City Repair

November 19, 2020


It is such a pleasure to welcome to the Sense-Making in a Changing World show, Mark Lakeman from Portland Oregon – city repairer, urban permaculture designer place-maker community design facilitator, urban designer and thought leader.

Mark is the co-founder of the not-for-profit organisation, the City Repair Project (Urban Permaculture education) and is the Principal and founder of Communitecture – a cutting edge design firm that works with sustainable building projects at all scales.

As well as being a permaculture designer, Mark is an architect, a landscape architect and a regenerative designer.  He works on ecovillages projects, cohousing projects and social housing through a permaculture lens, and through his organisation he has been responsible for over 1200 placemaking projects throughout the city of Portland and beyond.

I had heard of Mark’s work for a long time and was so curious to find out more. This conversation is the first time we had met. What Mark does is deeply inspirational, truly radical and ultimately transformative and healing.

I really hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Find out more about permaculture
Check out Mark’s links above, and head on over to my 4 part permaculture series . You can also explore the many free permaculture resources in my Youtube and blog.

We definitely need more permaculture leaders in cities and towns everywhere to activate communities  and facilitate regenerative practices.  I invite you to join the Permaculture Educators Program with others from 6 continents – a comprehensive online course that includes the Permaculture Design Certificate and the only online Permaculture Teacher Certificate anywhere.

For an introduction to permaculture course, check out my online permaculture gardening course, The Incredible Edible Garden.

To support free permaculture education for young people in refugee camps – the Permayouth groups in Uganda and Kenya – please donate to Ethos Foundation – the registered charity associated with the Permaculture Education Institute.  We pass on 100% of your donation.

We also invite young people everywhere to join the Global Permayouth Festivals each month and weekly meet-ups.

Morag Gamble

I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which I live, play and work – the Gubbi Gubbi people – and pay my respects to their elders past present and emerging.

Thank you to Rhiannon for sound editing and Kim for the music.

Introducing Mark Lakeman

It is such a pleasure to welcome to the Sense-Making in a Changing World show, Mark Lakeman from Portland Oregon – city repairer, urban permaculture designer place-maker community design facilitator, urban designer and thought leader.

Mark is the co-founder of the not-for-profit organisation, the City Repair Project (Urban Permaculture education) and is the Principal and founder of Communitecture – a cutting edge design firm that works with sustainable building projects at all scales.

As well as being a permaculture designer, Mark is an architect, a landscape architect and a regenerative designer.  He works on ecovillages projects, cohousing projects and social housing through a permaculture lens, and through his organisation he has been responsible for over 1200 placemaking projects throughout the city of Portland and beyond.

I had heard of Mark’s work for a long time and was so curious to find out more. This conversation is the first time we had met. What Mark does is deeply inspirational, truly radical and ultimately transformative and healing.

Interview begins:

I’m just so thrilled to welcome to the show today, Mark Lakeman, someone who I’ve been watching the work of for a long time. Those of you who know me, know I’ve been involved in city farms, community gardens and community permaculture projects for a long time and Mark is someone who’s been weaving permaculture with landscape architecture and city planning, and calling it city repair work. I’m just reading through your bio, Mark, and you were talking about how you’ve been involved in well over a thousand city repair projects that are community driven and maybe we’ll dive into that a bit further, but before we do, I wanted to ask you how are things doing in your part of the world – so many cascading crises happening at the moment and on the verge of an election there. And have the bushfires headed into your part of the world?

Mark Lakeman:

Yeah rather close to our town, Portland. Yeah a lot of things happening at once, and in a certain point, you just kind of have had enough, except it keeps coming. I think everybody gets to kind of decide what their measure is before they just need to go take a break. I was thinking I really need to take a break and rest for a while, but  a voice in my head said, you know what, there’s a lot of people depending on us, a lot of species that have had it a lot worse for a longer time. So maybe this whole thing is just getting worked up in terms of the challenge. And I think it’s important to be resilient in the face of it, but you need to take breaths. Sometimes you sleep in. Fortunately I have a three and a half year old daughter who just, she’s like…embodiment of primordial forces and just cracks through the clouds of my, of anything that’s going on that would bring me down just constantly lifting me up, inspiring me. So, yeah, I’m really lucky to have that happening in my life.

Morag Gamble:

Kids have that beautiful ability to bring us into the present moment and to value the small and the local and the things that we notice right in front of us. My youngest is now seven. It’s not quite the same as a three-year-old, but you know, the noticing is still there and it’s the prioritization too, and remembering why it is that we’re doing this. Part of your work is really about not just city repair, but planet repair. That’s kind of been the bigger picture of what you’re doing with all of this work. What motivates you to do this work and how did you come to describe your work as city repair and planet repair?

Mark Lakeman:

Okay. Well, I have to say I’ve really come into a sort of state of joy in being a part of – kind of stumbling into – the permaculture movement. It has certainly given me more coherence and a language to share with others – and obviously tools, ideas, strategies, and principles to work with, and be in common cause with others. That just really is incredibly helpful now.

I actually experienced permaculture before I knew what it was through just kind of a series of fortunate twists. Kind of horrible twists, but I mean I have this knack of making the best out of things. I had gone into this corporate career to design huge landscapes and buildings. I was indoctrinated into this culture of modernist design thinking that “I’ll somehow make a difference by inspiring people through like sculptural spaces” but with one useful particle, which was that design can change the world.

Fortunately for me, about three years into that career, I had obtained the leadership status because I am very artistic and can draw readily and easily. But there was this huge toxic waste cover up and we happened to be working under a Bank of America building. The whole site was sitting on toxicity and the contractor of the building was joking during a meeting about paying off government inspectors, which in fact, he had just done in front of my eyes in this meeting. I wasn’t much of an activist at all at the time. I went back to my desk after the meeting and I couldn’t think. Something was just so profoundly wrong about even continuing another day in this occupation.

