Village Building Convergence, Portland, Oregon

This year (2013) I had the chance to be part of Portland’s 13th annual Village Building Convergence. Organized by a non-profit organization know as City Repair. Once a year Natural Builders, Permaculturists and artists gather together for urban sustainability solutions and social regeneration. During a period of 10 days, neighbors and the wider community get together to build cob benches and ovens, tile mosaics, gardens, community kiosks, and colorful intersection paintings.

The idea behind City Repair is to turn spaces into places, where people can be creative, make connections, build with natural materials and grow their own food. The creation of places brings citizens in a disconnected society back together and communities are re-built. The VBC organization supports and advises groups of people who want to realize a project and gives them a framework to actually make it happen as part of a bigger movement what is the Village Building Convergence.

What exactly is Placemaking? in the words of City Repair:

“PlaceMaking is a multi-layered process within which citizens foster active, engaged relationships to the space which they inhabit, the landscapes of their lives, and shape those spaces in a way which creates a sense ocommunal stewardship and lived connection. This is most often accomplished through a creative reclamation opublic space: projects which take the form obenches on street corners where neighbors can sit, rest and talk with each other, kiosks on sidewalks where neighbors can post information about local events, needs and resources and streetpaintings in the public right-of-way that demonstrate to all who pass through that this is a Place: inhabited, known and loved by its residents.

 In all instances, these projects are undertaken by local communities who come together to discuss what it is they want in their neighborhood and how the community can work together with the resources they have to create their own place.” (

Julia June, a building connection I made last year during the Natural Cottage Project  at Strawbale Studio in Michigan, has been part of the City Repair organizing team for several years and invited me to join her for a VBC project at Tulip Tree Preschool. Together with Sarabel, we were in charge of facilitation and building the new outdoor play space, engage the pre-schoolers who designed the elephant, organize the flow on the worksite, figure out details – all with the help of many enthusiastic parents and friends of that community.

The cob elephant wall and bench is nestled in between a chicken coop and the butterfly bush, with a cob throne integrated into the playful design, which was generated by a co-creative effort of the pre-schoolers.

The foundation of the cob bench and wall is dry-staked urbanite over a foot-deep gravel-trench. We built it over a weekend with many helping hands. We decided to build up the foundation to a height of moreless 50cm to get the cob bench off the ground for moisture protection (capillary break) and to gain some height to speed up the building process. During the first three days, June, Sarabel and me had lot’s of help from parents and friends what allowed us to advance rapidly. The VBC provided clayey soil, sand and straw. We mixed on tarps, one patch after the other, formed “cobs”, put them on the wall and sawed straw into each other to create a 3-damensional straw structure within. Once the wall gained a certain height, we started to sculpt and give shape. While we were building up, we put in a bucket to create a crawl-whole for the kids and a marble run on the back of the elephant which has a bench added to it. A throne with recycled bottles is also part of the new play area.

Cob is for me the most democratic, integrating and accessible of all natural building techniques Cob is open for pre-schoolers and elderly people, men and women, strong people and not so strong people.

elephant colors

Laura, one of the pre-school teachers, wrote a really interesting blog about women builders and shared leadership. I highly recommend reading the blog entry if you’re interested in the topic and in the host site’s perspective of their participation in the Village Building Convergence 2013.

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