City Repair Project Case Study

Alyse Nelson and Tim Shuck


City Repair is based just east of the Willamette River and Downtown Portland.  The organization works primarily in local neighborhoods throughout Portland, including Sellwood, Sunnyside, Buckley, and the Richmond neighborhood.  City Repair also has two mobile “place-making” units that frequent neighborhoods throughout Portland.  Currently, City Repair is involved in over twenty projects in all corners of Portland (Sewell). 


  • Early 90’s: Mark Lakeman visits and lives in Rural Mexico in a Mayan village.
  • 1995: Begins sharing vision with friends in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood.  T-Hows is constructed and neighbors begin to support idea of community living.
  • 1996: Construction of Share-It-Square in Sellwood and the City Repair Project officially starts
  • 1997-2000: City Repair focuses on Intersection Repairs in other neighborhoods.
  • 1998: City Repair receives 501(c)3 non-profit status.
  • 2002-present: Creation of the Village Building Convergence (VBC), where ten or more projects are started and completed during a ten-day event.



City Repair’s main initiative is to empower the local communities and inspire them to live in a more holistic society, less focused on the individual.  City Repair’s projects all aim at showing the community the power of public space and the process of community-led design.  In the Portland neighborhoods that City Repair works in, residents are often ignorant on the value of local culture, and founder Mark Lakeman explains that when they create these new public spaces, “‘ [t]hey start to see their whole world differently. It’s a powerful impetus for change” (Kavage).  With such strong outcomes for community unity, City Repair’s growing popularity is an encouragement to Portland and other cities as they catch on to the idea. 


Politicians are known to be scared of failure, thus wary about trying new ideas.  In the case of the Sellwood neighborhood’s Intersection Repair, the Portland Department of Transportation were not happy with the street painting, since they are “generally not risk-takers” (Kavage).  However, the burgeoning City Repair organization was lucky to have a political ally in City Council member Charlie Hayes, who was indispensable in garnering support from other City Council members and Mayor Vera Katz.  With this support, the City Council both allowed the Sellwood Intersection Repair to stay and eventually passed a City Ordinance to allow more such projects across the city.  


A City Repair project is easily recognizable, with typical features including brightly painted intersections, solar powered kiosks, tea stations, and the use of sustainable materials (“Intersection Repair”).  Bright colors help to create bold gathering areas that create a unique identity.  Sustainable materials include reused bricks, the use of cob instead of cement, natural stone, recycled lumber and nails, and other reused or recycled materials.  Residents often donate these products, which both benefits the environment and also creates more personal projects. 


City Repair is a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, with a budget that comes from donations and grants.   The leaders of the organization are all volunteer, and the only paid staff person is a part time bookkeeper.  Since their organization lacks a membership base that routinely attends the monthly meetings, the City Repair leaders are authorized to make decisions for the entire group (“Co-Directors Empowered”).


There are many people and organizations that partner, volunteer, and work with City Repair.  Being a non-profit organization, City Repair relies almost entirely on donations.  They have several large donors that partner with them, but depend mostly on private donations given by the general public.  There are fifteen active volunteers in the organization, who come from a variety of backgrounds, such as: placemaking and architecture, urban planning and design, ecological and social sustainability, community resource localization, nonhierarchical decision-making equality, diversity and peace, cultural identity and bioregionalism, and paradigm reconstruction. 
Another key actor in City Repair is the neighborhoods that they work alongside.  A neighborhood must approach City Repair and request assistance.  The community must be organized and have support for completing a project.  This ensures that projects will operate smoothly and be appreciated by community members.  Volunteer Lydia Doleman feels that “By educating people on ecological building principles and low-tech building materials, we can really create community involvement. People can take ownership of the projects and feel empowered that they know how to build something” (Sewell).  By uniting for a common cause, neighbors increase neighborhood interaction and empowerment.