I did this really glorious job of quitting that day. I made the most beautiful mess. On the way out, I took about three hours to quit and I brought everyone in the conference room and I sat there affirming to them why they had gone into design school and what their hopes were as students. I just basically said everything I knew was true about them as young people. And I said, this is still true for me. So I’m leaving and I believe it can be true for you here. You have to re-examine yourselves, never permit yourself to be a part of this kind of thing again. Anyway, I didn’t want to scold them. I just wanted to challenge them to step into their highest self.

And that really worked out, I learned years later, but I walked away from all of it and just started to travel. And the further I went, the more interested I was in place-based indigenous communities. And I found myself asking what are people like, because I was really sure I didn’t know, and I wasn’t seeing it. I didn’t understand. I was living in a colonized landscape with proscribed patterns where the land has basically been turned into a giant. You know, the entire United States is basically a giant real estate investment. Except where people actually affect where they are through some intention. Retroactively everything’s laid out as a real estate development. I think a lot like Australia.

Morag Gamble:

Very much.

Mark Lakeman:

Sort of huge framework, cast across the land to appropriate places of stories of native people. Pretty much true here, but we don’t see it. We don’t think of it. We just kind of keep going and trying to survive.

I ended up going to this rainforest culture. A group of Mayans that had been persisting in isolation since the onset of the Spanish invasion of their land 500 years ago. I managed to go there and get clearance to visit them. They’re kind of a protected group and that’s where I really got to see the most marvellous things about where people can be like. I’m talking about parallels, absolutely every aspect of our daily lives, the small things and the momentous things all had some parallel that was so beautiful that it was painful to witness. Like how people make decisions on how they interact with the children and the fact that they’re never away from their own lives. And they’re always richer at the end of the day in their relationships. Everything that they do during the day enhances their world, as opposed to just going off to make money to pay for your space we barely get to be during the day. So I got to learn, I got to basically get more of a stereoscopic view by getting far away from the culture to a place as different as possible with all of these incredible indicators that verify basically my progressive faith that people if given a choice and enough information will make the right choices on each other’s behalf and not just be selfish and self-consumed.

I was seeing permaculture and I’m not just talking about planting perpetually in rainforest soil as they do. They’ve planted this continuously in regenerative fashion and then they allow things to go fallow long before the soil is exhausted. I was seeing a full spectrum of this set of values expressed in every department of their lives including their relationship to animals and even insects. I saw interactions.

This was the thing that changed me, absolutely. It was basically an interaction between species, in a very dancing and creative way. I could attempt to explain it, but I will not know the truth of it even now, 25 years later. It just changed me forever. I know I don’t need money for it. I need a way of being and seeing.

Anyway, having those experiences made me come back into the colonial grid of America well coached to see the colonial grids and to have a strategy for intervening and finding leverage and pressure points where I could intervene in order to catalyze this convergence of community that would build itself. And the main thing is to say is these designs nullify and eliminate almost the entire spectrum of life and then commodify the world that people live in so that they work – they toil their whole lives, just to try to pay for their house to instead not transpose the village patterns on top of the grid, but elicit them from within and have them grow up from within, especially in strategic leverage points, creative misbehavior. That’s basically what we do, the work that I do all the time, just constantly eliciting the best of what we know is inherently in people. Healing for everyone involved, including myself.

Morag Gamble:

There is just so much about what you just said that I’d like to pick up and talk about, but just in relation to the way you’re approaching design, rather than layering another design on top and trying to sort of fix it, but it’s that – that process of healing, which is completely different from what we get taught in landscape architecture school or architecture school. It’s almost like we’ll take that bit out and we’ll redesign it and put something else in there and, like you’re saying, hope to inspire something. Whereas the inspiration comes from the connection and the richness of the relationships and the texture that you’re able to create, and not just being a consumer of a space that someone else has created for you – but to be part of the imagining of it and the unfolding of that. It’s a magical process.

You’ve been involved in 1200 or more of these sorts of ‘points of activation’ in and around the city which is Portland. How do you actually activate those to happen because it’s a different way of going about things? So that’s one question. The other is how does the profession of architecture, planning, and landscape architecture see this and support this? The third question is.. is this infiltrating that and changing and shifting how people are thinking within the profession, is it being taught within the university. I went through that school back in the nineties, late eighties, and it wasn’t there then. I think I got told ‘design with nature’ is passe. I think it was at that point that I disengaged.

Mark Lakeman:

Yeah. Great questions. Well I think I’ll take the second one first. So I’m a third generation of architects, planners, designers. I was coached by both of my parents who are architects and planners.

My mom is really this kind of (now she’s a grandmother) Indiana Jones kind of character that goes out studying the ruins of pre-colonial villages. So I’m really helped a lot by her. She’s my hero.

My dad is kind of completely unstoppable brash creative monster. He’s the founder of urban design division of the Bureau of Planning in Portland. So all these like reasons that people come to Portland to see our great innovations, actually my bedtime stories were how my father was fighting from within the system and fighting with all of these commercial interests and constantly risking our family livelihood. And warning me, you know, we might end up in a tent this week. But he was so propelled by the joy and the meaning of the challenge and not just like some sort of swashbuckling pirate, but he knew that our destiny depends upon, our seizing like reclaiming our agency and therefore our destiny. You know, there was so many influences back in the sixties and seventies that were forming his heart.

