Wednesday, June 11, 2008
I spent an amazing, inspiring, confusing, overwhelming and exciting twelve days in Portland recently, attending the Village Building Convergence, put on by Portland City Repair. I have so much to say about it, but for now would like to simply quote one of my friends that I met there, Joel Catchlove, who summed up so succinctly his experience at VBC8.
"The Convergence is one of the key annual events coordinated by City Repair, a grassroots community group dedicated to building community through natural building, permaculture, and repairing the dehumanising impacts of our urban design. One of the icons of their work is "Intersection Repair", where local communities claim an intersection as a public square, painting the road with bright and vibrant images that represent the uniqueness of their neighbourhood, and in some cases, build accompanying structures around the intersection - for example, seating, information boards for community news and events, 24hr self-service tea stations, book exchanges or free boxes. What's exciting is that a number of studies have now confirmed the astonishing impact of these repairs: at places where the community has banded together to repair their neighbourhoods, crime drops, conflicts are resolved, property ownership stabilises, gentrification is halted; and the annual repainting and maintenance of the intersection - now a public piazza - becomes a ritual for renewing and strengthening the neighbourhood itself. As a result, the concept has spread throughout Portland and North America.
So it's against this backdrop that the Village Building Convergence happens, attracting participants from across North America (and with us, Australia) to work on community projects around the city, participate in workshops (on everything from permaculture to mycology (mushrooms) to appropriate technology like rocket stoves or greywater) and listen to a bunch of fine speakers, followed by exhausting amounts of square-dancing and music.
Throughout the week we worked on a number of projects, including participating in the annual repainting of an intersection in the form of a giant sunflower, and helping with the building of a sauna (out of cob) sculpted as a giant raven's head. As part of City Repair's ethic of building community, many of their structures of built out of cob (essentially clay, sand and a little straw). Cob is a wonderful thing: it's easy to learn how to make and use (and therefore accessible to everyone from kids to grandparents - it's rare that you find a building site where chickens and babies are roaming free), it's completely non-toxic and it can be sculpted to the limits of your imagination.
Among the highlights of the Convergence were: Starhawk, who discussed earth-based spirituality with characteristic wit and wisdom and then led the entire convergence in a mass spiral dance; Art Ludwig, on living simply and the nature of water; and Nulla Walla, who led an amazing workshop combining improvisational dance with permaculture (some of her writings are available online at bcollective.org). The Convergence has left us both hugely inspired and eager to bring what we've learned back home to share in Adelaide.
Portland is a great town - it's famous of course for its flourishing bike culture, but it is also characterised by a strong permaculture movement and flourishing community spirit: characterised both by the work of City Repair and also by the amount of front yards and "nature strips" planted out with vegetables. It is also bursting with farmers' markets, boasts the best public transport system in the US (which, to be honest, is probably about the same as Adelaide), and is consistently rated America's "greenest" city, in fact, it's the only city in the US where car use is actually declining. All this with a population about the same as Adelaide. While there we stayed with a great household, the owner of the house being one of the founders of "Depave" another organisation linked to City Repair and dedicated to encouraging and supporting people to pull up their concrete yards and plant vegetables."