By Paul Belz
Today’s environmental visionaries stress connections between healthy human communities and a healthy planet. Nik Bertulis describes himself as a co-catalyst of PLACE, People Linking Art, Community, and Ecology. He led thirty people through the West Oakland project on a sunny January afternoon.
“This is our zany response to an insane world,” Nik commented. “We’re looking at community scale projects – the E. F. Schumacher ‘Small is Beautiful’ model.” PLACE occupies a large lot that used to be used to store welding gases before it was a concrete cutting business. A number of projects operate on the property, and during our afternoon at PLACE Nik outlined some of the many activities happening here.
We walked to the back of the lot, where a solar-powered kiln was built to dry timber. A woodworker collects sections of trees homeowners have cut, thus saving them from ending up in a landfill. The wood is then placed in a black kiln that heats in the sun, causing the wood’s water to evaporate- a solar powered fan sucks the water vapor from the kiln to release it outside the structure. The kiln cures the wood in two months; the woodworker then uses it to make furniture.
A company that makes solar powered electric bikes makes its home at PLACE. Spokeland, another bicycle project, offers classes and a workspace to fix your own bike that anyone can use for a $5. Nik pointed to mobile tea cart that’s being built, which will, hopefully, soon join the local street food community. A rain garden located at PLACE’s lowest point absorbs runoff from the roof and pavement, where soil bacteria and plants are able break down urban pollutants in the water.
The guests met Ginger, the friendly and playful dog who lives in a cob doghouse. Cob is a medium made from clay, straw, and sand. Cement production is energy intensive and releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and cob is increasingly being used as an alternative. Plastic bottles stuffed with other plastic debris can be used as “bricks” to help with structural support.
Nik showed us a vertical wall where rainwater soaks into felt and provides habitat for a range of succulents- fungi will eventually digest the felt, which is carbon based. The vertical garden was created after neighbor who lives directly across the street requested that PLACE make a living exhibit for the community to enjoy. Sticky monkey flowers, aloe, borage, poppies, and other plants also thrive at the bottom of the vertical garden, where they absorb the water not taken up by the succulents.
PLACE works with a pastor from the church right across the street and a number of other community members to develop a sustainable neighborhood. The church’s youth group helps with gardening and other projects. Nik mentioned the City Repair Movement, which strives to improve public spaces. Participants install free library boxes (mailbox-sized structures filled with books that are free for the taking), and paint intersections to make them kid-friendly public spaces where motorists are encouraged to slow down. Nik hoped that with time, streets and other public areas can become people-friendly and not just places to drive.
Second Saturdays have become a special time in the neighborhood. PLACE hosts a bluegrass hootenanny in the evenings. Neighbors recently organized an afternoon art walk that will continue on a monthly basis. This neighborhood will keep growing stronger!
Donations fund PLACE, including contributions people make at the monthly Hootenanny and a Tuesday evening tea gathering. Independent educational groups offer classes and pay for the facilities. Wild Oakland is planning a presentation on river otters in the next few months, and PLACE is working on organizing a graywater boot camp, where people can learn strategies for conserving water during the drought and beyond. PLACE deserves strong attention from Oakland’s citizens. It’s time to be visionary!
You can learn more about PLACE at http://aplaceforsustainableliving.org/