So I knew from there a lot about design culture. I had a critique of it going in as I grew. I knew that as I did these insurgencies, as I elicited them – because I’m not trying to take credit for them – I was only like a sparker or a catalyst, but I just keep sparking and sparking and sparking and sparking. And that’s kind of important.

There’s roles I think that we’ll grow to play in a variety of different ecologies in the world that is just continuous and it can’t stop. Otherwise the overall guild will fail or be compromised. So I knew I had to make a commitment and just continue to have a presence that’s facilitative and supportive under seeing presence, never an overseeing directive presence. I knew that the culture of architecture and planning, would not understand. That it would react, that’s very formalistic, so it immediately would have a judgment and a critique based on what it was looking at and wouldn’t be interested in the deeper story.

Even when people are engaged in participatory design it’s oftentimes out of some kind of sense of fairness or it’s so great to, it’s so nice to involve children and maybe they’re informed by some public health guidance, like the more people identify with their place, the more they’ll interact and the healthier they’ll be physically cause they’ll walk outside and be less afraid. They’re those sorts of things.

There’s some sympathy in the design culture for participatory design. I had a team from my parents and also from being a child of the 60s of this notion that it was integral, like speaking free speech was integral, civil rights were integral. You wouldn’t have a just society. You couldn’t have a sustainable or resilient society without that characterizing everything. And I think our whole city really understood that and I’m a child of this city. If we have one shared religion, it’s that, and it’s woven into the Portland plan actually we all participate in all things. It’s actually an obligation of leadership and parent bureaucracy to honour that and to facilitate our engagement. We won’t support them politically if they don’t.

There’s no sustainable political culture without popular support. So I knew that they would initially be very judgmental. So there’s this book Rules for Radicals that polarization is a really important tool to go into any kind of creative engagement – understanding the power of polarization. So I knew polarizing the context wouldn’t do anything for us. So it’d be like, okay, we’re going to be making people mad. Let’s continue to be kind. We don’t know what the hell we were doing anyway. So there’s no reason for us to be arrogant. This is all an experiment. The world’s in danger and it’s kind of like, we’re on the Titanic. If we don’t try something, we’re all doomed anyway.

In those 7 years of travel, I gained so much insight. I mean, I literally had gone around just asking, “Do you have any idea what is wrong with my society? And what is wrong with me?” And people are, I mean, like them down in the Navajo nation. I asked that question, people like, Holy **! Let’s get some food and drink this is going to be wonderful. A white man wants to know what we think, you know, so I got to listen. It’s kind of the same thing every time about the rise of empire and the destruction of villages and consumption of world, disruption of cultures.

Anyway, so I attained a larger framework. It was kind of like if you go wandering through the world, there’s all these moving parts and always asking questions. You never really quite have enough guesses. You don’t have a framework to start fitting the pieces like a puzzle – you kind of work around the edges to make a frame. I had finally obtained a frame through all of these travels and especially by visiting Lacandon Maya.

I was so well coached coming out of that context to see where I am, understand a lot about its paradox, and was able to engage it creatively, but the design culture was immediately disaffected. That was okay. I was really enjoying the fact that we were dominating the press. 19 times on TV the first year and just endless articles to this day and all these architects like, ‘Oh, but we’re doing big, expensive things. Why aren’t we getting in the news? You’re hogging all the news and all you’re doing are these little things’. And I said, ‘well, it turns out the big is small and small is big’. You know, we’re in a patriarchy, so everything doesn’t make sense anyway, but so you think that your thing is important because it’s big and yet there’s so few people engaged in the creative process. So that means your big thing is actually small. And I can engage a hundred thousand people in a small thing because they all have an identity with it and they help to create it through some active contribution. And we’ve used this small thing to have an impact on the life force. So the small is actually big and the big is actually small. And they’re like, what are you talking about? Anyway, we rock. I mean, we rock in the sense that we actually succeeded in mightily transforming the bureaucratic culture, the political leadership and the professional culture of our town. And I’m not saying I’m not trying to claim credit for when we took the stand, we went to an edge.

We have invaded the neighborhoods where all those architects live, I’ve gotten involved in the projects. Some of them can’t quite handle that much participation. But a whole lot of them have been able to step into it. It’s good for their careers to make a lot of friends. So, yeah, we just led by doing, we knew they’d get mad, they’d be all formalistic. They criticize us in harsh ways and we wouldn’t stop until finally they would start to get it. That form is not the point that form needs to result from a process of engagement. That engagement is an integral design. Design skills are integral to democracy itself and we’re broken without them being shared.

Morag Gamble:

So what I’m hearing is that the process of disruption and the process of engagement and relationship – and just doing stuff – has rippled out and changed what’s happening at all different levels. I’m curious to hear just a couple of examples, maybe. What does that look like? What does your city look like differently now? If someone was to walk into Portland, what would they see differently? Or is it just more of a sense of what feels different? What kind of things are popping up around the city as a response to this and how has it changed the way that people’s daily life in that city?

Mark Lakeman:

Well, I have answers for like pre-COVID and during COVID. If you’d come before March, especially during the spring, you could literally count the number of trees and divide them by the people and find that there were more trees here than anywhere else you you’ve been in North America. You would see that people love to plant trees. There’s an amazing canopy, there are edibles where there shouldn’t where there aren’t supposed to be, but now it’s legal so that they are supposed to be. You could learn a bit about that story and find out like, wow, you can plant fruit and nut trees in the right of way. Because basically we planted so many trees that were dropping food on us that it was either that the city council would declare us all criminals, or they would have to legalize it. And that’s actually a strategy. Everybody just kept doing it until it has to become legal.

