It is an asphalt intersection built like hundreds of other intersections in Portland’s neighbourhoods and around the world, yet Share-it Square is no ordinary intersection. My visit to Portland aligned with the community’s annual harvest day. Neighbours, comfortably dressed in jeans, shorts and t-shirts, appeared one by one carrying domestic items that typically belong to homes. Folding tables and chairs with colourful tablecloths were soon set up in the car-free intersection. Plates of roast vegetables, dips and fresh tomatoes were laid out to be shared. Pastel-coloured papers, glue and scissors waited to be played with. But the day really was about apples. Buckets of crushed apple pieces were poured into a wooden fruit press, and a couple of men laboriously turned the cast iron handle down. Curious children paused cycling, put their helmets down and watched the group effort.
Not an overnight success
The scene is almost too good to be true for zealous placemakers, but it hasn’t come about overnight. “In 1996 the community started this project with just chalk — basic chalk on the street. They wanted to reclaim the public space and create some kind of a gathering point that was a place where people could come together and build a community”, said Sarah Heath who has been the neighbourhood’s community organiser for the last five years. She took me through the 19 years of Share-it Square history. The chalk drawings at the intersection eventually got washed off by the rain every time, leading to doing a more permanent mural in paint around 2001. While it initially surprised the local authority, they are part of the same team now. The residents come up with a new design and paint something different every year. Closing the streets for a day is easily done, through a simple process with the local authority.
Each corner of the intersection has been changed to bring the neighbours together. One corner has a DIY bench with a woman’s head carved into the back — Angel Bench it is called, dedicated to a former resident that passed away in a house fire. In front of it, a 24/7 tea station resembles an oversized umbrella and invites passers-by to grab the mugs hanging off the pole. Little toy trucks and a ride-on unicorn lead to a kids’ club, a kind of a tree house with signage that reads ‘howdy folks, welcome parents + players’. A series of random books are available in a book share, perhaps to be read on the Angel Bench with a cup of tea.
Please, not another pretty photograph of community murals
I often come across photographs of places that resemble this scene at a superficial level – places with book shares and murals, information boards and community events. But the key difference between self-sustained places like Square-it Square and top-down managed places lies in the process. Who identified the assets and opportunities? Who initiated? Who maintains?
What we ultimately want is not intersection murals or tea stations specifically, but rather communities with capacity to self-organise, initiate projects and become guardians of the places they live in. Capacity building is harder than getting a project done. When asked about challenges of fostering community spirit like this, Sarah says the community members themselves have to be invested in their neighbourhood and be willing to put in the time and energy to look after it. Luckily, a few people in her community are coming forward to ensure the Share-it Square spirit continues, beyond their residency.
Micro-scale community projects
If you would like to live in a place like the Share-it Square neighbourhood, what’s stopping you from making change?
I overheard a young student a few days ago, talking about how roadworks in her suburb are impacting her. I asked what she thought she could do to influence the environment around her, and her answer was pretty simple: move. Her reasoning was fair – living with her parents now, why would she go through the trouble of writing to the authorities or initiating change? It is way easier to move to a place that suits her values and needs.
She is not alone in feeling uninvested in her neighbourhood. Thinking about my own situation, there is no shared space around my apartment block that residents can appropriate. The typical 6–12-month lease periods don’t provide the certainty we need, to want to emotionally and financially invest in the place long-term. It is too hard to navigate the local council system and get support for a community project.
We often talk about inviting the community to become part of the solution. What will it take for the community to feel invested, have the capacity to identify their own assets and lead micro-scale community projects? What are we doing now to build that capacity?
Many thanks to these organisations:
This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change.