Intersection Repair: Building Community Over Automobile Throughput

Here in NYC, over the last month, we have seen a radical transformation in the upper levels of the city's department of transportation. Much of this has been because of the persistence of a few dozen transportation advocates who have successfully won favor within the Bloomberg Administration for their ideas of streets as public places requiring safe routes for pedestrians and cyclists and more access for mass transportation by taking back street space from personal automobiles. What we call: Livable Streets. Streetsblog (which I also write for) received some well deserved credit today by the NY Times' City Room.

In looking at what is going on around the country with the livable streets movement, I came across this excellent video of something called "Intersection Repair"

Intersection Repair

"City Repair" in Portland, Oregon hosts an annual Village Building Convergence where hundreds of people come together to build diverse projects for the benefit of their communites and to take back their streets via a process known as Intersection Repair.

From Streetsblog's vlog sibling, Streetfilm is this description of what "Intersection Repair" means:

This involves painting streets with a high-visiblity mural that creates a public square for residents to gather and one which gently encourages drivers to slow down when approaching these spaces. Over time the neighbors further enhance the transformation by adding amenities like benches, community bulletin boards, and introducing gardens & art. As you’ll see, the possibilites are endless.

This is the type of alternative universe that I like to imagine happening all over the place as we gently ride down the hydrocarbon peak. These are people finding ways to make themselves happy with those around them instead of driving far and wide to seek out others. It's not complicated, it's just a group of people that live near each other getting together to do something they all benefit from: Re-imagining an intersection as a community square.

Ok, why am I not surprised this video comes from Portland? Let me take this opportunity to request from the Portlanders and Oregonians, any suggestions as to what/where to visit when in Portland. I'll be going there next month for five days and would like to see much of the city and surrounding countryside (and get in a hike or two). Any advice would be appreciated (I already know about the Beer Festival).

Here is a small sampling of City Repair / Village Building Convergence sites from my web site. (I sometimes have been an unofficial photographer for VBC... and it's people like City Repair / VBC who make Portland the kind of place people like me keep moving too.)

A new intersection repair this year in Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood:

Sunnyside Piazza, one of the grandmas:

Cob bench at possibly the original intersection repair, Share-it (Sharett) square in Sellwood Moreland neighborhood:

Cob Sauna in Sunnyside:

Mixing Cob in Hosford-Abernethy:

Cob Dragon Bench in Kerns:

Shrine at City Bike in Kerns:

VBC assists in building Dignity Village for homeless folks:

And that's just a taste of what VBC and City Repair do each year. Learn more here:

This is great. I would absolutely love to have something like this in my neighborhood. Does anyone know the legal acrobatics that would be involved in getting a permit for something like this?

I'm pretty sure the first one was not legal and only later was accepted by the Portland DOT. While I do suggest you try to do something legal first on your own property, you might just take a chance and do something minimal and temporary and see what the response is and hope it builds...maybe use chalk?

My understanding is that City Repair / VBC encountered some early resistance from the city, many years ago, but that the city came around and is now quite supportive of the whole effort, which involves multiple (15 to 25) sites each year.

That's a function of city culture, and perhaps of the fact that there is political weight in Portland at the grass roots for this kind of thing.

But not every Portland neighborhood is open to it. Southeast Portland is the epicenter... In my Hollywood neighborhood in Portland I have asked some neighbors about doing this kind of thing and generally received shrugs. Since you have to get 80% of the neighbors on each block leading into an intersection, plus (I believe) all four corner houses to agree, it requires both persistence and a certain attitude toward life and living on the part of the neighbors. Without that... no go.

I wish I lived in Southeast Portland instead of square old Northeast. Southeast is the alternative place to be in this town, in my opinion.

If you can get a map of City Repair intersection sites you'll see them all over, but concentrated in SE and North I think, and you can get a sense of the social geography of coolness and involvement.

On a somewhat related note, Mayor Bloomberg announced today he was leaving the Republican Party, ostensibly to be more in line with his political views of how to run NYC., a British gambling site, in a matter of hours had the 'field' (all non Democrats and Republicans) go from 50:1 down to 16:1 for the 2008 presidential election, even though Bloomberg denied he would be running.

With $5 billion, success at running our nations biggest city and the two front runners being Hillary and Fred Thompson, I am guessing he could rocket to the front if he announced intent- as far as Peak Oil is concerned, he would be my choice for PRes based on what I know now. ( he worked at Salomon Brothers the same time I did - a VERY bright man and a leader to boot)

I agree Nate. None of the other potential candidates have really made much mention of "peak oil". Al Gore is much more focused on Climate change and I don't think he's going to run.