Before COVID you would see people being outwardly joyful, demonstrative, holding each other, kiss each other, holding hands, being playful, making jokes, riding absurd vehicles, bikes, doing certain things, wearing costumes. So characterizing a broader spectrum of emotional expression and less repression, more inclusivity that’s evident outward. But there’s, this has statistics.

We have this gigantic naked bike rides. It’s the biggest thing in the world. It frequently sets a world record. You’ve got like 25,000 people out, riding bikes naked together through the night, which is really the best thing ever. You might see that. And there’s a lot of like unprogrammed, just naked bike rides. I’m kind of going to the edge of silliness here, but they really meaningful to me. When people are being an outward like that and they feel that they own public space enough to just do those things. It really helps to push a boundary of normative patterns. Just as like no less significant our sheer number of green buildings, natural buildings, urban agriculture installations.

The thing you would see most often though, is that the street surfaces are recreated. You would see that people are taking intersections and they’re basically the permaculture analysis is like, okay, well, if we want to be in accord with nature, we have to kind of sort of design like nature it’s bit biomimic and agri oriented. But in a mycelium network, for instance, the threads, when they cross and intersect, they become nodes. And it’s really key ecological design principle for the networks that the intersections become nodes of interaction and convergence. And so that’s really one of our foremost strategies that’s eliciting of the village from within the grid.

The intersections stop being nearly a traffic corridor, where your only chance of meeting someone is to run into them in a car. Instead you treat it like a village. This is really urban design 101. It’s the most basic principle that we’re our pathways to verge our lives come together. So that’s the, you know, it’s really the core principle, in my opinion, of village design and placemaking. So, to transform those nullified crossroads into a place of convergence, again, we oftentimes just start with this quick-action, high impact with a low cost, quick action kind of approach that..what you’re seeing is this huge graphic installation. You know anything about the story. And then you’re like, wow, this is evidence of 4-block diameter social organism. Cause the mandate by Department of Transportation is everybody within four blocks has to have a voice.

What you’re seeing is the evidence of community collaboration playing out in the commons and you’re inverting the idea that they’re powerless and they’re getting a taste of their agency through the implementation of public art. Of course the art is not the thing. It’s the fact that they’re engaged and they have potlucks and the children are there and the fathers are learning how to listen and the moms are help kind of tricking the fathers into being helpful. And then it all plays out in this incredible epiphany that happened so fast. It’s unbelievable. It’s like half a day, the entire surfaces embellish with this huge emblem of them, of their vision. It’s similar to themselves. And then they party the night and they share all this food. And then, and this is the thing. You’re tricking everyone into realizing that they’re surrounded by thousands of people with the skills and talents that power the entire society.

You’re rolling back the isolation enough to see that they were never alone the whole time and that they’re surrounded by all the talent and power that they could possibly need to change the world – and that public art installation is the beginning of it. And then, following that, you start putting things on the corners, solar power tea stations, community ventures, little pavilions, but then of course, yards come up and become gardens, fences come down and become pathways. And you really trying to re-village of blocks of the grid and as opposed to fleeing the city to go away, you strategically take your stance because within the colonial city state, really the city is envisioned as an administrative center for the extraction of people, species and landscape. So instead you stand your ground in it and you transform it from within. Because otherwise, if you just run from it and start a new thing it will come to you and it will destroy you as you try to transform it from within. That’s our whole, that’s what we mean by city repair. It’s like, we’re going to adapt and retrofit what exists.

Morag Gamble:

I love the way that it’s about reclaiming the urban commons and doing it in a way that’s about shifting perception and it’s about activating a sense of the community that is there. It’s not about even starting ‘we’re going to start a city farm’. It’s starting with something so much simpler, and so these points of activation are like a common pattern that you see. What are the other ways that you’ve seen that have activated people to transform their own local area?

Mark Lakeman:

Well, there’s many different forms of these things take and frankly, while I really love working out in the public right of way, because I think that is the most high profile space. You might have a few permacultures organizing the community, but then thousands of people literally interacting with it, even if they’re only passing it and seeing what’s being created. It takes many different forms and really key to, I just want to step back and say at the beginning, I really wasn’t interested in doing anything that couldn’t be replicated. I wanted to do something that was systemic in its impact. I think that just really well coached so that when I came back, I had to do things with my hands and it had to involve kids and I wanted to unmake my own arrogance through just the supplied form of activism. But it was worthless to do it as a one-off, and I knew I couldn’t go around the world, myself doing all this stuff. So it had to be something that once happened. It had to be something that everybody already wanted to do. That was kind of a trick, like, ‘what does everybody want to do?’ Well, they want to do what they want to do. So how do we sort of trick everybody into realizing how much fun it is to do what they want?

What it looks like is what everybody wants to do. But in order to make it easy, we have to change the law. So we have these ordinances now in the city, that allow every neighborhood, there’s 95 of them, to transform as many street intersections into public squares because people want to do it for free. Shortest time is two weeks. And the stipulation is that it has to be their design. You have to test your design. You have to fund it yourselves. You have to implement it yourselves and you must involve your kids. So those are the stipulations from our, we used to call them the department of transportation, but now they’re really the department of transformation for public space! They’re helping all these other cities to do it.

So I have to tell you, like, as a child of a bureaucrat, I was taught by my dad – everybody’s really unhappy and they hate their jobs. It is total dirge. They want to use their creative discretion wanting to be more creative. I have this insight that the people inside of the system wanted to be more human. This has had to be a strategic approach. Like how can we also help them realize how much more fulfilling and meaningful that our lives could be to support this work?

