Friday, January 16, 2009

Report On The Portland "Fix-It Fair," January 2009

I have a number of things to talk about, and they are all somewhat unrelated from each other, so I will be publishing three short posts over the next few days. Tonight's post is the first of the series.

Last weekend, I attended a “Fix-It Fair” sponsored by the City of Portland, Oregon's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. According to the City website, the Fix-It Fairs are “ events designed to save you money and connect you to resources. They are held on 3 Saturday mornings during the winter (November - February) from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., at various locations around the City of Portland.” The goal of these fairs is to teach residents how to spend less and stay healthy while conserving natural resources, all by the use of environmentally responsible techniques.

I learned of the Fix-It Fair via a mailer sent out by the City to all the homes in my neighborhood. I was intrigued by the impressive list of classes offered during the fair, as well as the fact that the whole thing was free, with free lunches provided. The classes started at 9 AM and lasted 45 minutes each, but I didn't manage to arrive until a little after 10 (I had stayed up too late the night before, doing things like blogging ;-) ). Since there were 40 minutes until the next class, I visited the exhibition tables and talked to a few staffers while snapping some pictures.

I was impressed by the number of volunteers and nonprofit organizations who had exhibition tables. These exhibitors had literature and displays which informed and instructed visitors on a number of topics, such as:

  • How to clean a house without harsh artificial chemicals

  • How to reduce stormwater runoff by garden design and disconnecting rain gutter downspouts

  • How to transition from meat-based diets to vegetarianism

  • How to weatherize a home to save energy

  • How to compost

  • How to choose a reputable home construction contractor

  • as well as opportunities to volunteer to help meet neighborhood needs via the Oregon Food Bank and Friends of Trees, among other groups.

One of the most intriguing tables I saw was sponsored by a the ReBuilding Center (, a group that teaches environmentally responsible building and structure demolition. They also demolish structures in such a way that most of the disassembled materials can be reused, and they stockpile these materials in warehouses that are open to the public. There was also a table sponsored by Growing Gardens (, one of my favorite nonprofit groups, which holds classes on food gardening and helps plant food gardens in economically challenged neighborhoods.

At last, 11 AM rolled around, and I went in to a “Home Weatherization” class taught by a staffer from the Community Energy Project ( The class featured some very basic, yet valuable tips on how to reduce heat loss from windows, doorways and even receptacle and light switch openings in the walls of a home. At the end, each of us was given a free weatherization kit good for one or two windows of a house.

Once the class ended, I went out to the main exhibition hall in search of lunch, only to find that over a hundred people had thought of the same thing and the lunch line was barely moving. Disappointed, I tightened my belt and gritted my teeth and went to the next class on my list, a class on building raised beds in your yard in order to grow vegetables. This class too was very informative, as the presenter taught the various methods of preparing soil for vegetable planting. His favorite method was, of course, sheet mulching – a technique which is also my favorite. In addition, he gave us some facts concerning his own food garden (he has around 40 fruit and nut trees, either as dwarf trees or on espaliers), and the total cultivated area of his garden is 6000 square feet. He devised an interesting equation to illustrate his gardening philosophy:

NS + HI = AS ↕ HM

where, NS stands for natural systems

HI stands for human intervention

AS stands for altered systems

and HM stands for human maintenance.

His point was that in order to be a successful gardener with the least effort, one should alter natural systems as little as possible; otherwise, the amount of human maintenance would go up.

After his class ended, I went back again to the exhibition hall in search of lunch, but by this time the lunches were all gone. (This is one of the few bad things I could say about the event.) So I tightened my belt a little more and gritted my teeth a little harder, and attended the final class on my list, a class titled, “Emergencies – Beyond the First 72 Hours.” This class was well worth the minor inconvenience of an empty stomach, as I found it to be the most interesting of all the classes.

The instructor informed us that government offices such as FEMA typically promote having enough supplies to survive the first 72 hours of an emergency. The 72 hours, however, is a baseline estimate of the time between the onset of a disaster and the start of government help. This means that people in a disaster in the U.S. might have to be able to hold out much longer than 72 hours. The key to surviving the first 72 hours is to have adequate stored water, food, sanitary means and appropriate shelter.

But the instructor said that the key to surviving after that period is sustainability, which he defined as the ability to supply oneself with the basic necessities for the long term. The measures of sustainability must be integrated now into daily activities now, so that they are not foreign to people when disaster strikes. The instructor talked of the need for individuals, neighborhoods and families to come together and draft plans for long-term survivability, including making timelines for the activities needed for people to stay in place after a disaster, as well as finding space and finances for stored supplies. He also mentioned that businesses who practiced good disaster planning found that every dollar spent on preparation saved 7 dollars in response.

He went on to talk about long-term food storage, even mentioning the extremely helpful articles found on Captain Dave's website (, as well as the importance of learning to garden for food and the need to use heirloom, non-hybrid seeds in gardening. There were times when his food security advice seemed to be right out of Casaubon's Book! All in all, it was a very informative class (as I said, well worth a skipped lunch), and at the end, the instructor said that he is available to visit neighborhoods and present a somewhat longer and more in-depth class to anyone who is interested. I think I'll take him up on his offer.

Below are some pictures from the fair. Enjoy! For those who live in Portland, the next fair will be on Saturday, 7 February 2009.

P.S., This fair is not the product of some special virtue or intelligence confined only to Portland. Any community can do such things as this. All it takes is a network of volunteers willing to look realistically at the world we live in and the times we are now facing, and to begin to learn and teach the skills needed for coping with such a world and such times. This is what it means to build a safety net of alternative systems. Build the network. Be a volunteer.

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