On July 25th, Saskia Eslinger, an Anchorage-based permaculture teacher and urban homesteader, hosted Matt Bibeau of the City Repair Project and the Northwest Permaculture Convergence for a presentation titled Permaculture & Community: Building Resiliency in the Urban Environment. Over 20 Anchorage residents, many associated with the Alaska Permaculture organizing group, explored the impact of the city grid pattern on how we relate to each other and overall community health and resiliency of the social fabric and sense of place amongst residents. Photographs of settlement patterns illustrated how we’ve departed from more of a village-based organizational pattern with the center, or the crossroads, serving as the center of community activity.
Nowadays, in the urban grid pattern, one of our geographic boundaries are the streets around a city block, where there is little to no regular interaction amongst the residents of a block, and rarely a common space in-between all of the homes, but rather, a myriad of fences and property lines that further perpetuate the fragmentation of our urban environments.
During this evening’s presentation, several urban community building projects were highlighted, including the first structure built by The City repair Project’s co-founder, Mark Lakeman, an unpermitted gathering place with various rooms that together formed the pattern of a child’s body curled in a fetal position. This structure, build out of all reused materials in a SE Portland neighborhood, grew wildly popular as a local gathering place, where residents would enjoy tea, conversation and music.
This structure had apparently fulfilled a need that many who came hadn’t considered as one that they were missing in the first place, although the sense of disconnection from something unseen and unspoken was perhaps a shared experience of many. This structure, affectionately named the T-Hous, was ultimately required to be taken down by the city, but it’s impression–and the role it served–remained as a more visceral aspect of community that residents sought in a more focused and deliberate way.
Borne out of this small neighborhood gathering space was an intention and desire to have some say, some control, of what the residents’ neighborhood was like. Why leave all these decisions to people who don’t live there in the first place? When a rogue intersection mural appeared, the city was at first concerned that the neighborhood reclaiming effort had gone too far, however, a group of committed activists worked with the city to legalize the street mural, and a city ordinance exists to this day that permits street closure for what City Repair–the eventual organization of this movement–now calls Intersection Repair.
Many other small urban building projects began to emerge, first with a small cob structure built of wood, sand, straw and clay, and then growing to include other forms of natural building, community message boards, bike shelters, public art, permaculture garden projects and outdoor classrooms. All had the deeper function and purpose of bringing the communities together where they were organized, and all had a small and tangible effect on how that place would be experienced by the community and the public.
Now in its 12th year of organizing, this effort of City Repair, called the Village Building Convergence, serves as a model for other cities to begin organizing at a neighborhood level, finding ways and means for making small and significant changes that, together with more and more projects of a similar scale, begin to shift the culture of a city to one that is more place-based where residents are invited to contribute to projects that serve the multiple purposes of bringing neighbors and friends together for a common cause, improving the urban aesthetic and creating lasting relationships in the process.
Our hosts, founders of the Williams Street Farmhouse, have created an impressive model for urban homesteading, their 1/4 acre lot bursting with tall, healthy vegetables, their chickens scratching at the soil from their outdoor pen and also having access to the greenhouse on cold nights, rainwater catchment and a fence made from reused windows that give this place an aesthetic familiar to many in the permaculture scene. Several regular visitors of the farmhouse suggested that this site, already a thriving center of community with weekly workshops and work parties, could become Alaska’s first Village Building Convergence site. If all goes well, we’ll have an opportunity to share more ideas for organizing at the Northwest Permaculture Convergence. Anchorage permies have been invited!