If they build it, it will hum

There is so much I want to reflect on after our second day of village building class here in Portland. I am going to start at what feels like the end, and see what ends up getting woven in as I run through this post.


More and more, I find myself coming back to a central point, a central purpose that is underlying all my pursuits and all my thoughts for a sustainable (in every meaning of the word) future: intention is everything.

Today, I used the movie Inception to make this point. In the movie, the main characters realize that, in order to affect a change in someone that they may be opposed to it, there has to be the sense that it was “their” idea. Otherwise, they recognize it as foreign, and reject it.

I’m finding that we’re running into the same concept very early on when discussing the idea of creating community and creating place – creating anything that people buy into, and are invested in making last: it has to feel like it was their idea. How many community greens are there with beautiful fountains and gazebos that 364 days out of the year go unused because of limited buy in from surrounding residents? It may even be that people want things like this – but because there’s no sense of ownership or co-creation, there’s a lack of desire to be involved over time.

Another strange revelation I had: as we were discussing what it is that has led to social isolation in our neighborhoods and cities (i.e. the “why don’t I know my neighbor?” condition), it struck me that a big part of it is the legitimate (and disturbing?) lack of need for neighbors. Bear with me for a sec, because believe me, I’m not trying to advocate not having neighbors!

Over time, we’ve built tools and institutions for ourselves that allow us greater and greater flexibility to function independently: we have cars to get us around, we have houses that can keep us comfortable in almost any conditions, we have supermarkets where we can pick up all the food we need for days or weeks at a time, we have TVs and computers to turn to for entertainment and interaction without ever having to leave our beds or the couch – the list goes on and on. Now, are these tools and the ends they achieve bad things in and of themselves? I don’t think so. But the unintended consequence of all this is that we’ve gradually eliminated the need to actually interact with other human beings. It’s not to say that the option isn’t there – at any point in time I can turn to the person next to me or to the person living next door and say “hey, how are you? I wanted to take a sec and really spend some time with you,” but for the most part, we don’t do that.

Why? I would submit that there are two major reasons: 1) as mentioned above, we don’t need each other the way we used to (i.e. I no longer need my neighbor to share food or supplies, or for tools I can buy at the store), and 2) because, surrounded by what appear to be infinite options that we have constant access to, we are presented with the implicit question, “well why would I settle for anything less than what is absolutely ideal for me in this moment?” In other words, why would I reach out to my neighbor, who just happens to live near me and for whom I have no other basis or need for interaction, when there are infinite other people I can easily reach out to who in all likelihood I may get along with and enjoy being with more – who can, in some sense, offer me more?

Given that time already seems like such a precious commodity in so many of our lives (time is money after all, isn’t it?) why would we do anything with our time that wasn’t as worthwhile as possible, knowing that we have the tools to find and apply ourselves to what we deem to be “worthwhile” endeavors? What happens if we invest time in our neighbors, and find out we honestly don’t like them? Well what if they start wanting to hang out more? Or start wanting to borrow stuff that belongs to us? What a bummer! Who has time for people they don’t want to hang out with, who can’t offer more than other folks?

To take another leap, I would submit that part of this problem is that we’ve fundamentally begun to view most things in the world around us as “resources” toward certain ends – plants = food for satisfying our hunger; oil = resource for getting us from point a to point b without having to worry about the rain, snow or sleet; wood, sand, iron and limestone = resources for building shelters around us. My question (and potential concern is): Have we also gotten to the point where we view people as resources too? Are we implicitly asking ourselves such questions as: will interacting with this person improve my happiness? Will this person help me move ahead with my career? Will this person help me learn more about myself?

This is where I return to my earlier point about intention. When we live in a world of ends, it is difficult to truly live in presence with the means to get there. It is truly difficult to dwell with intention as an end to itself, without being concerned with the end this intention produces. And it takes an awfully big leap of faith to assume that the ends we find letting go of the ends we think we want are ones we’ll be satisfied with.

Let’s return to the example of the neighbor. If I lack an intention that is not ends-focused in interacting with my neighbor, I will only be concerned with the ends I can realize in my interactions with them. Since, for the most part, I no longer need any resources from my neighbor, I likely will only interact with them if I implicitly sense that there are some other ends that can be achieved: will this person make me happy? Will interacting with this person make my life easier? Is there something this person can do for me that improves my life? “Hey – could you pass the creamer?”

However, if I am not concerned with these “ends”, and set an intention that extends beyond myself, perhaps “can this person and I together find meaning in this moment?”, I can interact with that person (and indeed, I would say any person) without need for walking away and saying “ahhhh, what a worthwhile interaction for me”. I can be with them simply because they are there, and we both simply are here. And from here/there, maybe we can build something together, with the intention of facilitating future moments and greater ease/enjoyment of “being”, and, perhaps, more creation.

The beauty of this whole thing I believe is that, without intending to, we do walk away feeling that such interactions are worthwhile, often far more so than those where we achieve some outer ends! What’s the point of a $200 meal made with all the finest local ingredients, prepared by a chef who has cooked for his whole life, if we can’t truly taste the meal? Everything ends, and when we pursue things only for their end state, before we know it, we’re at our own end, wondering where all that stuff in the middle went.

I don’t think any of these are particularly new thoughts, but they have fascinating implications for design, building and sustainability. What happens when we start to build things that are meant to inspire nothing more than being, and being together? We can do many of the same things we already do – but what’s the difference? The intention behind how we do them. How we eat, how we get from point a to point b, how we build and design. Just being with others for the sake of being with them I think is the first step towards discovering what it is that we might want to do and create together.

As a disclaimer for all of this: I don’t think these things are easy! Walking up to your neighbor and interacting with them simply for the sake of interacting with them is a strangely difficult thing! But in my mind, recognizing the things that we desire from one another is the first step to not letting these desires get in the way of a truly meaningful interaction: I am here talking to you not because you have something I want, but because I simply want to enjoy this moment with you.

I feel like I’m chasing my own tail a bit here, but I suppose that’s the point of writing these things out sometimes. Tomorrow will be the first evening session I’ll be attending at the VBC, and I’m excited to hear from some of the founding members of City Repair. The more I learn about the organization, the more I am blown away by the depth of intention and preparation that led to their first painted intersection, something that on the surface seems so simple, and to many, so “useless”. This could very easily be the case, if it wasn’t for how people used it.


P.S. Tour de Ferment – say what?


And lookin’ back on the South Bay. Mmm hmm.

South Bay

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2 Responses to If they build it, it will hum

  1. Dad says:

    Hey, Dave. Thanks for this offering….a little deep for me, but I think I get it. By the way, what’s in the first picture? Love, Dad

  2. Linda Griswold says:

    Thanks for sharing these “heady” thoughts. I especially loved your analogy of the meal.
    Keep on posting. I just love connecting with you like this. xoxoxox Mom

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