City Repair addresses issues that are of major importance to neighborhoods across the nation.  These include:

  • The creation of the organization was in response to Lakeman’s dislike of the isolation of neighbors from their local communities (Kavage).  After returning from Mexico, Lakeman saw the need to spur community interaction by making places for people to come together and begin conversations and form friendships.  Lakeman and other founding members felt that creating a small village atmosphere within a city neighborhood was the best way to form communities.
  • The City of Portland has also experienced a decrease in funding for art and public spaces, as have many American cities.  With less spending, less public art projects and other community amenities can be created.  City Repair has been able to solve this problem in a very simple way.  Through being ecologically sustainable, they have also been very frugal.  They rely on all volunteer labor and use primarily donated materials.  This year they will only spend $30,000 on the Village Building convergence, for over a dozen projects.  Ecological designer Stephen Cowen says, “In a time of shrinking budgets, the more City Repair-type projects can happen, the better” (Sewell).  City Repair projects are worth a lot to residents because they help design and build them.  When the city takes on a project, they are often created at such large scales and residents lack a substantial voice in the decision-making process. 
  • Neighborhood revitalization created by both public and private interests often create neighborhoods that are too nice.  Property values go up and force the existing community out through the forces of gentrification.  Portland’s Pearl District is a good example of the public and private sectors trying to improve a neighborhood.  They created new housing, parks, a streetcar, and a host of other amenities that eventually drove lower income families out.  Mark Lakeman responds to these changes, saying, “Things are always changing. The question is who is choosing the change. If it comes from outside in an invasive way, it’s gentrification. If we acknowledge that change is happening, we can choose the change. If anything can divert or overturn the dynamics of gentrification, it’s people being linked together” (Sewell).  City Repair lets neighborhoods realize their inherent power to create places on their own.  Gentrification and other external forces of change will have less power over neighborhoods united by collective interests.


All City Repairs strategies are trying to build a better society—creating villages within the city to encourage social interaction and environmental awareness.  They see their work as unique within the non-profit or development community.  City Repair projects are about changing the city model and retrofitting it to the village model—to use what you are given, which is the street grid, and create public spaces in spite of it (Chamberlain). 

 Important overall strategies utilized by the City Repair Project include an emphasis on consensus building, a focus on community ownership, and prioritizing the process over the final product.  City Repair volunteers think of themselves as both facilitators and designers—with their first role being their predominant one.  These strategies are essential in helping create neighborhood places that stimulate increased community involvement.  As Eva Miller, a City Repair volunteer aptly stated, “Our concept isn’t to tell people what they need but to let them decide—even if it takes a while—what works best for them” (Fitzgibbon “Building Convergence”). Charla Chamberlain, a founding member, says that City Repair shows neighbors how to work together through consensus building and facilitation, and this makes sure that residents feel ownership of their project (Chamberlain). 

City Repair offers education on why community space is important and also teaches methods of consensus building, co-founder Mark Lakeman notes that this is vital, because a “lack of understanding often manifests itself as fear” (Kavage).  Even when residents might be initially opposed to City Repair projects, they typically are quick to understand the benefits when City Repair volunteers frame their issue to show what is wrong with the current development pattern of cities.  Survey results in neighborhoods where an Intersection Repair has been completed are often overwhelmingly positive, with many residents perceiving less crime and traffic compared to residents within the same neighborhood but not near a project.

Besides their built projects, City Repair also has a few projects that provide the City of Portland with temporary spaces for the public to interact.   These are essential because they show different neighborhoods the power of social capital.  They are also useful for keeping a steady stream of volunteers—many active volunteers and leaders were inspired from evenings under the wings of the mobile T-Horse, made up of parts from the initial Moon-Day T-Hows that spurred the beginnings of Sellwood’s Share-It Square and the City Repair Project.

Another important tactic is to start with small, do-able tasks and then move to bigger projects (Cowen et al 13).  This gives the residents a chance to form bonds and feel like they are accomplishing their mission.  City Repair volunteers also encourage resident celebration in between their intermediate steps.  When ready, a neighborhood can then start on another project, which gives them another chance to come together during the process. 

Intersection Repair:

Intersection Repairs come from within an interested neighborhood.  In order for City Repair to work with the community, the residents must come together to discuss their common goals and how an Intersection Repair might help reach them.  Then City Repair volunteers will come for another community meeting and show their slideshow that explains the power of public space and how the conventional grid leaves our cities with precious little of it, thus educating residents on the necessity of reclaiming their streets. 
If the neighbors decide to go forward, the City of Portland Ordinance that allows Intersection Repairs stipulates that the property owners adjacent to the chosen intersection agree to the project and that there is eighty percent support within two blocks.  Then City Repair assists the residents in months of meetings to reach consensus on the design.  For City Repair, the final design is not what matters; it is the process that helps empower residents for positive change and future interactions.

