City Repair perspectives from Costa Rica

Article below by Marc Tobin, Executive Director of City Repair.

Marc, center, teaching a permaculture class in Costa Rica.

Marc, center, teaching a permaculture class in Costa Rica.

From mid January to the beginning of March I had the great pleasure of spending time in Costa Rica, which included sharing the work of City Repair. I taught in a permaculture design course, and a networking gathering, and later shared City Repair work with people at Envision festival. While I traveled, I met locals and travelers and visited rural and urban ecovillage projects.

Throughout the whole time I had great conversations with people from Central America, Europe, various cities in North America, and Australia about how City Repair’s placemaking work might be adopted to their communities.

I was pleasantly surprised to meet a number of people, from Guatemala to North Carolina, who had already heard of and been inspired by City Repair’s work.

A huge part of my trip was constantly learning form the people and places I encountered. This learning has given me some whole new windows into communities that are new to me and their expressions of place.

My trip began with five days in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. While Costa Rica is rightly known for its wild areas, most people in the country live in the San Jose metropolitan area. Walking around the city, I noticed all sorts of little differences in urban form compared to U.S. cities, from smaller building setbacks, to more open stormwater and different ways that traffic is managed.

One thing I noticed was a relative abundance of gathering places in San Jose. A Nicaraguan architect that I met later in my trip explained to me that the city of Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City now stands) had great large public plazas, which, after European contact, influenced the Spanish to bring plazas into their urban design. This led to the Spanish having more public places in their urban design than England, which in turn led to Latin Americas cities having more plazas than American cities. I haven’t had a chance to research into this history myself since I’ve been back, so I’m very curious about learning more about this.

With San Jose having a greater abundance of plazas and murals than in most U.S. cities, I got to wondering if they even have a need for City Repair there. Then I started meeting local Costa Rican community builders and “solutionary” activists from San Jose and other Costa Rica cities and rural communities, and ones from Nicaragua and Guatemala, who assured me that there is a great need there for many aspects of City Repair’s work.

Some of these community initiators are already working on projects that are very much aligned with City Repair’s vision. They saw a lot of potential value in partnering with City Repair and using our templates and process, while also retaining their own identity with their local grassroots organizations. In essence, a local organization can be both autonomous and also be the host for a City Repair “chapter”. To be a chapter, they can agree to a set of guiding principles to City Repair’s work, while having a lot of flexibility in what that looks like. In this way, it’s a network, or mycelium model, rather than a hierarchy.

To help them set this up, I am looking forward to consulting with community leaders in various cities in Latin America when I go there again next year. To support this, I will need to find funding, probably from individuals and organizations in the “global North”, in countries with greater economic wealth, who are interested in funding our consulting work with communities in Latin America. This will allow the Latin American communities to focus their own resources on their local communities, which seems most fair and practical, given the significant difference between many of these countries’ economies and exchange rates and that of the U.S, Western Europe, and Japan for example. We’ve identified some potential sources. We are also seeking help with funding for this, so if this work of bringing City Repair more broadly internationally speaks to any of you reading, and you’d like to contribute directly to this work or knows of organizations that might, please contact about it.

The template that we develop for bring this work to Latin America can also be one that we adopt to bring it to other parts of the world. For example, in Costa Rica, I dialogued with someone who works some of the year in Burma, about having me teach and consult there, especially with the Buddhist monk community. There’s a great opportunity to explore in community the commonalities between permaculture, placemaking, and Buddhism, and since I studied Buddhism, I can already see a lot of parallels.

One inspiring aspect of my work in Costa Rica was in working with people involved with rural land and community repair. While City Repair is, as is apparent from its name, focused on urban areas, we’ve also been exploring how to apply our work to rural areas. For most of my trip I was staying at a community and farm named Verde Energia, which is located in a remote hilly area between the town of Puriscal and the Pacific coast.

Verde Energia was started by folks from the U.S. who wanted to genuinely connect with and bring benefit with the local community. The site was chosen was land that was once primary rainforest, but had been cut and turned to cattle land and suffered terrible erosion. This provides a huge opportunity for land restoration to a diverse rainforest state using permaculture principles to also obtaining an economic yield. Costa Rica in general is a worldwide ecological hot spot, so there is a great leverage in restoring this land, from a biodiversity and carbon sequestration perspective.

The founder of Verde Energia, Josh Hughes, and his partners at Black Sheep consulting, are now protecting more acres at different sites in their region. They found that getting donations to restore rainforest was not working quickly enough, so they developed permaculture business plans for these sites, that restore the land, while putting in highly productive permaculture forest gardens which grow “superfoods” like turmeric, ginger, sacha itchi berry, and cacao, as well as a variety of fruit. The areas are perennial polycultures, rather than monocrop orchards.

