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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

Share-It Square

by Andrea Montalbano

A visit to the corner of Southeast Ninth and Sherett Avenue in Portland, Oregon provides a thriving example of how urban architectural form can promote a sharing environment. This otherwise ordinary intersection - now playfully known as Share-It Square - is a grassroots attempt to take a banal urban condition and transform it into a lively commons. Several structures were created by area residents in a spontaneous work party during the summer of 1996.

One structure holds an open-invitation, serve-yourself tea station. Another contains a children’s clubhouse with games and a constant supply of multicolored sidewalk chalk. A community bulletin board and free produce stand - the local favorite - beckon visitors to another corner. People from blocks away, as well as the immediate area, understand that when you take vegetables from the stand you leave other produce in their place.

Many social norms - such as bartering and exchanging produce - were once formulated in public squares and town markets where people met and spoke regularly. Through this regular contact there developed an understanding of appropriate behavior towards one’s neighbor. The environments that provided the physical opportunity for this kind of interaction were commonplace before automobiles altered our landscapes and culture so dramatically.

Today’s typical American city - with its absence of inviting open gathering places - has physically and emotionally distanced neighbors from each other, increasing isolation. Street activity, however, can yield positive benefits, emotionally and financially, to members of a neighborhood. According to Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, social organization and the development of behavioral norms among residents are essential community resources. Neighborhood contacts occur more often in communities with strong social organization and contribute to enhanced community morale and social cohesiveness. Such networking can lead to neighborhood watch against crime, job opportunities, barter of services, and informal care for youngsters and the elderly by people outside of the family. The creation of informal gathering places at Share-It Square has helped foster such social networks.

When a woman in the neighborhood was shot and became disabled, helpers sprang up to cook and clean for her. A local man reached out and received the support he needed from neighbors in coping with his son’s behavior problems. A woman of very limited income had her house painted by neighbors who simply volunteered. “It was like the old days when people would raise barns together,” she said. Since getting to know her neighbors, she borrows tools from them and looks for ways to help others in return.

Tim, who rents an apartment two houses from Share-It Square, said the spirit of the square was the main reason he moved there from elsewhere in Portland. “People are on the street all the time and I know my neighbors for blocks around. It’s a total sharing environment.” Jan, who has lived near the intersection for 18 years, regularly trades clothing with neighbors and says the area is a more gentle place than it was before.

The success of Share-It Square has not come without a struggle, however. The city initially protested against the structures because they were located on public property and did not have approval from the city’s building permit unit. But when the city realized how strongly the local community supported the project, a temporary permit was issued; it has since been renewed annually.

A group of people who started work on the intersection has formed a volunteer organization called City Repair, with the mission of working with neighborhood residents to create community gathering places throughout Portland. City Repair has created an unusual vehicle, the “T-Horse”, a “mobile teahouse/public space activator.” Each Monday night a bright green truck, with wings fashioned out of plastic and scrap lumber, travels to a different park in Portland and sets up camp. The wings unfold to provide a 60-foot canopy for visitors. Rugs and pillows, strewn under the wings, offer a comfortable place for neighbors to sit and relax while enjoying a cup of tea and baked goods, brought by locals and distributed free from the mini-kitchen in the back of the truck. The success of the T-Horse was so great that an offshoot was created - the “T-Pony.” Run mostly by homeless teenagers, T-Pony offers tea and dessert after football games at the local high school.

These various acts of community building have not gone unnoticed. The place and the group have won many awards, including the “Spirit of Portland Award,” “Governor’s Livability Award,” and the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ “People’s Choice Award.”

Some members of City Repair have formed a design firm, Communitecture, to help others create community through participatory planning. They have recently won first place in a design competition for a public square in Salt Lake City.

Share-It Square, City Repair, and Communitecture promise to be important experiential teaching tools and models for other communities. Even seemingly mundane city forms may have the potential to become valuable community assets, if approached not only with design creativity but with sensitive openness to neighborhood involvement, however “disorderly” or contrary to conventional concepts.

Andrea Montalbano is a Master of Science student at the University of California at Berkeley, researching live/work housing for low-income populations. She works with the architectural firm of Michael Pyatok and Associates and is also volunteer secretary of the Berkeley Eco House project.

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