Intersection Paintings: Why We Need Them
“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about."
~Margaret J. Wheatley
Did You Know Someone Painted a Tree on Your Street?
The mural painted on the 'T'- intersection in front of my home often evokes comments and questions from the occasional passersby. Most words are overwhelmingly positive, along with questions of how and why.
The mural has now been there since 2014 gets repainted every two or three years. It was looking particularly worn out this year because, in 2019, the city tore up the street and left us with a patchwork off ugly repairs, and in 2020 no permits were issued due to Covid.
Now the scars are hidden under bright, vibrant colors, and the Neighborhood is a little better because of it. The history behind intersection paintings is that they are a tool in building community and softening the grid on which most neighborhoods are built.
The focus of this post is to explain street paintings briefly, take you through the process and hopefully inspire you to start something in your Neighborhood.
Connecting with Community
It's old news that most people don't know their neighbors, or at least not very well. Yet, living sustainably requires us to communicate with others in our communities to make lasting change.
Painting an intersection requires planning, fundraising, and communication to pull off but is an excellent vehicle to opening up conversations about sustainability, and community building. I have found most people who involve themselves in this kind of work are receptive to sustainable living strategies.
There is something cathartic about slapping paint onto the middle of the street; it's not something you do every day. But, beyond the painting, the sense of camaraderie and the friendships that develop are priceless. For example, I now know that my neighbor Ian, just three houses down, is a passionate gardener like I am, and I also had meaningful conversations with my other neighbors as well.
How Did the Mural Get There in The First Place?
This is a common question. In 2014 I had just launched a new business and was making a hard turn away from old school corporate employment and into the world of small business. Looking back, I see it in part as a reminder that positive lasting change can and does happen.
For several years before 2014, I saw other painted intersections scattered about in Portland neighborhoods. I thought they were an excellent way to brighten a boring crossing, especially on a grey winter day.
I eventually learned from someone that the murals were done by a non-profit called City Repair, specifically as part of their annual event, Village Building Convergence (VBC). As I learned further about City Repair and how they are much more than just painting intersections, I knew this was something my Neighborhood could benefit from.
So next, I called a phone number I found for City Repair and ended up speaking with their Portland Permaculture Coordinator, Matt Bibeau. When I explained to Matt what I was up to, he recommended that I drop by their weekly planning session and learn everything I needed to know. So the following week, I took Matt's advice and stopped by and sat through one of their sessions. I kept attending and eventually joined what they call the 'Core,' which is the group of people who do much of the planning and execution of VBC.
I only worked with the VBC for a couple of years before personal and professional circumstances made the time commitment too much of a struggle for me to meet. Nonetheless, I learned a ton and met many extremely hardworking, committed people who care about the planet and building community.
I took their Village Building Design course that guides' placemakers' to create citizen-initiated community improvement. It offers participants condensed training on how to initiate community projects and organize local Village Building Convergence events in their city.
If you are serious about sparking citizen-initiated improvement in your city, I highly recommend taking the course. Unfortunately, it is currently only taught twice a year, but you can send an email to Ridhi D'Cruz, their Co-Director for Placemaking; she can answer any questions you may have.
If you can't attend the course reading City Repair's Placemaking Guidebook 2nd Edition is another helpful resource. The guidebook provides a detailed overview of creative community placemaking and how to start making your community a better place.
Also, tapping someone for help who has experience with citizen-initiated community improvement is another excellent resource. Village Building Convergence in Portland brings in people from all around the world. Just reach out; you might be surprised how willing people are to help.
Out of State and Non-VBC Projects. If you cannot fit within City Repairs ongoing placemaking program through the Village Building Convergence, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
City Repair has worked hard to develop a good relationship with Portland's Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) who supports the street paintings. PBOT offers design guidance, engineering review, design approval and provides grant information. All permits are FREE.
Usually, you need 100% consent from residents in the properties adjacent to the painting and 80% consent from a two-block radius.
Applying online is easy, and you don't even need to have a complete design when you apply. PBOT staff can help walk you through the process after you've applied.
If your design does not change, it stays on file permanently with PBOT, and all that is required to repaint is that you apply for a street closure permit and set up barricades.
Bringing it all Together
After I finally got my neighbors, whose houses surrounded the intersection, to buy in on the idea, we set about canvassing the Neighborhood with flyers inviting everyone to a planning session to get their input.
At the planning session, we refined the design I had come up with and created our plan of attack. Next, we divided the Neighborhood between a group of 5 of us and went door to door, explaining our crazy idea of painting the intersection.
As per the permit, we asked for signatures to reach the required 80% approval ratio (two-block radius of intersection), and we asked for money, materials, and labor donations. We even persuaded most people to give us their email addresses.
Next, I submitted our design to PBOT and attended their approval meeting to ensure approval.
Today you don't need to attend a meeting in person, all you need to do is submit your application online.
Day of Painting
Once the paint goes down, there is no turning back. We used a 50' measuring tape and chalk to layout the design on the street. Finally, we started painting, and it definitely took longer than expected; the first time always takes more paint because the blacktop is so porous and soaks it up.
However, after several hours of applying coat after coat, a painting of a tree appeared on the street in front of my house.
Today things are as simple as they can be to repaint. Our design is on file with PBOT under a long-term permit, so now we just:
I have taken the liberty of summarizing some of the more FAQs from the City Repairs FAQ web page, but I encourage you to check out the City Repairs' entire site.
If It Isn't This it Can Be Something Different
Maybe a street painting isn't your thing, and you can't imagine trying to talk your neighbors into it. Ok, fair enough, but there are other ways to build community.
Take a second to poke around City Repairs website and you'll be inspired by the other programs they offer. You can check out their programs page here: City Repair: What We Do.
Get excited, Get Bold and Get Out There and Make Change Happen!