There were a lot of layers – I’m talking about this in permaculture terms, like we were gathering all the objectives that we wanted to stack. What are the outcomes that we want of this systemic form of creative insurrection? Well, we want to activate the disengaged community. We want to transform public space as a political statement, so that people go from thinking they’re powerless to realizing that they’re powerful. We want to transform the political leadership and the bureaucratic culture, and we want it to replicate madly. So we had to change the law. So now you can transform as many speed intersections as you want. You can transform the streets that connect the intersections. So all 6,000 miles of the right of way in the residential zone is available. And, you know, before you even do that, the commercial zones are already being transformed.

Now it is legal to install community composting facilities in the street anywhere – you can just do it and you’re automatically permitted and insured and you don’t even have to register with the city and that’s how progressive it’s gotten. It looks like composting facilities, interactive kiosks of all kinds, various different kinds of sculptural benches and these are all handmade. They’re all very unique and they have their own kind of metaphors in them. They’re all telling stories. Some of them are little buildings. So I’m just talking about the pieces out in public space and I’m talking about food forests obviously, and information dispensers, some of these things are solar powered.

Then the effect goes into private space as well. You have people coming up to the edge and then inviting people over the edge in some really fabulous facilities. There’s this one favorite place of mine inspired by the dream of a little girl. And it looks like a giant wave. There’s this huggable mermaid. The little girl wanted to have a big sister and she needs to be able to hug her. So the carvers made it so she reach her arm around and hug her sister. And so the sisters is kind of leaning back like this and looking at the sky. And then there are these luminous translucent roofs kind of arching over the whole thing. And then there’s a lighthouse coming up through the roof of shining in the night. That’s where someone gave up their front yard to create this prototype.

He was like, ‘Oh my God’, my neighbor doesn’t have a single gathering place. I live in a development. ‘Of course. Um, yeah!’. An article about this observed it’s pretty much just men between 35 and 85 that are dictating the patterns that you inhabit. So of course it’s no fun cause they don’t know how to hug each other or tell their wives they love them. This many was motivated by the article and just walk right across the street and asked his seven year old girl, ‘what would you do if you could just remake my whole yard?’ And she said, ‘well, I would have it look like the ocean’. And he’s like, well, ‘what else?’ He’s like, well, she might have a big sister. She’d be a mermaid. Anyway, he, he took on this cause. He’s like, okay, well then if a seven-year-old girl’s vision would make the world a better place and I need to just support them and that’s what I’m going to do. And so that’s one of my favorite spots to visit in Portland.

The commercial buildings have taken on a radical wild exuberant expressions too. We’ve got natural building in permaculture.. And that’s my favorite stuff. I mean, frankly, there’s lots of really interesting green building happenings. And the gathering place effect is like in all cultures, you know how corporate culture is trying to get people to be healthier in order to have more retention in their business. That’s happening. City hall’s got food gardens all around it. There’s really evidence everywhere of the principles of placemaking being a way of expressing how you want to embed her vision for a better world, even in your immediate environment. And to me, placemaking is the physical social armature of an urban permaculture, so that all the things we want to do in permaculture find a structure and a coherence for people so that their pathways and spaces are how you can have a skeleton that everything kind of supports. That’s what you see.

Morag Gamble:

That sounds absolutely amazing. One day I would love to come and visit when the world opens up again to experience that because it’s a description of a city that you don’t typically hear. The kind of limits that I hear often when I talk to people in and around the cities in Australia is like, well, this is our vision, but we can’t do it because of the legal limitations and this is kind of squashing that.

So this is a very pragmatic question How did you crack open that possibility for those new laws or bylaws to be there that enabled this to happen? And maybe you answered that already by saying you just went out and did it, and the laws just kind of had to follow, but was it simple as that? Or is there something else that you were able to do to help shift that? And have you seen the same pattern following in other cities that these legal changes have changed maybe before that process? I mean, you’re kind of pioneering at where you are and things have followed, but when it gets replicated in other cities, what’s the process of, I don’t know, is there a fast tracking process of doing this or is it always this bubbling up?

Mark Lakeman:

Yeah, well, it doesn’t always have to begin the same way. I think once something is prototyped and it becomes a story then enough people are exposed to it, then it becomes more possible. And it just happens that we have political leaders that are installing this and we have started with a few political leaders and now it’s the state, the country, the city. And we also have some opposition, too. Small rural towns are like, Oh no, we’re not having that. And then, okay, we’ll see, now that you’ve said it, the time the clock is ticking. So yeah, it’s replicated. I mean, you know, it was so strategic and a lot of it, I mean, I, I keep thinking like so much of it was conscious, but I know that a lot of it was also intuitive. I couldn’t have put it in the same words then as I do now, but, you know, to really understand the patterns of empire and some of its core strategies is so helpful to try to unmake it, to try to inspire people, to act where they are. It was in that same kind of gigantic structure.

So here’s one thing. I’m not sure how conscious it was, but we certainly have learned it since. Empire tries to homogenize people in order to control them, whether it’s through land development or through institutional religion. Try to get everyone to tend to have a common set of standards. And it obviously enables political structures to be mobile and to be kind of pervasive at commercial activities, because you have the same rules and engagement for how things are commodified. So that’s all true, but it also means that anytime you create an exception, it’s of interest to everyone and it’s applicable to everyone wherever they are. As soon as there’s an exception in the circumstance where people are being marginalized, they can relate to the story because the same problems are being solved in that place as you’re experiencing where you are. Everyone feels isolated, everyone feels disempowered. They’re all told they’re powerless. Not only the elected politicians that are funded by corporations have a voice in the power. And then we’re all just feeling shut out by that.