In order to encourage community ownership, City Repair volunteers work only as facilitators and give opinions only when asked.  The residents are involved in the funding, design, and maintenance of the project.  An involved community leader typically ensures that the Intersection Repair will be maintained.  City Repair thinks that a successful Intersection Repair is one that encourages further resident action, not just in the form of additions to the project, but in all sorts of community issues.

Village Building Convergence

The Village Building Convergence (VBC) is like an Intersection Repair, but on a much larger scale.  It involves thousands of people from Portland and all over the region, who collect to work on 10-15 different placemaking projects (Riegal).  City Repair works with all neighborhood groups and also coordinates events and lectures during the ten days.  The VBC is meant to inspire more community-based projects and attracts much more media attention than a single neighborhood effort.  It has been one of City Repair’s main projects since its inception in 2002.

The 2005 VBC has projects in all four quadrants of the City of Portland, not just limited to the activist-oriented Southeast quadrant (Stranzl).  While their eventual goal is to get a public space in each neighborhood in Portland, this year’s event is also focusing on joining old and new resident populations together within gentrifying neighborhoods.  This is helping residents gain new relationships and showing them that they can help direct the change that is occurring in their neighborhood (Stranzl).          

T-Horse and T-Pony

The T-Horse, and its teenage cousin the T-Pony, both go out into the community on a weekly basis.  The T-Horse was created out of the Moon-Day T-Haws, which was taken apart after beginning the City Repair movement in Sellwood (Baker). The purpose of these mobile teahouses is to help spark community interaction and increase social ties between neighbors.  Offering free tea, chai, and pillows on which to sit, these events show neighbors the possibility of community space.  The T-Pony was designed and operated by homeless youth, one of whom believed that “‘it gives us something we can call our own’” (qtd in Fitzgibbon “Teen Pony”). 

Placemaking Facilitation

Since 2001, City Repair volunteers have been helping neighborhoods envision their collective future.  They have worked with the Southeast Division commercial district, the Sunnyside Neighborhood in Southeast Portland, and the small coastal town of Bay City, Oregon (Cowen et al 11).  Current work includes the Northeast Albina Triangle Project, where City Repair staff has been working on facilitation, participation planning, and design of a section of City owned land that is being redeveloped by the Portland Development Commission (“Albina Triangle Project”).  These projects all help communities come together and create innovative solutions in their neighborhood.  City Repair leads workshops that empower local residents in grassroots planning and urban design (“Placemaking”).

Earth Day Celebration of Localization

The Earth Day Celebration showcases local businesses, initiatives, and culture in an annual event entirely ran by volunteers (“Projects”).  This event brings together over 3,000 participants and opens their eyes to both the value of community events and environmental issues.  Participants first engage in neighborhood projects and later enjoy a celebration that features bands, vendors, and workshops.


Sellwood Share It Square 

The first Intersection Repair began in the Sellwood Neighborhood of Southeast Portland.  The initial idea came during 1995 from City Repair co-founder Mark Lakeman, who had spent time in Mayan villages and missed the sense of community in their public spaces when he arrived back in America.  So, along with some friends, Lakeman designed the T-Hows in a private backyard of a home in Sellwood (Kavage). The Moon-Day T-Hows held weekly potlucks among residents (“Moon-Day T-Hows”).  While the favor of the neighbors was not universal, by the time the City of Portland ordered that it be removed because it was built without a permit, the residents of Sellwood had realized the value of community space.  Lakeman later reflected that the space was responsible for “‘facilitating the opening of people’s imagination” (qtd in Kavage).  Once their T-Hows was removed, the Intersection Repair idea evolved quite naturally as the next available space, Lakeman noted “the momentum that we’d built suddenly leapt into the intersection” (qtd in Kavage).     

While the residents initially tried to get legal permission from the City of Portland to paint the intersection, they eventually realized that the bureaucracy did not see the value in their plans.  Portland Department of Transportation (PDOT) went as far as saying, “‘That’s public space—so no one can use it!’” (Cowen et al 18).  Rather than quitting, they moved forward, deciding that they had to prove them wrong.  The neighbors filed for a block permit, which closed the street intersection to cars, and illegally painted their street, beginning the reclaiming process.

