Sunday, September 19, 2010


The more I read about community building, the more I become confused as to which direction I want to go in. What part of community building should be a 501c3 organization? What part should be a business? What part should just be a low-key community effort with no legal structures involved? There are the day to day neighborly interactions, there are community events, there are services offered…there are so many things a community needs and there are so many things a community does!

In Portland I was fortunate enough to meet up with Michael Cook, a volunteer for CityRepair and we talked a little about how and why City Repair was founded, how it works now, and some of the success and failures of their relatively non hierarchical organizational structure. This organization is an example of a 501c3 org that may do just as well without that registered legal status…

City Repair was founded by Mark Lakeman and focuses a lot around the idea of placemaking, “the creative reclamation of public space.” IT is an interesting story to follow--how the organization was started, how it flourished, and what it is doing today--but what I want to post on are several other things that came up in my discussion with Michael.

1. Non hierarchical structures. Thanks to Barnard EcoReps, I have had plenty of experience with nonhierarchical structures. Cons: No one has complete ownership, so often things just simply do not get done. A person suggests a good idea, but if they do not pursue it, the rest of the group usually will not make it a point to follow up. Pros? Everyone feels empowered. If they suggest an idea and it is accepted by the group, they can run away with it! So long as there are willing workers, anything is possible. There is more potential for endless numbers of projects to be completed all at the same time…if there is no hierarchy, there need not be a person on the top level who has to balance all of the projects, funds, etc. Finance your own project, run your own project, and the others will help (if you bug them enough).

2. Doing what works for YOUR community. While a van that offers free tea to neighbors and painting intersections may be what’s needed in Portland, something else may work better in Buffalo. I am hopefully talking with an organization called Paint the Pavement in Minneapolis…they took the idea of intersection painting and ran away with it! I’m not sure if they ever thought of this idea of doing what makes sense for your community…we shall see, but it seems that they were totally excited about intersection painting and simply decided that would be best instead of brainstorming their own solutions for placemaking within their own community. Perhaps this is a harsh judgment? Anyway, this has gotten me thinking a lot about…what is good for Buffalo? Is there a need for expanded artistic expression, a need for basic amenities, do we focus on bettering ourselves and self actualization of individuals or do we focus first on building a supportive community which then hopefully leads to supporting people in their ideas and self sufficiency?

3. Defacing of placemaking sites. I’ve learned in visiting with ArtStormLA and seeing murals in SF that graffiti isn’t necessarily as bad a thing as many people think; in fact, graffiti can be beautiful if properly directed! Michael mentioned that there has been graffiti and other shenanigans (stealing of mugs, tea, etc) at many of the City Repair sites. Isn’t graffiti a form of placemaking itself? An artistic expression perhaps of someone’s lot in life, or their involvement in one group or another, or their thoughts about a certain space? How do we work together, making both community member and graffiti artist happy? How do we come to an agreement on what is placemaking and what ruins the spirit of placemaking?

City Repair has been super successful, but I can see where at times it might be hard to lead something so informal and ambiguous. What exactly does City Repair do? A little bit of everything it seems, which in my opinion both works and does not work. It’s the same with the whole sustainability issue…there are SO many issues within it to tackle, but do you tackle them all at once or just focus on one? Do you have a broad scope which seeks to inspire further action and involvement of the community members and cannot hope to really address all problems, or do you have a smaller scope and make leaps and bounds in one particular area?

I have much more thinking to do on the idea of placemaking and what City Repair has tried, but I think I’ll save it for when I’m in Vermont. I’m traveling through cities and states too fast now to process everything…

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