top of page

Sustainability in the urban environment

Most natural building today occurs in rural areas, where there is plenty of land and little interference from code officials or neighbors. But more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, where building homes out of clay and straw is simply not an option. One of the biggest challenges the natural building movement faces is how to incorporate natural building principles into an already developed urban environment. Builders in Portland, Oregon have begun to answer this challenge by successfully using natural building techniques to help beautify the city and strengthen community relationships.

Despite its urban setting, Portland has become a mecca for natural builders, and they have been busy! Sometimes it seems you can’t walk a block in Portland without encountering a cob bench, information kiosk, or sculpture. Often these creations are built right on the sidewalks. The motivation behind many of these projects is to “reclaim” public space for public use: by building attractive benches, we encourage people to stop, rest, enjoy the bustle of the street, talk to one another. And many people are even willing to give up some of their private land to promote this sort of community building: people have built large covered benches in their front yards right next to the sidewalk, encouraging passers by to sit, relax, and meet.

Much of this exciting work has been promoted by City Repair, a local nonprofit organization. This from the City Repair web site:

City Repair was formed in 1996 by citizen activists who wanted a more community-oriented and ecologically sustainable society. Born out of a successful grassroots neighborhood initiative that converted a residential street intersection into a neighborhood public square, City Repair began its work with the idea that localization (of culture, of economy, of decision-making) is a necessary foundation of sustainability. By reclaiming urban spaces to create community-oriented places, we plant the seeds for greater neighborhood communication, empower our communities and nurture our local culture. City Repair’s flagship project is something they call “intersection repair,” where all the neighbors living around and near an intersection of two streets come together to “reclaim” the space for public use. Often they will paint the street with a mural or design, build benches out of cob and recycled materials, and place kiosks for advertising community events. One intersection repair project even included a solar-powered tea station, offering free tea to anyone and everyone.

Initially, these projects met with resistance from the city. The idea of painting the streets seemed more like vandalism than urban renewal. But the results have been overwhelmingly positive: not only are people using the spaces and spending more time with their neighbors, passing cars naturally slow down when driving through these “Repaired” intersections, reducing the number of accidents.

For every public project in Portland there are 10 “private” ones: people putting up small natural buildings in their back yards, as a studio, meditation space, guest house, or even a primary bedroom. Most of these buildings are illegal, in the sense that they are not code approved, but they are small enough to not attract attention from the officials. Plus, the number of these backyard buildings has reached a point where the city would have a hard time cracking down on all of them even if it wanted too.

Cob and earthen plasters are even making an appearance in some commercial buildings. People’s Coop, a cooperative grocery store, has a cob wall and several indoor and outdoor cob benches. The Re-Building Center, a recycled building supply store, has a giant cob wall sculpted to look like a stand of trees as its entrance.

Schools are another popular site for natural building in Portland; several have cob benches or sculptures on their grounds. Kids love to participate in building these creations, and then have something useful as a reminder of their first cobbing experience.

Natural Building has even been put to use to help the city’s homeless. Dignity Village is a former homeless tent city that has used straw bale, light straw-clay and earthen plasters to build small cabins for many of its 50 residents. The residents (formerly homeless) help each other with the building, learning skills and strengthening their community.

Every spring, City Repair sponsors the Village Building Convergence, a 10 day festival of Natural Building and community building projects all across Portland. During the day, prominent natural builders lead volunteers in the construction of various projects, and in the evenings there are lectures and presentations related to sustainability, community, and building. Often the evenings go late into the night with music and dancing. Last year I helped K through 5th graders at the Lewis Elementary School build their very own cob bench; I will be back again this year to work on another project. I encourage anyone interested in Natural Building in an urban environment to attend this event, and to experience all the remarkable things happening in Portland.

For more information about City Repair and the Village Building Convergence, you can visit: Learn more about Dignity Village here:

bottom of page