So you know, we’re working a lot of different ways. I mean, one egg in the basket is that you try. Either that, ordinances and policies, but you do it. This is one key part of the answers to your question. They are always aimed at goals and benchmarks that are identified in every municipality as something that people consider a goal worth achieving. So slowing traffic is one. Certainly people are interested in keeping their property values. So beautification or livability – or sustainability more recently. Those are other kind of related goals. So when your initiative is addressing those things like saying to address the crisis of houselessness or affordability – we coach people to do this. We say, all right, just name the goals you’re going to address and notify everybody, including the political leadership. You’re addressing those goals. They’re all going to say, well, yeah. Okay. So get getting them to say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And then when you come back to them with a proposal, you’re still not showing them a specific forum. You’re saying, this is how we want to engage you. This is how we’re going to partner with these local schools. We’re going to work with the bureaucracies that are going to give us free permits. Whatever your plan is. And you still haven’t got a form. So you don’t lead with a form because they might go, ah, no. So you lead with something that they can say yes to you.

Start with wherever they’re able to get to start to say yes. And then you get to the next yes. And the next yes. Until the process begins. And then it unfolds in a way that they understand and it’s supportable and actually really identify with it. So that’s how it happens every time. And I think our design culture, our civic engagement culture, pretty much every department of our city is understanding, not everybody, but key people everywhere, are understanding what we’re working on. And then there’s taking these principles and bringing them into their own spheres. That’s really important. It’s just like permaculture. How can these, these principles be of application and all these different circumstances. So that’s what we’ve been after. Like how can people take these things and make them their own in their own circumstance.

Morag Gamble:

That makes so much sense. This is a little bit of a tangent, but you mentioned about the city food forest. Can you just tell us a little bit about what that is (maybe there’s more than one) and how they are catalyzed to create these edible foodscapes that are public parks?

Mark Lakeman:

I’m immediately thinking of Seattle because they actually have way more urban orchards and a really huge food forest and we don’t have as many of them for some reason. But so one way that we get these things to happen requires a little story. But first I’ll say we have this huge barn raising ritual that happens in the city. And when I say ritual, I just mean it’s annual. It brings people together. They look forward to, it has all this meaning and yeah, there’s ritualistic aspects to it. There are more of the people are intentional and celebratory and grateful. But we’ve had layers of realization in order to get to this giant barn raising. Barn raising part of how these things happen.

I’m trying to answer your question by talking about this barn raising. Barn raising is one way that these installations happen. And it’s one of the main ways, because we put out a request for proposals all over the city which travels all over networks. And it basically says, who wants to change the world? What’s your idea? There’s a bunch of things that people have done in the past, frankly, everything’s possible. Let us know what you want to do because we are nerds. We love people and we love to support…

We don’t want to say it quite this way, but it’s like our form of activism is to help other people do what they want which is extremely growth for work. So we put it out there that people can do anything they want and we’ll find the support and find them materials. We’ll help them with money and we’ll get them free permits. We’ll hold their hands, we’ll train them, we’ll teach them whatever they need. And we’ll find them, all the volunteers and help in every way that we can so they can’t fail. And so we receive all of these proposals. We release in September, October, and then proposals come back in mid January – strategically located in time so that when people are gathering with all these social gatherings in the winter, late fall and winter, they have lots to talk about with their community and then proposals coming in January. It is really trying to have it be a form of like time activism aligned with seasonal activities.

Then we basically meet and design and train and fundraise with like three and a half, four dozen communities, all working together, listening to each other and inspiring each other and representatives all coming to these meetings and train and trading tools and helping each other. And so really, the interventions are all over the city, but then there’s generations of networks where people have all done things together so that it all happens forming in a wave. So sometimes it’s small things like kiosks or benches, and sometimes it’s more elaborate, like, you know, entire landscapes of edible or species supporting installations. Sometimes whole buildings, outdoor kitchens, sort of large substantial things and institutional or commercial settings or is exhibitions or dialogues. It can really take any form, but I want to say when we first got going, we were saying, right, we’ve noticed that the entire program of community commons is missing.

We need to have those commons to bring people together. The next level that led us toward the barn raising was to say, Oh my gosh, of course, that place, you don’t have the stewardship culture that resides there and takes care of the space. So naturally, therefore you wouldn’t have mentorship happening intergenerationally, Therefore you wouldn’t have ownership of place. And then as we said about changing physical infrastructure, as a means to bring people together and build community, then we saw ourselves doing stuff annually and we’re like, Oh my God, we’ve actually, we’ve remembered the barn raising is missing and it’s coming out of us through our choices. So now we’ve noticed that the ritual, the rituals in time have been missing the whole time. And at this point it’s terrifying because we’re like, we’re so colonized that we’re like rebirthing stuff that is so ancient that our evolution dependent upon doing, and it’s been missing this whole time.

We have the most epidemic levels of crime and violence in this country and of course we have homeless people as a direct consequence of various design. And then of course, then we’re noticing all of these other things related to these, you know, one realization after another, just keep coming about the consequences of involvements.

Morag Gamble:

So as a pattern of change-making, it’s not doing the change, it’s creating the conditions where change can take place as well. It feels like what you’re saying you’re doing. And just as you were speaking then too a sense of all that time that you spent listening in indigenous communities is now manifesting. And it almost sounds like you as a community or as a city are almost becoming indigenous in that place, the way that this is unfolding. And I wonder whether you’ve been given any feedback from any of the indigenous communities that you’d visited and talked with or local indigenous communities about how they see what’s happening now.

Mark Lakeman:

Great question. Well, I’d say that I should probably give some attribution here, first of all. But yeah, there’s, there’s various levels of feedback and I think some of the current dynamics that have been, so, the conditions here have been so exacerbated by the rising fascist culture that, kind of hopeful relationship has been really shaken by very intentional polarization. It’s really hurt a lot of relationships and broken confidence. So I’m not really knowing exactly how to talk about relationships. I mean, I feel that the ones that I have with the people that influence me remain strong. I think I am basically a project of a variety of different people who took the time to share stories with me and give me advice and even some foresight. I think that they’re trusting me to follow my heart stuff, but it’s a messy context right now.

