A Piazza on Every Block: How DIY Placemaking Is Transforming Communities

Americans who’ve enjoyed the vibrant public places of Europe and Latin America are bringing the idea back to the cities and towns of the U.S.
Share-It Square by Donkeycart.

Portland's Share-It Square. Photo by Donkeycart.

This article originally appeared in the author's book, How to Design Our World for Happiness.

Mark Lakeman is an architect fired up by the belief that our neighborhoods can become more than places where we hang our hats and park our cars.

As social activity began to move out into the street, drivers and pedestrians instinctively learned to share the space.

Taking a break from his practice a few years back, he traveled through Central America and Italy, falling in love with the piazzas, plazas, and zocalos where everyone gathers to talk, play, and hang out together. Although most of these people are poor by our standards, he notes, they enjoy a richness of life missing in most North American communities.

Lakeman came home to Portland with the idea of creating a similar commons in his own neighborhood. He discovered that several neighbors were thinking along the same lines, so they rolled up their sleeves and transformed an intersection on Sherritt Street into a Pacific Northwest version of a piazza, painting a colorful mural on the pavement that sent a clear message to passing motorists this was not your ordinary corner. Next, they constructed a tea cart to lure folks out into the street for some convivial fun. As social activity began to move out into the street, drivers and pedestrians instinctively learned to share the space, thus its name Share-It Square.

They called their work “intersection repair.”

But what did the neighbors think? Challenging the dominance of automobiles on American streets is a brazen act, especially to older people who came of age in the car-crazy 1950s. Lakeman worried about angry opposition arising to quash the experiment, until talking to Brian Shaw, who lived right at the corner.

“Brian said that his father had fought in Italy during World War II, and would tell stories about how when they liberated a village, everyone would automatically gather in the piazzas to celebrate,” Lakeman recalls. “He said his dad always used to sing an Italian song with lyrics saying, ‘If you don’t hear voices in the piazza when you wake up in the morning, then you know something is wrong.’”

Walljasper book cover.This article is adapted from Jay Walljasper's book, How to Design Our World for Happiness. Download the full pdf for free!

“Something is wrong with too many places in America today,” Lakeman adds.

The project elevated the sense of community in the area. Even on the quiet Monday morning when I visited, the square was a lively hive of activity with people chatting on the sidewalk and relaxing in the benches.

People in other neighborhoods wanted to do something similar and a loosely structured organization, City Repair, sprang up to help them. Their motto: Every Neighborhood Needs a Piazza. Every year City Repair sponsors a Village Building Convergence, in which crews of volunteers transform lowly intersections, sidewalks, schoolyards, and other public spaces into lively commons where the community can gather.

This experience not only transformed Lakeman’s neighborhood, but also his life. Drawing on his experience with Share-It Square and City Repair, he now speaks around the country about how to create neighborhood commons and founded the architectural and planning firm Communitecture to “design beautiful and sustainable places that bring people together in community.” And people around the U.S. have used intersection repair to enliven their communities.

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