriving by creating affordable housing and participatory villages with diverse scales and projects that sit on Land trust that are permanently affordable. They know that they’re creating a legacy.
Manda: And not just a statue in an Oxford college, which is how they used to do it. And then the statues get pulled down.
Mark: Right. Yeah. I want to convey this. I mean, my friend Eli, who does so many wonderful urban infill villages, and he is constantly working to try to transform larger development culture. The beautiful thing that I don’t know if he has figured out how to say this yet, but everybody loves him, like when he speaks in the city of Portland, everybody listens because they trust him, and they respect him. And he’s beloved now. And it’s just, his wife is beloved. His children are taking care of, like people recognise him with respect everywhere he goes so he doesn’t have to die to leave a legacy. He gets to inhabit a fulfilling life.
Manda: Right. Somehow, we have to get the word out that it’s done differently. And you’ve got you got the city repair project website,
Mark: Cityrepair.villagebuildingconvergence.com and then our radical design office, that is kind of it came out of city repair to establish itself on its own. It’s communitexture.net
Manda: We’ll put those in the show notes. But what we really want is somehow a person in every city around the world who’s listening to this to get out and talk to your local city council, because I think, you know, city councils are made up of people around here. They’re stiflingly unimaginative. It’s like they pick people based on their absence of creativity. But there must be people who could be creative that they were given the agency to do that.
Mark: Yes. So, I would just like to say as we’re winding down, but our overarching goal or our overarching strategy is to use design or to use creative infrastructure projects as a means to build community and help people rediscover their agency. And it seems as if those projects can be quite small, whether it’s a community bench or a kiosk or or even a playground at the most joyous scale. What you’re doing is actually using that as a catalyst to have a big effect. In fact, I think resilience is characterised by small being big and big being small, really upending the idea that giant things are what is important, but realise more deeply that as you engage officials, you engage anyone in the process, you can actually be transforming systems through how you engage the human beings in them to join you in this cause and identify with what you’re doing, then it can go to any conceivable scale. And you’re really thinking the whole time that you’re changing the world.
Manda: Yes. If we gave you ten years starting now and access to everyone who runs a city around the planet and you are able to make everything that you want happen, could you sketch for us the world that would be 2030 if everything worked out, in the best way possible?
Mark: I can definitely do that, and I can characterise the experience of that world and that’s actually the best question anyone’s ever asked me. So I can pretty much die now. As I’ve dreamt of the answer to that question almost my whole life, it would be characterised by a changed personal experience of being alive for each person. I mean, why we’re talking about city repair is it’s all about people enacting the world that they want to see directly. The distinction between work and play would be dissolved. And it would become one thing that, like the work you did to support your community would be meaningful and not destructive to the world. Inevitably, in order to reduce carbon emissions, you have to localise living and working so you’re not transmitting your body through space every day. So that’s kind of a given. That’s kind of a design constraint. So if you do that and the quality of your life will increase, the spectrum of your relationships will deepen and broaden, your satisfaction will increase in a stop needing to have so much money because so many of your needs will be met because people will be like, oh, wow, thanks for taking care of my children or showing them how to use that tool, you know, the kind of just reciprocity that happens automatically. So 2030, if we’re going to survive, it has to be characterised by greater meaning and satisfaction, more direct connection, the less of a need for mobility and more of a kind of an equilibrium and ease and an aesthetic satisfaction on the ground where we stand that we’re not really monetising our reality so much, but we’re really seeing the home not as a commodity, but as a hearth. So, you know, as you look around the world, I would say you’re going to see vegetation everywhere. The landscapes are going to be edible. They’re going to support native species, that’ll be for sure. And then there will be lots of retrofits that you’ll see everywhere in terms of art happening in public spaces, rooftops becoming either respirating ecologies or reflective surfaces, as we all kind of come into common cause to confront climate change and repair the ecologies of the world. But this means we can’t wait for the wealthy and powerful to wake up to the fact that they can live more satisfying lives within their own surface area. We can’t wait for that. We can keep inviting them to that. But ultimately, we’ve got to really seize our own tools. We realise our own creative destinies depend upon our taking the initiative and just begin to create everywhere out of control, but in concert and in collaboration.
Manda: That sounds amazing.
Mark: Yeah. Let’s go there. Yeah, let’s do it.
Manda: Well, let’s make it happen. We got ten years. We can do that and we might even get to the point where we’re able to have net negative carbon and begin to, to reverse things and increase biodiversity and just make being a human being fun. That would be that would be so easy Alrighty. I think I think that’s a good place to end. I can envisage possibly coming back again for a second bite. But for now, thank you for coming on to Accidental Gods.
Mark: Thanks, Manda.
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