“Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They’ll gather in public if you give them a good place to do it.” --Jan Gehl

What You Will Do

  • Learn about what placemaking is and does.
  • Become aware of various movements that make opportunities more accessible to marginalized communities.
  • Feel empowered to inhabit your place as a modern villager.
Fearless Collective collaborative public wall paintings for women to occupy the streets and their lives with love rather than fear, started by Bangalore Wallflowers co-founder, TedInk Fellow and beloved friend Shilo Shiv Suleman.– Photo taken from Fearless Collective FB group.

Power, nature, culture and identity in the modern village ​

This section by Ridhi D’Cruz

In this module, I meld anthropological theory, applied social justice and ecological design methodology to explore and transmute the intricate workings of injustice. We often think about “permaculture” as the noble practice of regenerative land management. But as I’ve walked this path, I have also realised that collaborating with land is a source of deep healing for people that is differently accessible to people. For healthy human and ecological communities then, we must look at the barriers of access to land and creative solutions to equitable distribution of resources and opportunities.

First, please check out this very short article, which will get your mind working around the word “placemaking.”

WPG Placemaking Module: Intro Video

From garden city to garbage city: re-claiming my place

I conspired with two friends to begin painting public walls with the Bangalore Wallflowers. It was my way of breaking down the walls we were building around ourselves, to escape from reality, to project our fears on others, to protect ourselves from the unknown as the city barrelled through change.

It was in those moments of painting walls with street kids, and other random strangers, that I found an essential piece of myself. One that I had walled off from the world to keep the pain from flooding in and my love from pouring out. My own little stroke of liberation. My own reclamation of the land beneath my feet. And most importantly, my role and responsibility to it.

Renowned anthropologist Mary Douglas noted in her seminal book Purity and Danger that when matter is out of place it becomes unwanted dirt or waste. Painting those walls in Bangalore helped me articulate a sense of accountability and ownership with Bangalore instead of wasting away in despair. I claimed a piece of myself as I claimed those public canvasses. As the walls around us grew in number and size, we found a way to transmute them for our own personal and collective transformation.

WPG Placemaking Module: From Garden City To Garbage City

As I continue to sculpt myself into a scholar, activist, gardener, peer mentor, and so on, my life begins to have more meaning. I begin to find my feet firmly on the ground, embedded within the deep web of relationships that grows my roots to this place.

The first Bangalore Wallflowers painting, on Rest House Road, on the wall of a piece of land lying in disuse due to litigation. Photo by Ridhi D’Cruz, 2009.

​Access to land to unleash your creative spirit is a birthright. It is us claiming our place or role within this great story. It is us articulating our widening sense of self that includes other humans and the natural world. And we do not need to own land to be able to find ways to use it for earth care, people care and fair share. May your roots be nourished and nourishing in all the places you choose to walk. Even if you are stuck in a massive city, with no land to your name, there are a myriad of creative ways you can practice being an ecological designer. And painting public walls to build community is just one of them.

We learned a lot from our first painting and wrote this manifesto and tutorial for other folks to join.

What a Waste Art Installation, composed by 12 collaborators at Bangalore Central Mall, using recyclable materials collected for a day from home, a local recycler and a couple of tailors. The collage took 3 hours 50 minutes to complete. It was done in collaboration with the Indian Youth Climate Network [IYCN] as a symbolic gesture of our solidarity and synergy with’s campaign for greener policies at the Copenhagen Convention. Photos taken by Ridhi D’Cruz.– Collage Compiled by Shilo Shiv Suleman 2009.

Taken at Harlur Lake, Bangalore, you can see a cattle egret and a purple heron in the foreground as a giant development looms in the background. Photo by Ridhi D’Cruz, 2009.

Fearless Collective collaborative public wall paintings for women to occupy the streets and their lives with love rather than fear, started by Bangalore Wallflowers co-founder, TedInk Fellow and beloved friend Shilo Shiv Suleman.– Photo taken from Fearless Collective FB group.

​Land and culture: the cultures of nature

WPG Placemaking Module: Cultures of Nature


While most activists tend to ideologically reject modern capitalism, I would like to take a slightly more nuanced stance best supported by Palestinian-American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod. She described various everyday forms of feminist resistance by Egyptian Bedouin women in her article The Romance of Resistance. When she argued that buying lingerie in this context, was a form of resistance, something hit home for me. This contextualized my adolescence and early adulthood during which I resisted patriarchy in my culture by consuming alternative American culture being sold via MTV. More than anything, it made me realize that capitalism, like anything really, was a lot more complex than I was willing to admit at first. 

