Building Community Through Permaculture – an Interview with Mark Lakeman

Marcin Gerwin: You used to work as an architect for a large company. How did you come to be involved in permaculture?

Mark Lakeman: I was working for a large firm in 1988 and I wasn’t exposed to permaculture while working in a corporate career, which was very typical. But fortunately for me there was a day in my firm when there was a huge toxic waste cover-up that I learned about. It was very upsetting because there was a big toxic concentration on our site and government inspectors were being paid to bury the information, to not report it. It was the biggest architecture company in the city and the biggest contractor in the state of Oregon. Everybody was just laughing about how they were getting away with covering up this problem. I was so angry and upset that I quit that day. I yelled gently at my boss for something like three hours and just quit. Then I went travelling for about seven years.

After visiting different indigenous societies I started to learn a lot about the settlement patterns they have. I wanted to understand how they create their own environments out of the participatory culture. I was aware at that time that basically in America we live in developments that people create for profit. They are not designed like the sort of places that I was visiting, where people create their own environments so that they meet their needs. I went out into the world already knowing that if you live in a neighbourhood where all you have are houses and no public squares or other cultural spaces that people will not generate culture automatically. They won’t necessarily gather or know who they live among. So as I was travelling from village to village I was learning a lot about what is missing in American society. Finally about seven years after visiting different indigenous cultures I finally ended up in a rainforest. I was very intentional about going there. I wanted to see what preindustrial people where like. People that have never been colonized. That was a shocking experience.

MG: Why?

ML: They were very different than people who live in a society like this one. We’ve been conquered so many times that we don’t even remember what’s happened. We are so out of touch from making our own habitat that we don’t know the difference. I didn’t know the word “permaculture”, but I think I was looking for patterns of societies that helped them to be connected to their environment, to their climate and to each other, which is exactly what permaculture is. So in a way I went in a back door in order to discover permaculture. That was through travel and investigating indigenous settlement patterns with the eye of a planning and architecture background.

MG: Permaculture may seem to be something related mainly to gardens or rural areas. What can you use it for in the cities?

ML: What has been missing all the time in the design of a modern city has been an emphasis, or a kind of attitude, toward the community. The idea that we can use design to strengthen relationships between parts of the city, especially people, is essential for the emergence of a sustainable society. Permaculture is very different than other design strategies that we’ve studied in schools, where architecture and planning are really focused on creating a landscape of commodity. The architect is currently a specialist that serves the investment class and creates landscapes that facilitate their aspirations. But architecture and planning can also support a stronger and more resilient local democracy through the idea that design can be participatory. A lot of people have been working on that idea for a while so it’s not a new thing. It turns out that participatory design is really a key principle of using permaculture in order to design in a way that benefits people in the communities where they live.

So we already have methods and processes like the community design charrette that can be used to facilitate a permaculture approach to design. It’s really not like we have to design cities completely from scratch or start over. They actually have a lot of good things that we have done in the various infrastructures. It’s more like we need to engage people now to retrofit the city and make it work better. Not condemn the city as it exists, but to figure out strategies where people work together right in the places where they live — to identify their problems and then undertake design-based strategies for making their communities better and stronger. The beautiful thing about this is, as we are finding in Portland, when people do this, they build community just by coming together to talk about their community and starting to design together. So we can build community through a design processes. It strengthens people’s connection to their community and very importantly — it’s a core issue for design culture — it builds the design literacy of our society.

MG: Participation in the planning of a city is still rare in Poland. Some people say that it should be done by experts. But also planners hesitate to invite residents to work together.

ML: I understand that the universities and professional culture are concerned that if we cultivate a design literacy in society then somehow the design culture might become irrelevant. But what we are finding is that it becomes increasingly relevant because the society starts to understand why our skills are essential. So they want to work with us, they want to engage us more than they did before. It’s not like by sharing our secrets or skills that we suddenly become obsolete. It’s quite the opposite. Communities want to reengage in design and they know that they need our help. So it’s a beautiful thing.

MG: Could you give some examples of permaculture approaches that can be applied in a city?