Just take this Quote from last May of the Mayor making a shockingly honest assessment of a proposal to eliminate a gas tax in NYC:

Fifty million dollars a year is probably a thousand cops, close to a thousand cops, close to a thousand teachers," he said. "If we don't have the money, we can't have these things. What do we want to do without?

Reducing taxes when you're trying to end energy dependence on foreign cartels is not exactly a terribly smart policy

The long-term solution in this country, which nobody wants to hear, is to use an awful lot less energy and to get away from fossil fuels, particularly oil, that mostly comes from overseas.

Imagine one of the other candidates explaining why we need to tax gasoline to pay for necessary public services like teachers and police...

Hi Nate,

Thanks, as always, for your comments.

I wanted to share some info I received from a listserv. (BTW, I registered "Independent" at age 18 - still am.)

You may be aware of this; I just post it in case you're not:
"Here's what the USA Today had to say about Lobbyist Thompson:

"Although the folksy-sounding Tennessean recently told USA TODAY that he would run an outsider, just as he did while campaigning as a "country lawyer" in a red pickup during his 1994 U.S. Senate race, his résumé is that of a longtime Washington operative who has crossed ideological lines to represent corporate and foreign clients."

In his most recent stint in Washington, Thompson worked for a London company lobbying Congress to limit liability claims for asbestos-related illnesses. Over the past three years he's made $760,000 fighting for the interests of his corporate clients."

This video is simply amazing. There are many great videos on the site. I wish they would post even more videos weekly, but they seem to be hard working folks.

Anarchism these days is getting very strange facets indeed.

Luckily, tarmac painting is forbidden in Europe, if you get caught painting “Voigt”, “Moreau” or “Garzelli” on the road you get a fine.

The paint cover on tarmac is worse than ice for a bicycle. Any rider knows that zebra pedestrian crossings are a trap, especially on humid weather. Now, having a crossroads painted is the ultimate bicycle trap, curving on that paint with humid weather is a guaranteed fall.

Having the kids around, building community bonds and everything is very interesting, but please get a bit of reasoning…

Portland is also one of the most Bike friendly cities in the US with about 3% commuting by bike. This painting does not interfere with bikes. The thermoplastic that they make crosswalks out of does have slick surfaces.

This painting does not interfere with bikes. The thermoplastic [..]

What happens when this plastic surface is wet?

Re" what happens when the plastic surface gets wet".
In 1972 I experienced this on my moped in Copenhagen. The moped slipped on a painted stripe and I went down in front of a bus. Luckily the bus managed to stop.
In Modern Copenhagen, Bikes and cars are seperated. You can study the standard construction modes in Copenhagen from the "vejdirektoratet" in this link-
Danish- but well illustrated with many Pictures.
kind regards/And1

Thanks And1 - unfortunately my Danish isn't good enough to understand all items on that picture. As a cyclist I really shun all wet plastic surfaces. They are like wet leaves in the autumn - can give you are terrible slip, especially in turns.

Well said.

This is exactly the kind of thing that makes a joke out of a serious subject. The vast majority of people will see this, and anything that associates itself with this, as a fringe, pointless, joke, 'hippy' idea - and thus not worth thinking about.

Making communities, dealing with dependence on the car, etc. need real answers - not pointless wastes of time and paint like this.

I'm sure all the people in the video really feel like they have done something meaningful - right before they get back in their SUVs and drive 50miles to work.

This is how real community develops, not at town hall meetings, but by having shared spaces, shared rituals and regular interactions with your neighbors. Do many of these people own cars, sure? But many of them are not driving to the multiplex or to visit friends who live 50 miles away, but are instead enjoying themselves and finding real fellowship close to home.

This is how real community develops...

Oh, please.

This positively reeks of the sheer hell of bossy, patronising European-style social engineering.

It's not the eighteenth century anymore. We no longer need to limit ourselves to the stifling, mindless, provincial living hell of the small-minded people of the small village (or block) where we happen to live. What possible reason is there to so apotheosize the random triviality of geographical proximity, anyway? Why should I give a rat's behind about whatever it is that patronising social engineers wish to force upon me under the guise of "real community"?

What little spare time I have, I'm probably going to spend more in interest groups rather than in talking about nothing with random people off the street, even the nearby street. After all, it's not the eighteenth century, when virtually everyone was a peasant, so that peasantry was the universal subject. It's a much broader - and in my opinion vastly better - world nowadays, but one consequence is a certain specialization that means there's often little in common to talk about beyond professional sports and yard work - and, frankly, I don't care one jot about either. So I don't bother to spend much time at, say, street parties, because after about twenty minutes, they tend to deteriorate into a besotted waste of time.