In fact, I feel that one of our biggest challenges in the community is our lack of creative engagement and transformation of the financial realm. I attended the 2017 Portland Plant Medicine Gathering where Olatokunboh Obasi gave the keynote address and later did a module on Sacred Economics that deeply resonated with me. She elegantly and simply demonstrated how to work in alignment with the natural economy.

I got to walk around this spectacular lake, Tso Moriri and gaze into at least four shades of blue. I asked my guide Tenzin what the stacked stones symbolized. What I understood from his response was that people, especially monks, who walk long distances in the desolate high deserts of Ladakh stack these stones so that those traveling by know that they are not alone, and that someone else has also walked this route.– Photo by Ridhi D’Cruz, 2009.


Western constructions of nature underline the politics of various fields globally including development, sustainability and environmentalism. I think this dependence on Eurocentric views undermine the rich cultural diversity that is necessary for us to retain a fuller palate with which to collaborate with the natural world. Unfortunately, instead our place-based peoples are being disrupted and displaced in brutal ways and at an alarming rate, so much so that it is impossible to say that any of our earth’s Indigenous peoples are not integrated into the modern economy directly. 

The modern environmental movement draws on the preservation movement and then the conservation movement. Propagated by leaders like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, the preservation movement considered human beings separate from nature, and advocated for the preservation of nature so that we would have some left to enjoy. This underscored the founding of the National Park system in the United States. I am not arguing against it entirely, only trying to expose its guiding principles and the core values underlying it. 

Next came the conservation movement, advocating for the responsible use of natural resources. Once again, great objectives, but at the same time, this approach reduces nature to a resource for human consumption. With the advent of sustainability and sustainable development in the 1980s through the Brundtland Commission, we’re moving to a triple bottom line approach.​

This approach aims to bring economy, ecology and equity into balance. Unsurprisingly, however, all of these still remain dominated by white male leadership. So, while there are many great aspects to all of these, it is imperative we also infuse non-dominant perspectives and leadership within the modern environmental movement, as a whole.

​The urban commons: reclaiming our relationship with land

WPG Placemaking Module: Reclaiming Our Relationship With Land


This is a very complex and personal journey. The best way I can describe what I have learnt from various sources of knowledge, including my own experiences, is that it is helpful to think about identity as a process.

Social theorists have been moving away from thinking about identities as static noun states, and towards a dynamic understanding of identities as a process of identifying with/as something. This opens up the possibilities for identifying with/as multiple things within different contexts and for different goals. For example, while I lived in Bangalore from 1982 to 2005, I did not think much about my identity other than as a misfit until I started to meet people from different places and walks of life.

When I moved to a different city in south India in 2005, I began to identify as Bangalorean when wanting to discern difference, and south Indian when wanting more connection. When I moved to Mumbai on the west coast in central India from 2006 to 2008, I would sometimes identify as South Indian or as a Malabar coast resident for more connection.

In 2007 I traveled to Europe, met a Pakistani shopkeeper in Italy, and identified as South Asian as a way of connecting with him. Now, in the United States, one of my identities is Indian. But I also identify as a Portlander or fellow environmentalist. It all depends on the context and the goal. I occupy these different identities simultaneously. Various theorists talk about this in terms of the construction of self and other.

I find it helpful to demonstrate the multiplicity of identities through the analogy of a cell. To start off, you can consider the cell as a unit or a self. Depending on the context, the cell is part of a larger unit of identification, say the heart, for example. At a larger scale, the cell is also part of the circulatory system. Just because we say the cell is part of the heart, doesn’t mean we are not acknowledging that it is simultaneously a part of the circulatory system, right? In other words, these categories are not mutually exclusive.

In the same way, by claiming my people of color (POC) identity, I am not rejecting or eroding my identification with the rest of the human race, just calling on it for a specific reason or goal. This is why I find the semi-permeable cell membrane analogy helpful to understand the porosity and dynamism of borders and boundaries and the importance of determining what they are being used for. I think we often think of identification in terms of divisive identity politics, which in many cases may be true. But there’s also a way to recognize the ways in which we are different and not have that be interpreted as threatening or oppositional. Difference when not in conflict or in opposition can yield transformative diversity and resilience.