I want to say that just getting out of the USA and visiting any culture at all, which actually for me started with New Zealand – so not too different substantially – kind of a safe place to start. It’s just getting out and visiting a culture that kind of has its own values in different scales and contexts. It’s just a great way to begin. Then naturally the way it tends to happen for an American visiting Western Europe and Eastern Europe and North Africa and the cultures there, and kind of having my arrogance individuated character challenged in helpful ways. But then getting really interested in pre-colonial cultures that persist in central America and also in USA and in Mexico.

Visiting different people and going there intentionally in a span of time, or just kind of floating into them and finding myself there and then taking the time, but in particular, in the Southwest Navajo and Apache and just over the mountain from Portland the Warm Springs Tribe. And most of all the Lacandon Maya. But I mean sometimes the interaction doesn’t even have to be very long, like I was in Egypt during Ramadan and just being invited by people who are absolutely impoverished and don’t even have a place to sleep to sit down and share beans in the street. It was a life-changing experience, so they don’t have to be elaborate and versions in order for you to gain an alternative perspective or to unmake some of your supremacist acculturation. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question though.

Morag Gamble:

What I just picked up in that response is to actually step out of where you are right now to get a different perspective so that you can kind of come back in and look at it differently. The kinds of things that you were about all throughout the conversation is shifting the way that we do things that they are more from an indigenous perspective, because the way that you listen, the way that you communicate, the way that it’s, it’s through story and through ritual and through responding to what the group is, is asking for or imagining, and all of these things are a completely different perspective than what we are used to in a city environment. And it is an indigenous approach, and it’s so informed by all of those experiences that you’ve had, and then sharing that.

So as we are now in COVID, it’s a little bit hard to go out and spend time in Africa, or to go and spend time in the Himalayas, which is kind of this place where I had a similar kind of experience, I think, to what you were describing earlier. So how do we stop and listen and, and connect and get different perspectives when we just have to stay in place.

This idea of placemaking in the way that you’re describing it, I think right now where so many cities are, seems to be the thing that can emerge to be part of the healing and the opportunity of transformation, but how to get that shift of perception, or maybe the perception shift because of the experience that we’re having right now as well. What’s your perception where we are now, particularly in this COVID time and helping to get those perceptions shifts.

Mark Lakeman:

Thanks. Well, I think the next move has to be ours. I don’t know how you feel about your government, but we’re all very vulnerable right now. I think that there are so many different ways to answer that question. And I’m saying that because I’ve seen so many different strategies for beginning. I think people can stop themselves by feeling like they have to have everything figured out first. They can stop themselves if they feel like they don’t have enough help.

Fortunately in permaculture would have us to start and make mistakes and you’re guided by being asked to do things that bring you fruitfulness pretty much right away and apply the energy you have proportionally so that you don’t exhaust yourself and you can sort of test, test, test how it went. So that’s good guidance. I think.

To me, our greatest sort of weapons of mass construction are to employ beauty and music. Like what are the things that we love to bring people together around? And we still have those. Right now, people can’t really get together. So what can you do? I think you can always be cultivating how you relate to the larger scales of self. So this is really a spiritual exercise, but I think it’s very true. It’s very fact-based. How am I part of a larger organism? And then you come up with ways to delight and surprise and even entice that. I’ve seen, you know, the Italian hill towns. They’re singing to each other across the narrow streets. They’re creating artwork on walls. ‘

What I do with my three-and-a-half year old daughter is we go out and we plant insurrectionary cherry trees and food forest in marginal spaces. And we hang ribbons, stop signs with all these ribbons blowing in the wind, and hang poetries from trees. And I’m teaching her.. oh not, not teaching, her cultivating in her, a way of seeing where she authorizes herself to immediately modify the world. And at some point somebody is going to tell her she can’t and she’ll be like, what are you talking about? Because she’s growing up painting the street, taking up lawns, putting in gardens, and she sees people around her doing it. So you set patterns. I think you can still do things like that.

I think it’s a very good idea to authorize yourself to creatively, strategically break laws that you find offensive, you know, at best these laws are community agreements. But if you realize that there’s a stricture that’s been put in place without the consent of the community, at some point, I think it’s your obligation, moral obligation. And you actually, your life may depend on it to stand up and change the conditions and challenge that law.

We’ve done that so many times. We’re so strategic about it by leading with those benchmarks and saying, this is what we’re trying to accomplish. Then we use tools. Like we make proposals we create pictures and we show plans and stuff. So it’s kind of hard to stop us cause it’s like, that’s a beautiful picture actually. I mean, the police literally said, when we we took the intersection illegally, they’re like.. This terrifying huge guy shows up – seven feet tall. And he said, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m paid to stop things which are bad, but I’m not paid to stop things which are good. And that’s the direct quote. So we were just not going to give up. And we had grandmothers involved and little kids, and we were all standing together and we were modifying the environment because we’re villagers.

We refuse to not be a villager for the sake of all my murdered ancestors and all of these like raped women that were stolen by empires and carried off and all the dead guys who were, you know, fighting in the military. I don’t know what your dreams are but my neolithic dreams can sometimes be very violent. And it shows me a lot about what happens when I wake up. I’m not ready to submit. So a little bit of sense of ancestry. If you’re stuck at home, check out the internet or read a book about your ancestors and what was done to them, and then see how you feel. A lot of people looking for some time to get some reading done anyway. So maybe until like, look into your context. I find it very empowering.