PDOT was furious, and threatened to sandblast the design off the roadway.   However, the residents found support from City Council member Charlie Hales and eventually won acceptance from both Mayor Vera Katz and the City Council (Kavage).  After reviewing the project and surveying the nearby residents, they found that the street painting had created positive perceptions of less crime, slower traffic, and increased neighborhood involvement.  Since it had been free for the City of Portland, the government decided that these projects should be encouraged and created a City Ordinance in 2000 that allowed similar “Intersection Repairs”, as they were called (“10 Steps”).

Since its conception, Share-It Square, as the local residents have named it, has witnessed a variety of neighborhood projects.   A 24-hour tea stand, information kiosk, produce-trading station, community library, and children’s playroom have since been added.  The neighbors have also re-painted the intersection several times (Silha), which gives the opportunity to re-involve old residents and introduce new residents into the process.     

Project: Sustain Urth

One of the 2005 Village Building Convergence projects, Project: Sustain Urth (PSUrth) is introducing sustainability to the Portland State University campus.  It will be the first building made out of natural materials.  The structure will be outside of the Smith Student Union building, the central location for students all over campus.  The student-initiated Food For Thought Café will use the cob oven, compost, and organic herb garden to augment its restaurant.  The structure will also feature cob benches and an eco-roof. 

This project has led to a collaboration of many organizations, including:  City of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development; Portland State University administration, professors, and students; the Food For Thought Café; along with City Repair (“Portland State University Students”).  The hope is that the project will not only inspire those currently involved in the process, but stand as a testimony to future students as to the power of collective action and the opportunity of sustainable design (“Project Overview”).  Another goal is that it can help all the sustainability initiatives come together on campus and work on projects in a more cohesive manner. 


The most important outcome of City Repair projects is the increased capacity for residents to unite for collective action to decide their own future.  City Repair states clearly that, “By reclaiming urban spaces to create community-oriented places, we plant the seeds for greater neighborhood communication, community empowerment, and local culture” (“About Us”).  Their many projects are meant to educate, inspire, and activate people to join together as a community and be empowered to make their own decisions (“About Us”).  In the end, City Repair projects are never about the final design, rather, the process of getting there is what they seek.  By assisting communities in consensus building and in their creation of a public space, City Repair is helping residents find a sense of place and feel the power of collective action. 

Intersection Repair benefits are seen as: increased tolerance for diversity, reducing traffic speed, encouraging neighborhood involvement, helping create neighborhood identity, lower crime rates, neighborhood beautification, and greater livability (“Why Intersection Repair”). In Share-It Square, residents have kept their intersection well maintained, even repainting a few times.  They close the intersection down a few times a year for block parties.  After it was completed, 85 percent of residents perceived positive benefits (Lerch).  The positive benefits felt by residents are felt strongest close to the Intersection Repair.

At Sunnyside Piazza, another Intersection Repair project, residents have detected a decrease in drug use and criminal activity within their neighborhood.  Crime data backed up their perceptions (Cowen et al 17).  Charla Chamberlain believes that their projects are essential because they “introduce hope and reduce harm” (Chamberlain). 

They hope that their projects will lead to other projects throughout the city, region, and nation.  This is a key to evaluating their success.  City Repair hopes to eventually see community space in each one of the 96 Portland neighborhoods (Silha).  Besides that, they also speak throughout the United States and in Canada to explain the power behind their mission (Kavage).  City Repair projects can now be found in Olympia, Washington; Eugene, Oregon; Asheville, North Carolina; and State College, Pennsylvania (Silha).  While Portland’s political environment may have helped make the City Repair solutions to placemaking accepted, now other places are catching on.  The City of Seattle even has a fledging City Repair group.


Theoretical traditions from across the world and from various scholarly fields have emerged with a conceptual basis that can be used to study social movements.  Three factors are identified as essential to understanding how social movements both emerge and grow over time.  These are: (1) political opportunities and obstacles; (2) the organizational form; and (3) the collective definition and identity given to a movement (McAdam et al 2).  In order to evaluate the City Repair Project, the following utilizes this framework.

