Permaculture and City Repair

It was a few weeks ago that we spent a day in the city together as a class, exploring sites of urban permaculture around Victoria. Things feel quieter here in the winter, green and tranquil, and much of the life at these places we visited had the sense not of dormancy but of holding firm in a sort of patient repose. I wrote at the time that I was moved “most of all by the sense of community building that informed the design and imbued the spirit of the places we visited” – as if by pausing together we were accessing the gentle eddies of love and energy that was spent in their creation and was still cycling there.

This effort is something that I think could be properly called “place-making”. It’s an idea that we explored more deeply this past weekend with Mark Lakeman at a workshop called “Permaculture, Place-Making, and Planet Repair”. I’ll offer some reflections here on Mark’s project and how it relates to ideas of community and regeneration.

Mark Lakeman, speaking at center at Ravenhill Herb Farm, cited “From The Heart – Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation” by local Victoria playwright Will Weigler as an example of regenerative “community-based theatre”. The 2013 production examined the relationships between non-indigenous and First Nations peoples in Canada. The set was constructed from repurposed materials, and the majority of the cast was non-actor volunteers.

Permaculture has been called a “revolution disguised as gardening”. After listening to Mark, I was struck that his vision of permaculture seems somehow to invert this, so central is the joyful revolutionary spirit of the enterprise. The City Repair Project, which he co-founded in Portland in the mid-‘90s, seeks to revolutionize public space to create a kind of cultural commons – a process that Mark calls “re-villaging”.

The “un-villaging” that compels and necessitates this work has political origins. In this country, Canada’s Dominion Land Survey was initiated in 1871, an effort to signal Canadian sovereignty over the western territory by imposing a numbered grid on the land: knife-straight parcels hewn into the prairie map like tiles. Its neat, unyielding uniformity looks like a math equation, terra nullius with no room for argument. It is, of course, fundamentally an expression of colonialism – of claiming and control – for Canada was never terra nullius, and its legacy of Indigenous dispossession cannot be squeezed between these interlocking parcels on the map and made invisible.

A view of Mount Baker in Washington from ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱, “Place of Refuge”, Saanich Peninsula.

But beyond its social and political reverberations, the DLS left another material legacy as well: the criss-crossing street grids of most modern Canadian cities. These square urban patterns, in Mark’s view, serve to tell you that you’re in a colonized place. Certainly, this design isn’t a new phenomenon – the ancient Greek city of Priene incorporated a politically ordained grid plan, despite being situated on a treacherously steep escarpment (an imposed relationship with “edge” that would make any permaculturist shudder). To Mark, it is absurd that we allow overseers to design our environment in this way. And so City Repair, at its core, is an emancipatory project. To decolonize, we need to “garden outside the lines” – to exercise our own authority in the public sphere.

What does this look like? The permaculture that Mark talked about is one that elevates the internal and communal aspect: the sometimes half-forgotten culture part of the portmanteau. It is, in his words, a project that aspires to “larger scales of self” – a search for meaningful human culture. And the core principle that permaculture offers us in this search, I think, is the impulse towards a culture of mutuality.

During the second day of the workshop, we split into groups and modelled changes to a standard four-way intersection

Mark suggested that we’ve designed a kind of “anti-permaculture” into our cities and social infrastructure – misogyny, houselessness, inequality – and so we need to try to elicit village behaviour within urban spaces to nurture this missing sense of oneness with each other. Zoning laws and the imperatives of contemporary capitalism have largely forsaken the practice of living and working in the same place, and of connecting with our neighbours. Mark argued that this brings with it a trauma of isolation and creates the conditions for the “tragedy of the commons”.

Of course, there are ecological as well as social ramifications to this: if stewardship was hard-wired into our more localized cultures, it suffers now from the growing disconnect. By localizing working and living, Mark’s hope is that we can renew this feeling of place. His efforts to create this environment have been wide-ranging: in addition to co-founding the City Repair Project, Mark is also involved with the Village Building Convergence, an annual placemaking festival; R2DToo (Right To Dream Too), a nonprofit that operates a space for the houseless community in Portland; DePave, an organization that works to create urban green spaces; and Dignity Village Portland, a membership-based shelter.

Experimenting with “villaging” changes to a model of Mark’s home neighbourhood in Portland.

In his own neighbourhood, beginning in the mid-‘90s, Mark and others explored how to nurture this power of place, beginning in a humble way: a little solar-powered tea-stand, erected in front of an older resident’s house, transformed relationships by bringing beauty and art and design into the equation. As neighbours became more engaged, they discovered that all the necessary materials and skills for transforming the neighbourhood were already present there. More projects – painting the street intersection, constructing the first streetside “tiny library”, collaborating to build gathering places and edible landscapes – brought dynamism and energy to the area. It also brought the ire of local officials.

And so this is the challenge: if it’s liberating to “garden outside the lines”, to create an incident in order to generate a reaction, how does one strategically get in trouble in order to change the law? Subversive placemaking can range from the innocuous (ephemeral traffic calming with piles of leaves on the street), to the humorously terroristic-sounding (guerilla gardening, seed bombs).

Local regeneration: reeds sticking through the pond ice after an early spring freeze at Tiny Tree Herb Farm.

A few things in particular stood out for me: for one, it’s hard for a local municipality to say ‘no’ when the people of the neighbourhood are collectively invested in a project, however unprecedented it might be. This is the power of place. Mark’s localized campaign has led to a slew of policy changes in Portland, opening the doors for other neighbourhoods to undertake similar efforts – most recently, the city approved the installation of raised garden beds on any city boulevard, creating the potential for 6000 miles of neighbourhood food production in the city.

Strong neighbourhoods inspire replication – Mark’s local uprising prompted other communities to follow suit, building what Mark calls “particles of health” in the city. Especially instructive, I think, is Mark’s example of kind and inclusive activism. When confronted by city bureaucrats, the neighbourhood approached it as a chance to show them that they could be creative in their jobs, as well. Local NIMBYism, itself a sort of pride of place, is a beautiful energy that can be harnessed respectfully for productive ends.

Thinking of my own experiences at the School of Permaculture Design at Pacific Rim College, and my own front-row seat to the rapid changes in my local Fernwood neighbourhood in Victoria,  I’m heartened by the knowledge that I am surrounded here by all the skills and resources to create a community that invites creative, loving giving and sharing. And based on our shared experience this weekend, it’s a sparkling kind of energy that can spread and can lift us all up.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.