Portland's Village Building Convergence

Portland's Village Building Convergence

-Inspiration from a West Coast neighbour

By Jordan Bober  

16th and Brooklyn Street Paint-in. A derelict pedestrian railroad overpass area becomes a place! - Photo courtesy of Brian Osterlin

I was full of anticipation as I sat inside a Greyhound bus rolling down the West Coast and taking me to Portland for the first time. As a Transitioner, I had heard so many great things about Portland that to finally get to go felt like more than a pilgrimage than anything, especially since I happened to be going at that most special of occasions in Portland – the 12th annual Village Building Convergence, a yearly nine-day festival of placemaking and permaculture organised by City Repair that brings people together from across Portland and beyond to link up on projects scattered throughout the city.

Portland's Union Station
Part of my anticipation was also anxiety, or course, that Portland might not fully live up to my hyped-up expectations of it. This is always the risk one takes when travelling to a fabled city for the first time.

However, I’m happy to report that Portland did not disappoint in the slightest – on the contrary, I am even more excited about the place now than before I went, and am excited to share some of my experiences and impressions with the rest of the Village Vancouver community!
The first thing that struck me about Portland as I left the bus station was the beauty of its downtown. Something about the heritage buildings, the red brick and the street cars humming by made me feel right at home. A gigantic sign on the side of a building urged passers-by to “Keep Portland Weird” – another good sign. Just as can happen here in Vancouver, the weather changed on a dime. What was a beautiful sunny evening when I arrived was soon characterised by rain, thunder and lightning. I later learned from Portlanders that that was in fact the first time it had thundered and lightninged in the city in many years! As though to reassure the city that everything was still alright, the shower ended with a beautiful rainbow, and I was already in love.

Portland is an extremely bike-friendly city!
The great thing about going to Portland for the Village Building Convergence (VBC) was that I got to take advantage of the great homestay opportunities. I lucked out and was assigned to a big beautiful collective house full of friendly people who didn’t see the need to lock any doors, a permacultured yard and a bucket greywater system in the washroom. When I arrived, one of my hosts excitedly showed me the pantry filled with bulk food containers that she had just finished cleaning up. One of the house’s inhabitants was away for the weekend, so I had the luxury of staying in her “shack” in the back yard.

The next morning I got up early to get a good start on the day – I only had the weekend to spend in Portland, after all, and there was so much I wanted to see and do! I had the good fortune that my stay in Portland overlapped with that of my friend Kristy, a fellow Vancouverite who had just finished a bicycle maintenance course down there and was able to use her new cycling connections to score me a bike that I could borrow for the weekend.  This was really a great bit of luck, because not only is Portland an extremely bike-able city, but as I discovered, there is no better way to zip between the unique neighbourhoods scattered throughout the city. Much like Vancouver, Portland benefits from strong neighbourhood identity that allows you to feel like you’re really somewhere even if you’re not downtown.

The Attunement Centre's edible fungus mandala
Our first VBC destination was the Attunement Centre, a permaculture centre and guesthouse in the northeast quadrant of the city. Due to adventures in figuring out Portland’s street names, we unfortunately missed being part of the creation of their new edible fungus food forest, but the centre’s owner Joelle graciously answered all of our many questions and described the space’s transition from a rectangular, English-style garden into one described by circles that greatly increased the amount of space where things could grow. Needless to say, we were inspired by the harmony of plants, chickens, bees, fungus and people that we saw there – what a great place to have in the middle of a city! Just as we were wondering where to go next, Joelle told us that if we wanted to get our hands dirty with some natural building (and did we ever!), we should head over to see her friends at the nearby Ujima Centre. 

Building a straw-clay wall at the Ujima Centre
The Ujima Centre was every bit as remarkable a permacultured space as the Attunement Centre, but what really got us excited was the opportunity to get hands-on with some straw clay construction that was being added on to the guesthouse. This was a technique that I hadn’t even heard of before, but soon we found ourselves arms deep in muddy straw, having a blast with people we had just met as we packed the straw-clay mixture into a space between two boards that would become, with the removal of the boards, solid all-natural walls to be plastered over with (you guessed it!) clay and sand. I was very inspired to experience first-hand how a building come together using materials that were as commonplace as could be on the farm where I grew up! 

The Planet Repair Institute
Later that evening we convened at the central VBC venue at St David of Wales Church for a delightful evening of food, talks, play and dance. There I met Mighk from City Repair , the organisation started by Mark Lakeman and which organises the Village Building Convergence each year. Curious to know more about what spawned this amazing proliferation of “placemaking” and permaculture in Portland, I asked Mighk why he thought that this all started in Sellwood and not somewhere else.  Did the neighbourhood have any particularly favourable conditions, I asked? Mighk replied that he thought the same thing could have happened in any neighbourhood, but told me the fascinating story of how it it was all catalysed by an illicit “tea house” built by Mark Lakeman on his yard out of natural materials. The tea house became a very popular gathering place for the whole neighbourhood, and by the time the city caught wind of it and forced Lakeman to take down the tea house, it was too late: community had already formed, and the people of the neighbourhood decided that they needed and wanted a community gathering space. So, they proceeded to draw up plans for the very first “intersection repair” at 9th & Sherrett– now known as “Share-It Square”. Aside from the entire intersection being covered with a beautiful painting, the square now features a 24-hour tea station, neighbourhood sharing shelves, cob benches, a children’s area and an information kiosk! Suddenly, what was once a regular intersection was transformed into a “place” with real significance for the community, and the practice of “placemaking” – now proliferating throughout Portland and beyond – was born.

Making natural paint with Eva of the Mud Girl Collective
My imagination thoroughly fired up by my conversation with Mighk, the next morning Kristy and I headed first thing to the Planet Repair Institute, City Repair’s headquarters in Sellwood – just a block away from Share-It Square. Planet Repair was beyond description – I’ll let the accompanying pictures do the talking. As though it were not enough to simply be there in the midst of the beauty of it all, we soon found ourselves yet again arms deep in mud being taught by Molly and Eva of the famous Mud Girls Collective to create and apply natural plasters, to decorate freshly plastered walls with coloured glass mosaics, and how to make beautiful natural paints using clay, sand, flour, water and iron oxide (rust), with goats milk and mica thrown in for good measure. I never thought I would be so fascinated to learn about granularity and how to determine the clay content of soil, but there I was, seriously wanting to become a Mud Girl myself (although sadly informed that no boys were allowed!). 

My thoughts after a weekend at the Village Building Convergence in Portland:
1) Two days are not nearly enough! Next time, I’m going to aim to go for a whole week at least! There is so much to see and do in Portland and during the VBC that even a week would suffice only to scratch the surface of what is happening in our sister city to the south.
2) Let’s bring the VBC to Vancouver! Seriously, why not? The Village Building Convergence is a tremendous way to engage in Transition while having gads of fun, and the cumulative effects of many years of placemaking on the city is remarkable. Instead of looking south with envy, let’s look to Portland with inspiration and start our own home-grown placemaking movement!

I was not the only VV’er to head down to the VBC this year. There were several others, including Brian Osterlin who spent an entire 10 days in Portland and will be organising a couple of community events to share his experiences. We’ll be sure to keep you posted on that, and we hope you’ll come and be inspired to help make something similar happen in Vancouver!