Political Opportunities

Political opportunities are the opportunities and constraints that come from the inherent political structure.  These can change over time to varying degrees depending upon the political system and nation.  Social movements are typically “set in motion by social changes that render the established political order more vulnerable or receptive to change” (McAdam et al 8).  City Repair’s formation was definitely assisted by a political climate that was interested in unique answers to the problem of community livability and involvement. 
In Portland, the political system in place at the time that the City Repair Project formed had a lot to do with their success.  In the case of the first Intersection Repair in the Sellwood neighborhood, City Repair was able to take advantage of a supportive political environment, with City Council member Charlie Hales on their side.  If this had not been the case, it is quite likely that Portland Department of Transportation (PDOT) would have removed their work.  However, the progressive political environment in Portland along with the help of Hales ensured that the City Council really took the time to look at their project’s benefits, and when they were discovered, they made the process legal through a City Ordinance passed in 2000.  Hales was essential in getting their City Ordinance (Chamberlain). 

In current times, there are less favorable politicians, and the organization has to work harder to gain support in the established government.  However, it helps that they were able to gain considerable acceptance while they had allies in public positions.  Through their work with schools and government, they have become a more mainstream organization.  Recently they have even worked with the urban renewal agency, the Portland Development Commission, to increase community involvement on a revitalization plan (“Albina Triangle”). 
Interestingly, Mark Lakeman ran for City Council in 2004, coming in second (Spark).  This is an interesting concept—if political allies are waning, run for government.  Although Lakeman did not win, he surely used this as an opportunity to network and gain support for City Repair’s mission. 

Mobilizing Structures

Mobilizing structures define the type of organizational form that the activist group takes.  The organization can be informal or formal.  It can also be a collection of a variety of different organizations or be composed of social networks.  The City Repair organization has evolved over the years, from an informal collection of neighbors and friends to a formal organization recognized for their work all over the Northwest. 

City Repair has been an organization since 1996, but they became a formal 501(c)3 non-profit in 1998.  This organizational form can be described as “chaordic”, which means that they are ordered, but in a chaotic way (Cowen et al 9).  This type of organizational structure prevents power from accumulating with any one leader.  It is also thought to create capacity for creative thinking without complete loss of order.

The City Repair staff has been made up of only volunteers since the organization was founded, but it currently has a part-time bookkeeper to help keep City Repair functioning.  In 2001, the group decided that their structure should have executive leaders called “co-directors” and who make decisions using a consensus model.  By late 2002, the co-directors had evolved into a Coordinators Council, made up of representatives from the various projects that City Repair runs. 

This model makes sure that all people who volunteer for City Repair have a voice.  Since their organization typically does not have many active participants that attend the weekly meetings, the Coordinators Council is granted the power to make decisions for the group.  Active volunteers trust the Coordinators Council to make the best decisions.  If there is ever a lack of trust that develops between the Coordinators Council and the larger volunteer group, any person can come forward with concerns and if there are repeated troubles, the board of directors will decide the correct action to remedy the situation (“Co-Directors Empowered”). 

Framing Processes

Framing processes are used to build a collective understanding of an organization.   It is also used to frame the group’s argument.  An organization must be sure to frame their position in a way that is compelling in order to generate support.  At the very least, “people need to feel both aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem” (McAdam et al 5).  Unless these two conditions are met, an organization will likely never find success.  It is also essential to frame an issue in a way that can bring diverse sets of people together for a common goal. 
City Repair uses two main strategies to build support for their projects: (1) education and dialogue and (2) demonstration projects.  Through education and dialogue, they frame the issue for anyone who may not yet understand what is wrong with the grid and its imposed structure and lack of public space (Kavage).  They also explain the value of community space and resident interaction.  This is further cemented through actually getting projects done.  In the case of the Sellwood neighborhood, the Moon-Day T-Haws showed residents what community space was, and once they understood its value, they were empowered and desired to take back their streets.  Mark Lakeman realized that “‘once people were feeling strongly about the absence of a commons, then they started to take it personally’” (Kavage).  First by framing the issue in a compelling way to encourage action, and then through getting community projects off the ground, City Repair works to frame the issue in a way that both makes residents mad at the lack of open space currently afforded to them, and also gives them a way to alleviate that anger.

Summary of Key Lessons

  • While Portland’s political environment may have helped make the City Repair solutions to placemaking accepted, now other places are catching on across the nation.  The City of Seattle even has a fledging City Repair group.
  • In order to encourage community ownership, it is essential that the designer be a facilitator, not a leader.
  • Sometimes you have to break the rules when you know better than the bureaucracy.
  • Collaborate with schools in order to help your organization seem more mainstream and to inspire future activists.
  • Focus on community education, but also do projects so people can see what they are missing.
  • In design activism, the process is more important than the final design.