Joanna Macy calls the phenomenon of shifting between different scales of self Widening Circles, where you go from your individuated self, to a sense of the communities you are a part of, and then finally to the ecological self that connects you to the wider web of life. Something I find problematic for bridging environmental and social justice movements is when people mistake these circles as mutually exclusive. In other words, when folks can jump from the self to the ecological self without stopping to feel into the ways in which the human realm is riddled with inequities. This is not an either or context but rather a both and.

Scattering seeds as part of the ceremony and celebration for the 10-year anniversary of Portland State’s Native American Student and Community Center (NASCC). Photo by Ridhi D’Cruz 2014.


Just as identities are complex, so is Indigeneity. If you ask me if I’m Indigenous to India I would have to say both yes and no. Yes, I feel like I’m Indigenous to India because I’m pretty certain all my recent ancestral roots are in India. At the same time, I don’t feel like I’m Indigenous to India because I am not a forest dweller struggling to maintain a semblance of my lifeways after they have been eroded and criminalized.

Unfortunately, this is the predominant narrative for Indigenous folks in India. In the United States, it is very similar. In Portland, one of our primary Indigenous tribes, the Chinook, is not recognized in Oregon state but is recognized in the neighboring state of Washington. What’s even more unjust is that the modern political categorization of Indigenous peoples does not fit their own forms of identification.

In anthropology we differentiate between etic, externally created/imposed identification, and emic, felt or emergent forms of identification, to acknowledge the subtleties and nuance of identities and specifically Indigeneity.

From some of my Native collaborators, I learn a lot about the history of their peoples and how they have both suffered from etic forms of identification as well as utilized these categories for their own political gain. For example, despite the fact that warring clans were lumped together under Confederations that did not represent on-the-ground affiliations and alliances, these Confederations are units of partially autonomous legal entities with certain rights and roles, including access to ceded lands for traditional lifeways (fishing, hunting and gathering).

A student-led and funded planting work party of the beloved Deerwalk Native Garden, on a landbridge owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Portland State’s Native American Student and Community Center (NASCC).– Photo by Ridhi D’Cruz 2014.

Those who are not legally recognized and without formal tribal enrollment cards do not have the same access to their lifeways. The Native Gathering Garden (NGG) at Cully Park is one of the projects I’ve experienced personally that seeks to respond to contemporary Indigenous identity politics and bridge the huge gap in access to one’s lifeways for urban Native people. The NGG is being nurtured as an urban ecocultural resource that all Native peoples who identify as Indigenous can gather together in and gather together from.

The field of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) has figured prominently in the legitimization of Indigenous lifeways, thereby leading to opportunities for it to persevere and be more accessible to more people. One of the ways this has become possible is through more recent ecological/environmental research that has moved away from considering nature as static and separate from human beings.

Salmon-bake to commemorate 10 years since the Native community came together to fund the building of the Native American Student and Community Center (NASCC) at Portland State University (PSU).– Photo by Ridhi D’Cruz 2014.

Put simply, scholars have moved away from considering a healthy ecosystem as one that is balanced to one that is in equilibrium. This subtle change in language brings up the more emergent properties of health, and focuses attention towards complex relationships within an ecosystem. In other words, our noun-based understanding of nature, like power, culture and identity, is completely transformed when we view these as the living, dynamic processes within which we are enmeshed.

The Inaugural Blessing Ceremony at the Native Gathering Garden at Cully Park included a big feast and Judy’s forest tea on a beautiful autumn afternoon.– Photo by Ridhi D’Cruz 2012.

Luckily, concepts like adaptive collaborative management (adaptive co-management) have dug into western scientific concepts to bridge them with Indigenous science or TEK. A combination of new fields of scholarship like this, and grassroots advocacy like the Native American Community Advisory Council have combined to create the conditions for the emergence of innovative projects like the Native Gathering Garden (NGG), and hopefully many more opportunities on the horizon.

Dancers bring ceremony and ritual to the Inaugural Blessing Ceremony for the Native Gathering Garden at Cully Park.– Photo taken by Saria Dy 2012.