ML: While working on some of the larger architecture projects in our office we simply have been more inclusive of the population that will be working in the building itself. One of our more famous projects, called The ReBuilding Center, was actually designed and built with the participation of the staff that would work there. We sat down with the people to figure out how to construct it and also how to make it work most efficiently and effectively. So everyone on the staff level has a stronger sense of ownership of the building before we even created it. We tapped into their experience and their intelligence in order to do that. That’s one thing that’s more conventional, but still radical.

More radical than that is the fact that in our city we have transformed the street right-of-way so it’s now legal to install all sorts of community amenities throughout the city. Street intersections can be turned into public squares — anywhere, in any neighbourhood, and for free. As long as the neighbours design the idea themselves, they fund it and do the work to install it, the street intersection can become a public square. That is a very beautiful and powerful thing because American neighbourhoods have the lowest number of community gathering places of all first world nations. And because we don’t even know each other’s names, and therefore have little relationships with each other, there is a tremendous amount of violence that happens in American communities. That’s largely because there aren’t even places to meet each other.

MG: What else can be done?

ML: We are solving social issues by getting people involved in their own problems and then designing solutions. Part of this process are simple things, like you can locate a bench, an information kiosk, composting facility or bike parking and shelters everywhere throughout all neighbourhoods within the street right-of-way. Bike parking can be located in the street or in the grass strips between sidewalk and the street — anything that any neighbourhood feels that is important for them to build community around and to engage youth in order to create. Anything can be created. What is happening with the transportation bureau is that they realized that before cars existed the streets played many diverse functions. Broadening the understanding of the street can enable a city population to accommodate many more activities than we’ve been doing in the 20th century. That mindset shift is a big innovation.

MG: What does the permaculture education that you are doing look like?

ML: We are taking 40 communities all at once through a training process that includes teaching permaculture principles. We teach these classes every Thursday night to the representatives who come from the 40 communities. They learn about things that are essential for community building like how to outreach, how to fund raise, how to facilitate dialogue, but also ecological design principles. We are using permaculture principles as guiding strategies. The conventional tools, such as fundraising and outreach, are a way of building a relational network. They are meant to facilitate the use of permaculture principles in communities and by the communities themselves.

The very idea that we create an infrastructure of gathering places that lets people have stronger relationships in their neighbourhood is to treat the neighbourhood itself like a garden. The same sort of ideas that we would utilize in a permaculture garden we are actually using in the design of how people relate to each other, so we call it urban permaculture or social permaculture. There are also more ordinary designs — we are doing a lot of gardens that are based on permaculture principles. Those gardens will feature water catchment systems, grey water systems, composting facilities. But we are trying to use those principles more broadly in a social context too.

MG: Is permaculture as a design method recognized in your city?

ML: In our city, Portland, for sure. Probably our mayor and the whole city council and most of the leaders of our administration have all heard of this. We have done over 300 public space projects using permaculture, so the city bureaus that we work with have plenty of opportunities to learn about it by permitting projects that are associated with permaculture. I’m quite sure that they’ve been reading books, some of them have been taking courses but the word has been gaining a lot of familiarity. Back in the year 1999 when we started using natural building in the city most people never heard of it. But once we were building natural building projects in the streets tens of thousands more people became familiar with it.

MG: Do you find the ethics of permaculture useful in your work?

ML: Absolutely. Especially in the western USA you can see that the way that the city is laid out, the way that it functions economically and politically is the inverse of permaculture principles, certainly not to care for the planet, but to exploit it — and not to care for people, but to exploit each other. Everybody knows that the concentration of wealth and power that’s happening is not fair. Also our lives are depending on destruction of our own environment. The ethics of permaculture are like a breath of fresh air through the communities that live in these settlements. That’s actually something, I think, that is attracting people to permaculture.

Further Reading:

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This interview first appeared in the “Cities” magazine in Poland.

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2 thoughts on “Building Community Through Permaculture – an Interview with Mark Lakeman

  1. Hi Marcin, Thanks for taking the time to write about this community-centric design process. This (charette) approach is seems to offer huge potential in resolving the issues related to poor or ineffective community consultation that often derails projects over the longer term.

    Would you be able to share some ‘recommended reading’ suggestions or website links that might be useful to learn more about this approach? Also I’d really appreciate insights into the types of project management resources, including software, that you have used to underpin the efficient roll out of often complex and information rich projects.

    Thanks, all the best
    Lesley

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