Simple Ideas Can Change A Community
by Billy Goodnick
I took an eye-opening permaculture design class at City College this summer. When we got to the topic of creating community, our instructor, the delightful and resourceful Kendy Radasky, showed a video about City Repair. This Portland, Oregon-based organization creates artistic, sustainable neighborhood improvements that changed the personality of their shared public spaces.
That evening, I walked around my neighborhood and realized how sterile and soulless it felt compared to what I had just seen (except for McConnell's). Where were the brightly painted mandalas in the intersections or fanciful bus shelters built from locally harvested street trees? I didn't see one box of fresh produce generously left in a curbside kiosk.
The 3-year old in me petulantly pouted, "I want some of THOSE THINGS!"
Planting Seeds of Action
After Mark Lakeman, visionary architect and founding member of City Repair, finishes his presentation at the Faulkner Gallery at 7 PM on September 16, attendees will likely leave with similar, envious feelings.
They might even be motivated to do something about those feelings.
And if Lynn Seigel-Boettner, Mesa resident and cheerleader/webmaster for Santa Barbara Food Not Lawns, has her long-time wish fulfilled, there will be free-boxes brimming with luscious heirloom tomatoes and useful things that people share with their neighbors.
"I first read about Mark in Sunset magazine 10 or 15 years ago," Lynn told me. "The article was about community-building projects that Mark and others were doing in Portland. I remember this picture of kids sitting on the sidewalk reading books and playing with toys they found in a free-box in their neighbor's front yard. I thought, 'this is a great idea' and eventually built a box of my own."
I saw Lynn's Mesa-neighborhood vegetable garden not too long ago. In her unique, bountiful front yard sits a Lakeman-inspired kiosk brimming with her chickens' eggs, a basket of ruby red strawberries and juicy oranges.
A neighbor strolled by, helped herself to a few berries, offered a smiling "thank you," and continued on.
As simple as this concept sounds, the kiosk is a powerful catalyst that opened the door to meeting neighbors and forming bonds that are sorely lacking in communities.
So when Lynn heard that Mark Lakeman would be speaking in Santa Barbara this week, she figured she'd help by hosting him and spreading the word. Perhaps others would be inspired to take action, as she had.
Mark is the founding member of City Repair, which describes itself as "an ‘anti-virus' to combat isolation and over-commodification of conventionally designed cities." Since 1996, group of volunteers has grown from humble roots to a national movement with projects underway in 12 cities in the US and Canada, including citizen-driven designs for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Mark is a self-effacing crusader for a cause he holds dear. He says that at his Wednesday talk, his role is "to tell stories that explain how other collaborative projects have happened in communities throughout the country."
Then it's up to each community to localize their ideas and make things happen.
I'm writing this post because we need lots of people in the room. There's no sense casting a rich mixture of seeds if they can't land on lots of fertile ground. We need you and your friends to come, listen, open your synaptic connections and get your pulse pumping.
Lynn assures me that there's no agenda, no pet projects that someone is trying to push. "I agree with Mark that suburbia doesn't work. We need to look at the existing system and see how we can make gentle changes. If someone feels inspired to do their own small project, that's great. Or they can join with others and take on something more ambitious."
Embrace the Process
Many of the projects that City Repair has completed simply happened. Like Nike, they just did it. Other projects occupy publicly owned spaces-The Commons, as Mark likes to say.
In my 22 years working for the City of Santa Barbara, I've watched scores of imaginative, excited people pitch ideas they think would be a boon to Santa Barbara, from poetry gardens to fly-casting ponds to skateboard parks to giant chess sets. Some "get legs" and others die slow, quiet deaths.
What sets successful projects apart is acceptance of reality. The advocates understand that they have to do some of the heavy lifting. Now more than ever, coffers are cleaned out, staff is stretched and projects are paralyzed. So don't expect a genie to appear from a magic lamp and make it happen for you.
Project advocates who made it to the finish line figured out how to cultivate in-kind donations, think creatively and work within the rules agencies have to follow. That's another one of Mark's specialties.
So you'll need to get fired up, learn the process, accept the hoops you'll be asked to jump through (hopefully, they won't be on fire), and befriend a councilmember or two who will go to bat for the idea.
Unimaginable projects happen. I know. I've watched kids ollying, flip-kicking and grinding in Santa Barbara's most precious beachfront real estate, Skater's Point.
Bring a busload of friends. I'll see you at the Faulkner.
Suggested donation at the door: $10
More info about Santa Barbara Food Not Lawns, City Repair and Mark Lakeman's Communitecture design practice.
# # # #
Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
# # # #