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Even in a rundown and bare courtyard on a busy section of Dundas Street East, ecological designer Mark Lakeman sees potential.

"It's all here, but no one's made the commitment," he says.

Receding grass is pockmarked by cement slabs. Overhead, a sign bolted onto a rusted metal pole warns passersby that this park is under camera surveillance. A worn-out brick path slices the park into halves, making it useless for soccer, football or other sports.

"Even if you don't know the word 'maintenance,' you can tell this looks cheap," he says.

In his native Portland, Ore., Mr. Lakeman and his non-profit group, City Repair, have been refashioning dead spaces into lively ones for nearly a decade.

Busy intersections once dominated by speeding cars are now colourful piazzas where neighbours congregate for potlucks.

Lively tea houses built from recycled garbage sit in once-vacant lots.

And a notorious tent city is being transformed into a permanent village designed to reintegrate Portland's homeless into society.

Not bad, considering one of the group's first projects was a modest, roadside tea stand.

"It's been pumping out cups of tea since 1996. We should have a sign that says, 'over 10,500 served,' " says Mr. Lakeman, an architect who quit his job at a corporate firm to study indigenous cultures.

Last night, at a meeting sponsored by the Metcalf Foundation, a philanthropic organization, he shared his organization's -- "we actually call it an organism" -- ideas about creating closer communities by reclaiming public space.

The timing couldn't be better.

City Repair is part of a fresh trend in North American cities where communities actively reclaim public spaces and refashion them for the neighbourhood.

Since starting in 1996, affiliates have popped up in Seattle, Los Angeles, Eugene, Ore., and Santa Rosa, Calif. The movement has also spread into the American Midwest, and recently, a City Repair affiliate was established in Ottawa.

Although Mr. Lakeman concedes that many of the group's ideas sound "hippie-ish," he says he believes that they can transform sterile urban communities across North America.

"We've got to be trying different things, anyway," he says. "There's definitely some deep, theoretical ideas, but they're grounded in the reality of real ideas in the community."

Rather than working against city bureaucrats and civic ordinances, City Repair works through them, says Pamela Robinson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University's urban and regional planning department who helped bring in Mr. Lakeman for the talk.

And that's something that could benefit Toronto, with its wealth of distinct neighbourhoods.

"Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to fight against city hall and they could get their head around things like this?" she asked.

Some groups in the city are already using a similar approach.

Despite foot-dragging city officials, Prof. Robinson points to groups such as the Toronto Public Space Committee -- whose aim to wrangle public spaces away from advertisers -- and grassroots urban projects such as those occurring at Dufferin Grove Park.

Along with installing ovens, creating an organic farmers' market and congregating for a weekly potluck, residents of the neighbourhood south of Bloor Street and east of Dufferin Street constructed a cob wall this summer to refashion their park into a community courtyard.

However, Jutta Mason, a Dufferin Grove resident who has been instrumental in the park's development, said she's been forced to "use the city's rules against each other" to accomplish those goals.

Ms. Mason said that volunteers started building the cob wall without a building permit, but once it was built, city officials presented the group with a Clean and Beautiful City Appreciation Award.

"This city is so big that one hand doesn't know what the other is doing," she said.

Recently, bylaw officers have been cracking down on farmers selling organic produce in the park.

"I'm not sure there is a way to avoid taking on a municipal government," she said.

"Right now, were also being forced to work against them."

 

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