- The time: summer 2005;
- The concept: create an earthen sculpture in a downtown Toronto park that would serve as a gathering place and summer kitchen;
- The method: offer free, ongoing, no sign-up fee, no commitment, earthen building workshops to volunteers all summer long, providing training to the participants and helpers for the structure;
- The partners: Toronto's department of recreation, me, and a group of core volunteers.
"Come get muddy" was the cry, an invitation to any and all who wanted to try their hand at earthen building. And people did. They wandered by, asked "What's this all about?", and we said, "Come try it out and see!"
Shoes and socks came off, and feet jumped into the mud, mixing sand, straw, clay and water together to form a building material known as "cob". Then they picked up the mud, slapped it on the wall, and started sculpting.
Some stayed for a few minutes, a couple hours, contributing a little bit of labour and getting to play in the mud. Others were so beguiled by the project that they came back daily or for the whole summer. Many took on leadership roles, leading different aspects of creation, like cupboards, arched windows, the fireplace.
By summer's end, approximately 500 people worked on the creation of the cob wall in Dufferin Grove Park. By any measure, the project was a resounding success. First of all, it was completed on time and on a shoestring budget.
The measure by which it was most successful though, is in the quantity of attendees, and in the quality of their connection to the project and to their fellow attendees. This, in my opinion, was directly attributable to the following aspects of the program:
- Free: no sign-up fee means participating without having to prioritize attending this vs buying food or clothes or having spending money. Free means not having to identify yourself as someone who cannot afford to attend. Free equalizes the playing field;
- Drop-in: no commitment to attendance means showing up when you really want to be there, ready to learn and contribute. People who are forced to attend because they signed up are not enjoyable to be around and do not contribute positively to the project. Not having to give your name allows the participation of people who need anonymity in order to stay safe;
- Ongoing: knowing that a program is on offer for a period of time allows potential attendees to "get there when they get there"; it allows for life to intervene without compromising their chance to be involved;
- Creative input: whoever was there that day had a hand in making creative decisions about the sculpture, and then they were able to make their ideas reality right then and there.
That all of this could happen was the result of a fruitful partnership between the City of Toronto Recreation staff and me, the project organizer. The recreation staff took this to be part of their mandate to provide free, drop-in activities. They expanded the boundaries of "recreation" to include activities that draw in many more newcomers, across cultural lines. That made the park so much livelier, and this drop-in activity resulted in a permanent, useful and much-loved addition to the park.
Forming a project around these principles requires something very important from the organizers/administrators: trust. They need trust that people are able to decide for themselves what is best for them, trust that people can be counted on to do good work, trust that people will come and take advantage of an opportunity presented to them.
A program free of coercion is one that truly honours the participants, and one that will reap benefits well beyond the original expectations of the organizers. Do we have the enough trust in each other to offer this of ourselves and our city?
To see more pictures of community participation at the Cob in the Park website, click here.