City by City, Block by Block: Building Better Blocks Project

City by City, Block by Block: Building Better Blocks Project

When Andrew Howard and Jason Roberts began the first Better Block project, they couldn’t “go by the book”. Their guerilla street redesign tactics did more than just turn a few heads; their unorthodox approach transformed communities.

The Better Block Project is simple in form: The project is a demonstration project which creates temporary bicycle infrastructure, landscaping, café seating and more to illustrate active streets and places. “Cities around the U.S. are looking for tools to help redevelop communities that enable multi-modal transportation while increasing economic development, and reducing carbon emissions. The “Better Block” project is a demonstration tool that acts as a living charrette so that communities can actively engage in the build-out process and provide feedback in real time.” (Better Block "About")

How it all Began:

Jason Roberts, an IT consultant and Bike Advocate living in the historic neighborhood of Oak Cliff, Dallas, wanted to take a more active approach to revitalizing his neighborhood. With a group of 10 other inspired activists, he began Go Oak Cliff, a non-profit advocacy group working to inspire and support the local community. In 2010, Roberts began the Building Better Blocks project with Andrew Howard, a transportation planner from Dallas.  They envisioned the transformation of a four-block center in downtown Dallas; using very little money, zero permanent infrastructure and lots of community support. And if this weren’t difficult enough, the entire event would all occur in the span of 24 hours. The execution was improbable and support highly unlikely, but undeterred, they took the idea and ran with it.

Howard and Roberts compiled a group of friends and went to work. They created temporary awnings, bike lanes, café tables, and made medians out of potted plants. They recruited local artists and food vendors to sell their goods outside and inside the abandoned storefronts. Knowing the project could easily be shut down due to bureaucratic regulation, they went Rogue and decided to throw caution to the wind. “We broke as many laws as we could with it,” Howard said. “We were ready to go to jail.”

City Council members were invited to the event, hoping to shed light on the fact that many building and sidewalk regulatory laws discourage the creation of more vibrant communities.

The Better Block Project altered citizen’s perceptions by communicating simple urban design and planning ideas in an entirely new way – by building them and showing the community what could be changed through relatively basic design modifications. This project took a blighted block of an urban area and changed the space using some easily implemented design strategies for little cost. This event was an opportunity for members of the community and civic leaders to physically experience what these changes could mean for their neighborhood. See the YouTube film.

Can changes that are so temporary have a lasting effect? The final result of the project exceeded everyone’s expectations. After one event they saw vacancy rates on the block go from 75 percent to 10 percent, and active storefronts rise from 25 percent to 65 percent. The Better Block organizers have been invited to 20 other cities to help plan their own guerilla street planning process. In an NPR interview last year, Howard coined the BBP “Urban Defibrillators.” Maybe this unregulated alternative form of Urban Planning is really the “shock” cities need.

How to Build Better Blocks in Your Community

by Jason Roberts, BBP

1) Pick your spot. Look for a block of buildings that has a good pedestrian form, but lacks a complete street.

2) Assemble a team. It should consist of grassroots community activists, artists, and DIYers. If possible, work with existing area nonprofit leaders or organizers (community gardens groups, local volunteer corps, etc.)

3) Connect. Make your Better Block part of something larger like an art walk, ciclovia, fun run, etc.

4) Use empty storefronts. Work with area property owners to gain access to vacant spaces for a weekend. We pitched the event as a giant "art installation" so the vacant spaces become de facto art galleries. Our property owners were excited to allow access because we were actively marketing their properties. And, immediately following our original better block, these vacant spaces were leased.

5) Pop up! Develop and install temporary "pop-up" businesses to show the potential for what could be if the street had a more inviting presence. This might include a café, a kids' art studio, a flower/gift market, or bookstore.

6) Gussy it up. We worked with a local props warehouse to bring in planters to help divide the street, and temporary street lighting.

7) Invite artists to perform. Music is a key component to having a dynamic street. Use a guitar amplifier and pump out tracks from an iPod, or invite DJs to spin.

8) Give people a reason to stay. Provide plenty of seating, things to read, games to play, and food to eat.

9) Get a permit. You'll probably need to close a portion of the street. We specifically asked for a permit to allow one lane of vehicle traffic so that residents could see that a "complete street" that allowed all modes of transit was a viable solution.

10) Invite local VIPs. Include your Mayor, council members, and city staff, so they can see the possibilities for themselves. Be sure to track sales to show the increase in area business—potential for increased tax revenue is a city's largest motivator for change.

Read more at:

1. Better Blocks Project Website - http://betterblock.org/

2. ASLA Award - http://www.asla.org/2011awards/285.html

3. NPR Interview Andrew Howard - http://www.marketplace.org/topics/sustainability/building-better-cities-24-hours-time

4. GOOD Design “How to Build a Better Block” - http://www.good.is/post/how-to-build-a-better-block/

5. Plaza de Armas Article - http://www.plazadearmastx.com/index.php/culture/106-columns/1877-sa-builds-a-better-block