And I don't need to care about street parties because it's not the eighteenth century. I'm no longer as confined by the mere accident of proximity. I can get together with people who don't happen to live on the same block, and we can talk about, or perish the thought, actually do, something beyond the mere mindless trivialities of peasantry, pro sports, and yard work.

And, I must say, I rather resent the bullying hippies and social engineers who seek to physically obstruct me from living in the twenty-first century rather than the eighteenth - by blocking intersections, by deliberately making transport unaffordable, by cutting off roads, or by whatever means - on the supercilious grounds that, as today's heirs-apparent of Orwell's Big Brother, they alone know what's best and have the right to dictate it to others.

Oh dear. Will you just do us the favor of keeping your personal misery away from inner east Portland Oregon?

But your problem is, as they say, one that will take care of itself as your high energy transportation options diminish and as you are forced to live locally. Those of us in Portland are just enjoying the local life we have now.

Inner east Portland culture was formed through resistance to the Mount Hood freeway project back in the 60s or 70s, the first time a neighborhood successfully fought one of your social engineered freeway projects that would have destroyed a neighborhood. Every since then it has been a place that cared about preserving itself. And east and north Portland have many other kinds of cool street parties too.

When you come to Portland hang out across the river in Beaverton and Hillsboro and you'll be happy. They like 6 lane roads and SUVs over there a lot. You can rent a place on a cul de sac, plug in your TV and you'll be fine.

... and if you can leave your personal misery behind for a moment (or need some help doing that) please come participate in the Portland "Village Building Convergence" next year in the spring. You might surprise yourself and have a very nice time building and dancing and listening to music and meeting lots of nice folks.

Garyp, you obviously don't know the culture of Southeast Portland and of City Repair. I guarantee you that probably every person in that video lives locally and a lot of them bike. There are places in Portland where people own SUVs and drive 50 miles to work, but Southeast Portland is unusual.

People feel like they've done something meaningful because getting together to beautify a neighborhood and meeting your neighbors IS meaningful for most people.

What happens when you move there and your neighbors ostracise you?


What happens when you move anywhere and your neighbors ostracize you?

Maybe you really aren't compatible with the culture of the place you've moved to... but maybe something in you needs to open and change to a new social reality.

If Southeast Portland style community isn't your thing, there are plenty of conventional suburbs to choose from in and around Portland and elsewhere.

Did you move there because you wanted to be part of Portland alternative culture but it wouldn't accept you in spite of all your good will?

If it feels right to you, you'll find a way to be part of it.

What's your story?

Actually you yourself sound rather hostile. Make too many assumptions about people like that and you chase away a lot of would-be friends.

Try giving people the benefit of the doubt. Especially if at first they aren't quite as "hip" as you. Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised concerning the perspectives of people you might have negatively judged.


Bruce, I don't intend to be hostile, and I'm not sure what assumptions you think I've made. Please enlighten me.

I thought my responses were pretty mild to some extremely hostile vibes above but maybe I've got that wrong. Tell me how.

The paint used in these intersection repair projects is *not* slippery when wet. I bike and walk through the sunnyside piazza nearly daily. And it rains a lot in Portland.

To those who have left negative comments:

Why are you making assumptions about neighbors who have come together to transform their own surroundings?
We are talking about place-based action here- people deciding for themselves to take action in their own communities.
If you don't want to paint your neighborhood, then don't. But please don't judge those who do.

This whole superannuated-sixties-hippie thing is getting beyond surreal. When you lay any old paint down on the street, and then add rain, it creates a hazardous surface for bicycles, scooters, and even pedestrians. (So maybe in Arizona, but what would be the point, as I certainly don't want to be communing on the concrete or asphalt in a place where it's 60C/140F in the sun and there's no real shade.)

In addition, I can hardly wait for the massive national publicity and the multimillion dollar lawsuit, when a fire engine or ambulance either runs over a child, or else cannot get to its destination on time, because there are herds of navel-gazing hippies blocking the intersections.

Sorry, but I see the street surfaces as primarily for transportation and access - an inappropriate venue for hippie communing. (Whats the matter with the terraces, the parks, or some other saner alternative?) Nor are the streets an appropriate place for bad parents to just dump their children when they don't feel like supervising them properly. So if there are indeed fines for this sort of nonsense in Europe, good on them, and let's have fines in the USA as well.

