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April 24, 2012

Every Neighborhood Needs a Commons

Mark Lakeman is an architect fired up by the belief that our neighborhoods can become more than places where we hang our hats and park our cars.

Taking a break from his practice a few years back, he traveled through Central America and Italy, falling in love with the piazzas, plazas, zocalos where everyone gathers to talk, play and simply hang out. Although most of these people are poor by North American standards, he recalls, they enjoyed a richness of community life missing in most of our lives.

Lakeman came home to Portland with the idea of creating a similar commons in his own neighborhood. He discovered that several neighbors were thinking along the same lines, so together they rolled up their sleeves and transformed an intersection on Sherritt Street into Pacific Northwest version of a piazza, painting a colorful mural on the pavement and constructing a tea cart they hoped would lure folks out into the street for some convivial fun.

It worked. The project, which came to be known Sherritt Square (Share-it), elevated the sense of community in the area. Even on the quiet Monday morning when I visited, the square was a lively hive of activity with people chatting on the sidewalk and relaxing in the benches. Drivers instinctively slow down when they see people on the street and the mural in the intersection. Some even stop to see what’s going on.

People in other neighborhoods wanted to do something similar and a loosely structured organization, City Repair, sprang up to help them. Their motto: Every Neighborhood Needs a Piazza. Every year City Repair sponsors a Village Building Convergence, in which crews of volunteers transform lowly intersections, sidewalks, schoolyards and other public spaces into lively commons where the community can gather. The next one is May 27 to June 5.

This experience not only transformed Lakeman’s neighborhood, but also his life. Drawing on his experience with Sherritt Square and City Repair, he now speaks around the country about how to create neighborhood commons and founded the architectural and planning firm Communitecture to “design beautiful and sustainable places that bring people together in community.”

Mark Lakeman is one of the Commons Champions profiled in the OTC’s new book: “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons”:http://www.onthecommons.org/all-that-we-share