​The AIC strives to be the primary cultural and community resource for over 65,000 Native Americans in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Chicago is home to the third largest urban NA population with over 140 tribal nations represented. “We create alternative, people-led narratives that engage personal histories, cultural and political realities and tell stories of universal resilience through visual campaigning, workshops and affirmative storytelling techniques.”

Just like in a Native powwow, we moved rhythmically to the drum beat, shaking hands with our friends and family gathered at the Inaugural Blessing Ceremony for the Native Gathering Garden at Cully Park.– Photo taken by Tom Miller 2012.

​The urban commons: reclaiming our relationship with each other

WPG Placemaking Module: City Repair & the Urban Commons

The other groundbreaking work that I’ve had the opportunity to participate in is my work in Portland with City Repair. We work hard to increase opportunities for stewarding land in urban areas in unconventional ways. City Repair has facilitated over 500 projects in the public right-of-way, or on private land but for public benefit, through education all over the city of Portland. In this way we are able to cater to both landowners and renters. Projects have included over 50 intersection paintings, over two dozen earthen buildings and various gardens.

We hosted a VBC placemaking site at PSU and built a Peace on Earthbench in our new community orchard. The site has had challenges in terms of activity with transient folks that we are still trying to work out. My dream is to integrate a program that includes transient people into the site’s stewardship, turning a problem into a solution..

The main idea behind these projects is to revive the urban commons by reclaiming street intersections with public art, ecological landscaping, earthen buildings and other community amenities that invite hyper local community building and resilience. These projects are scalable to meet the needs, desires and capacities of the communities themselves. In fact, project proposals come from the communities, and City Repair just supports these initiatives with our experience and social capital.

The bench and the space continue to be a strong component of the student-led spaces on PSU campus, functioning as a learning garden and outdoor classroom.

We focus on the commons because it is an integral piece of a regenerative culture that often gets lost in big cities. In most of contemporary society, economic capital is valued so much more than social and ecological capital that we often make decisions that fray the complex web of relations that support a healthy place. Our creative placemaking initiatives are an attempt at physically and psychologically re-patterning cities with a more sustainable culture by giving people the opportunity to have power in their places irrespective of whether or not they ‘own’ it.

Re-painting the streets in 2017 with neighbors and friends from City Repair project.– Photo by Ridhi D’Cruz, 2017.

​People have gone on to make various community amenities including cob ovens, benches and kiosks, gardens from parking strips to community orchards, little free libraries and intersection paintings that tell the unique story of that place and its inhabitants.

WPG Placemaking Module: Final Overview


This module is part of the advanced section of our course. If you’re working towards the Advanced certificate, you will most likely be placemaking, in some form or another. Spend some time working through the hard questions below, and the places you make will be that much more inclusive and effective in helping others.

Also please be sure, in case you missed it, to check out this class from the yearlong course.

Questions for Review

  1. How does your identity/identification change depending on different scales, contexts and intentions?
  2. Which culture(s) do you feel a part of or excluded from? Why?
  3. In which ways do you observe power/knowledge delegitimizing other ways of knowing in your own life experience?
  4. Reflect on the ways in which you are striving to level the playing field to enjoy multiple ways of knowing. Do you feel you are doing this in a culturally respectful way?
  5. How do you understand development and the nuanced role of capitalism within it?
  6. Reflect on the differences in perceptions from the Western scientifically informed modern environmental movement and Traditional Ecological Knowledge or Indigenous Science.
  7. What do you understand about Indigeneity and land management?
  8. What are your personal strengths in relation to identity, nature, culture and power?
  9. What are your personal weaknesses in relation to identity, nature, culture and power?
  10. Describe how you are working towards justice for all.

Recommended Hands-On

Here are some ways to engage with placemaking. Choose the ones that call to you:

  • Visit a public event or space which works to acknowledge Indigenous owners or migrant groups in your region.
  • Visit or volunteer with an organisation supporting Indigenous or migrant communities.
  • Attend a lecture, presentation or workshop led by Traditional Owners.
  • Volunteer with a local group, community, or project that that identifies with one of the following models:
    Intentional Community.
    *Houseless Village.
    *Limited Liability Corporation.
    *Land Trust.
    *Water commons: River/beach clean up.
    *Nature commons: Invasive species removal in a park.
    *Food commons: Work parties at community orchards/ food forests.