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Car-free neighborhoods share simple patterns: key design tips

From agile neighborhoods for veterans or the unhoused to pocket hoods for Portlanders, the dozens of co-housing villages designed by Mark Lakeman are nationally recognized and in-demand.

“All my work, and all the permaculture, comes under an overall unifying heading. That is ReVillaging, you might say,” he explained, “With USA neighborhoods being mostly expressions of development-driven goals, they are more products than villages, featuring the fewest community gathering places of all “1st world” countries.

For over 25 years, Lakeman has been creating urban places where community can grow (his “radical design” firm is called Communitecture). He took us for a tour of Portland where he’s helped build Dignity Village – the legal encampment for formerly homeless -, converted old apartments into Kailash Permaculture Village, and designed the back-to-back co-housing villages Cully Grove and Cully Green. He gave us a tour of the two “very intentional, dense, urban retrofit villages.”

Both villages are built with fairly traditional architecture, but it’s the orientation that is novel. All the homes- complete with porches- are facing each other, and there are no driveways or roads to ruin the atmosphere, but instead, country lanes that wander through vegetation.

Lakeman believes in rules for creating a successful village, much of which is influenced by Kevin Lynch’s 1960 text “The Image of the City.” “The best villages in the world are characterized by a menu of consistent elements or patterns,” explains Lakeman. “The first would be that when you come to the perimeter of a village that there’d be a celebration of the passage through the boundary and so gateways are important.” He points out that gateways aren’t like gated communities but meant to be welcoming. Perimeters are also important and he specifies that at Cully Green it’s an abundant, fruiting and self-watering landscape.

Once on the inside, great communities have a network of paths, but they’re not purely functional. “The paths themselves are meant to be like a journey… not just to get you from one place to another. You’re supposed to be enjoying yourself. And you’re constantly arriving at nodes of interest and activity.” All of these nodes of activity lead to a central commons “where everyone knows that they belong.” Cully Green has both a central lawn for community gatherings and barbecues and also a large permaculture garden and orchards.

“We’ve become kind of lazy like we just consume a house as a product and then we liquidate it as an investment, and we don’t root and realize that our continuity in a place would actually give us the wealth of having observed with that place over time. It’s so integral to our identity… to be actually a part of some social ritual with each other.”