What's a "superannuated-sixties-hippie", or a herd of "navel-gazing hippies"?

Those are words to use when you fear that other people are having more fun than you, or living more connected and other-involved lives than you.

I guess I'd like to get more "superannuated" if that's the case!

I have been to Portland to participate in Intersection Interventions and the paint does not create a slick surface for cyclist or people at all.

It is basically common housepaint of a more industrial matter. It even begins to flake off in spots a little just weeks or a month after painting.

These murals are wonderful and I am sure that many of the ignorant comments here on TOD would change if you actually experienced them and the people who benefit from them.

Thanks for providing your on the ground experience Maureen.

Once again, fear of the unknown seems to be a common human response to anything outside the mainstream - experimentation and empiric experience reduces that fear and helps us adapt to changes.

Maureen, you are quite right. The intersections created/repaired by City Repair are quite mellow and pleasant places.

It is true that the 80% agreement requirement (as I heard about it) does mean that you could have some people in a neighborhood who object vehemently... but if 100% agreement was required for every public design decision there would be no decisions at all. It is safe to say that these repairs express the general local public will for creating the look of a neighborhood.

I think what people are really objecting to is the idea of building a local community based on physical proximity. Since that is what the world is moving toward, their argument is not really with east Portland but with much larger realities that will be imposed by the end of the oil age. They should take their argument up with Geology (good luck) and not with folks who are ahead of the curve and creating local community.

As a daily biker, I can tell you that there is no problem with slickness in the rain.

I worked with City Repair from 1999 to 2004, and helped facilitate the Sunnyside Piazza project (the big sunflower). I wanted to to address some of the issues and questions brought up in the comments on this article:

- The first project ("Share-It Square", started in 1996) was indeed installed by neighbors without City permission. The City officially declined the proposal, but some City employees saw the potential value for community-building, traffic calming, etc. and quietly encouraged the neighbors to paint it anyway and force these issues to be considered. The neighbors painted the intersection, and a subsequent survey showed that a vast majority of the neighborhood residents felt that the painting had slowed traffic, made the intersection safer, was a good thing, etc. The Mayor and City Council were ultimately convinced that the project was meeting existing City livability goals without spending City funds, and agreed that the project should not only be allowed but encouraged to spread throughout the city. (See

- The intersection murals are not 'forced' onto neighborhoods. Neighbors initiate these projects, and are required by the City to get approval from the owners of the four corner properties and the residents of all properties in a two-block radius; also, a reasonable number need to be engaged in the design process. City Repair works with the group of neighbors to develop a design, navigate the permitting process and engage the community: the design of the mural projects reflects what the neighbors want.

- Someone commented that s/he didn't see the point of getting to know one's community, because "it's not the 18th century". There's a whole academic and popular (see "Bowling Alone") literature on 'social capital' that discusses why neighborhood and community relationships are important not just for social relationships but for local democracy, the local economy, and most especially local resilience in the face of challenges and crises. Public gathering spaces are key to building community relationships, but most American neighborhoods don't have them -- thus, "Intersection Repair" was developed to create neighborhood public space in the one place that _is_ available: the street.

- Why paint? Ideally these projects will eventually be made permanent with bricks, flagstones, colored asphalt or whatever the neighbors want, preferably as a raised "intersection platform" that's ramped up to be at the same level as the sidewalks; the paint is meant to be temporary (it costs ~$700 to paint an intersection, ~$30,000 to repave it with bricks). The painted design is meant to mark the space as a shared pedestrian/bike/car space, exactly like Dutch "woonervern," English "home zones," etc.

Finally, City Repair has been spreading beyond Portland, including Seattle, Ottawa, Oakland and Minneapolis. See


Mr. Lerch,

I read every word you printed. It couldn't have been a better response. The elegance and respect you showed everyone should be sent back.

Thank you.

How pathetic :-(

Not a criticism for those trying to repair, but this is what you are reduced to with the post-WW II built environment.

As opposed to the natural, organic community where I live. I know dozens by name and hundreds by sight. I counted when shopping at my neighborhood grocery (Zara's 2nd Generation, his brother has another one) 2.5 blocks away. I walked past six people going there and 9 coming back. Talked with an acquaintance in the store and exchanged pleasantries with those I walked past.

Enjoyed the flowering trees as I walked there as well as the architecture and ambiance (the heat and humidity less so !).

28' wide streets with parking on both sides and stop signs every two blocks. Who needs "traffic calming" ?

Best Hopes from the Lower Garden District of New Orleans,