They are able to hire locals for many aspects of the operations and pay them much more than the going rates. In our permaculture design course that I co-taught with Steve Ganister and Sara Czarnieki, we offered three full scholarships for Costa Ricans who are each engaged in projects that will help bring permaculture to more people in their communities.

When I return I want to more deeply engage in traveling and learning from local communities around Costa Rica. One of my greatest learnings and impacts on me was from the local culture. There is a type of social “warmth” and interest in social connection that I found in Costa Rica, among the Costa Ricans, and among a lot of the foreigners who have sense located there. In the U.S., if I am facilitating a group of strangers, I might have to lead a bunch of team building exercises with them to get them to engage in ways that seem to be more of the mainstream norm in Costa Rican culture. There’s also a lot of pride in the biodiversity and nature in the country, in a way that seems to be one of the main pieces of national identity. For me this was somewhat of a welcome contrast from the U.S., where it seems that only a small subset of the population connects their national identity to healthy diverse landscapes, and where patriotism in the U.S. often has a more militaristic and competitive association. In the U.S., to be proud of place on a national scale is imbued with having to better than or over someone else. In Costa Rica, on the other hand, I encountered locals who seemed to me to take a lot of national pride in the abundance of diverse plants and animals like monkeys, sloths, and toucans.

Both the socially open attitude and celebration of natural abundance tie in with the national slogan of “Pura Vida”, meaning “pure life”. One way I see “pura vida” is in appreciating the magic of life, as expressed in the people and nature around us. This is different than the approach that I often see in the U.S. of dissatisfaction with one’s current reality and needing things to be more and different. In the U.S. the norm is often “we will be happy sometime in the future, once we have the biggest and best [fill in the blank]”, whereas the pura vida approach is one of reminding ourselves to choose to celebrate life itself, in it’s pure essence, and that is possible to do in any moment.

Some of my new Costa Rican friends warned me to not fall into the trap of being a northerner on tropical vacation who only sees their country as some sort of paradise, while not engaging in the real pressing social and environmental issues that they face. This is very important, as there are many environmental and social threats and challenges there. I’ve committed myself to including the voices of some of these local activists and writings they recommend into future courses and consultations that I participate in. I have a long ways to go in my own understanding of the place and culture, so rather than try to pretend I’m an expert on that any time soon, I will work to make prominent space for those who are deeply engaged in that work, and humbly learn.

After the permaculture course, I led workshops and providing one on one mentoring at an event called NuSeed, put on by a great organization called NuMundo. Numundo’s work is to provide virtual and in person connection, networking and visibility for sustainable community projects through ought Latin America. These include urban community garden sites, rural permaculture farms, yoga centers, eco-solutionary hubs, ecovilages and intentional communities. NuSeed is their big annual in person networking, education, and mentoring event. There was an incredible group of change agents there from around the world. Teaching them about City Repair’s work had a great social leverage effect, because they are all generally leaders of organizations themselves. I can’t even keep up with all the follow up on the many exciting ideas for collaborations that came out of that event.

We then took that energy and community that we had built at NuSeed into the Envision Festival, where we held a social and environmental networking space. This space provided an ongoing place for anyone at the festival to drop in and engage in meaningful conversations around important projects, while drinking cacao from a local permaculture farm. I connected a lot of people to City Repair in this space. This is one example of the work that City Repair has a long history with, of bringing opportunities to get involved with deep service work into events where the overall focus is on revelry. On the other side of the same coin, City Repair is great at bringing the fun to the hard work of placemaking.

Overall, throughout the entire trip, it was amazing to see the enthusiasm and joy that people got from connecting with others from different parts of the globe and different cultures, but with a common care for the earth and people. I realized that the power of the joy in this kind of working together is far greater than the forces of separation, cultural division and scapegoating that has been recently so obviously manifesting in U.S. politics and many other places in the world. People will find a way to make friends and allies across all kinds of barriers, and while that might not get nearly as much press as the divisiveness, that connection is happening every day, around the world, in many small ways that do add up to greater global awareness and connection.

Some of the early epiphanies for City Repair came from Mark Lakeman’s travels into the jungle in Latin America. After 20 years, there is a new way that this important cultural and geographical cross pollination is happening, and I feel honored to be part of that.

All of this adventure was possible because the rest of the amazing City Repair admin team in Portland: Mark L, Ridhi, Kirk, and Priti, along with the incredible City Repair volunteers, kept a dizzying array of City Repair projects and services thriving that whole time. That team deserves so much admiration and support for consistently keeping the home fires burning, of Portland based administration, placemaking, VBC, and volunteer engagement, which provides a solid core for any of our efforts to share our work with more of the world.