Morag Gamble:

I wanted to pick up on that notion of giving yourself permission to step up, speak up, act out, but in a way within that context of being a villager, you know. That I think is just such a powerful thing, because mostly we’ve been trained and conditioned to give away our power, to be consumers of all things and our spaces, our towns, our homes, everything that we’ve lost the imagination, the creativity, the agency. And so like you said, it’s your next step. Give yourself permission. It’s simple advice, isn’t it? You get caught up with all these other ‘buts’. But this, but that – but if you come back into that, you can change the world from simple action of shifting how you are being in place and in community. How do you describe that relationship so that people can actually see this is activism is towards healing the planet?

Some say, that’s not enough – that you have to work at a big strategic legal level, be in government and make the policy changes and work with your neighborhood, but I would argue that actually it is that. What’s your perspective on that? And how would you describe that to people if they were saying, we need to do bigger things to actually make change and heal the planet and, and have a future.

Mark Lakeman

Yeah, sure. Great question. Well, I’m fortunate to have a lot of surplus energy, so I kind of have to be working on a lot of things at once so that I’ve never stopped. Like I’ve stopped plenty of avenues and channels for things. And I, I do recommend that to people, especially to people who are just part of cultures of resistance. I don’t mean to say just, but, you know, if you’re spending a hundred percent of your energy fighting against, if you do happen to win what’s your next move, like, so I really think it’s important for oneself to decide on the proportion of how much energy you will put into fighting against things along with the question of how much of your energy will you put into building the alternative structure that inevitably would have to emerge in order to be a different world.

One of the things that’s so delightful about permaculture is that you’re directly manifesting change. You’re not really fighting your negotiating it. As soon as you go into collaborative practice with others, you’re manifesting social culture you want to inhabit albeit imperfectly because you’re out of practice, you’re starting off a bit messy. But that’s perfect. That’s perfect because you’re fundamentally needing to be learning. So that’s all good. Personally, I haven’t really organized it into categories, but I do too much consciously, but you know, I’m working politically and I’m working in like I’ve managed to shift my livelihood into conscious intentional impacts in order to feed my family and, Oh my God, this is so great. Like the benefits are stacked, the outcomes are just stacked especially if you’re living in a selfish myopic kind of culture, it’s like if people can only realize that the benefits are immensely personal, like talk about self-improvement talk about a quieter mind, talk about a healthier body, talk about better friends and relationships you never could’ve paid for. All of that would come to you if you just engage. You’d become more literate, you’ll become more informed. You’ll feel more powerful. You’ll have more confidence. Your mind will quiet because you’ll be engaged and stop asking what the meaning of life is because it will become self-evident.

All of that good stuff, you know, and inevitably as you’re doing that, you’re coming into a leadership capacity if you stay with it long enough, and then you can be engaged politically. But I think I recommend people be doing, just doing stuff immediately. So many reasons for saying this, but that immediately built your own like aesthetic experience. Like how else? This is the question, how else will you replenish yourself? If you’re not doing that? If you’re not having pleasurable experiences that remind you of why you’re here or help you fall more deeply in love with the world. Like this is how it works for me.

When I feel deeply in love with the world, then I’m filled with appreciation and then you can’t stop me. You can’t put me in bed. I just, I can’t stop. I can’t, I mean, I’m not talking about being compulsive and like being filled with joy and being propelled with enthusiasm. So like, that’s what you can cultivate in yourself and then you’re ready for more than you even thought, you know, if you start off saying, Oh, what’s in my pocket, this is all the resources I have. I have $15. What can I do with that? No, you really got to start off with maximizing and building up your capacity for inspiration and feeling, and then act there. And it will just build. And I’m not saying you won’t have disappointments and heartbreaks, you’ve got to stick with those things. But yeah, so the benefits are immense and all of your edges, all your surface areas and opportunity for ways to engage.

Morag Gamble:

Thank you for sharing that. And thank you for this wonderful conversation today. I feel so nourished by having this conversation with you. I know when we share this out that people will love it. I just feel like my smile is stretched up and hooked around my ears.

Mark Lakeman:

Well, that’s so lovely. Thank you. I’ve been enjoying looking at your site and some of the talks, it’s just a fantastic lineup of folks you’ve brought together and the subjects that you have there for everyone to enjoy.

Morag Gamble:

Thank you so much for being the guest on the show today. It’s just been an absolute delight not only to meet you and talk with you, but to be in, to really be deeply inspired by the way, in which you’re helping to cultivate the kind of change that needs to happen in world today.

Mark Lakeman:

Thanks Morag.

Morag Gamble:

Thank you so much.

Mark Lakeman:

Have a beautiful time down there. Good luck to all of us. Let’s make it happen.

Morag Gamble:

Absolutely. All right. Take care. Stay safe.

Mark Lakeman:

You too. Bye-bye!

Morag Gamble

Morag Gamble is a very popular teacher in this field with enormous practical experience. She has been teaching about how to live a low impact, healthy and sustainable way of life for over two decades in more than 20 countries, and she really does walk her talk. Morag lives in a simple life in an Australian ecovillage, in the ecohouse she built with her family, surrounded by abundant award-winning permaculture gardens. She has designed her life to be self-employed and debt free. This frees her to home educate her three children using ecological and permaculture approach, and spend time in her garden, in nature and in her community. As well as being very practically experienced, Morag has a Masters of Environmental Education, a Postgraduate Diploma of Landscape Architecture, a Bachelor of Environmental Planning. She was a guest teacher at Schumacher College, UK, she lectured for many years in Food Politics at Griffith University and was an adjunct at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

Tags: building resilient cities, environmental activism, permaculture design, Placemaking