Opposite to the business as usual ‘top down’ concept of urban design is the community based BETTER BLOCK process, founded in Dallas’ Oak Cliff by Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard.
The Better Block project is a demonstration tool that temporarily re-visions an area to show the potential to create a walkable, vibrant, neighborhood center and shows How to Build a Better Block. It has the feel of flashmob architecture and an occupy your community approach to community development.
The idea and the charrettes to realize it have quickly spread to cities like Memphis, St. Louis, New York, and Boston. National media coverage includes NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.The BETTER BLOCK approach is action oriented as opposed to a process of deliberative consideration and advisement under the auspices of a recognized body of authority like a City Council.
While the BETTER BLOCK approach did not do anything particularly criminal, it obviously did in some cases thumb its nose at city regulations and policies. It does, however, follow some important principles that it discovered in creating the process of building a BETTER BLOCK that are aligned with the process of creating new community paradigms and with a Strong Towns approach.
- - Identify a location with a block of buildings that has a good pedestrian form, but lacks a complete street. Typically pre-war built areas, or former streetcar intersections.
- - Assemble team of grassroots community activists, artists, and DIY’ers. If possible, work with existing area non-profit leaders or organizers (Community Gardens groups, local volunteer corps, etc.)
- - Create groups to develop and install temporary “pop-up” businesses to show the potential for what could be if the street had a more inviting presence.
- - Include as many people-friendly aesthetics. We worked with a local props warehouse to bring in planters to help divide the street, and temporary street lighting. You can also build your own planters from old pallets, build sandwich boards.
- - Paint your own cycle track! You can use a lime green paint in the typical parking area and paint a 5′ stripe. It’s also good to add a 2′ buffer zone (painted white diagonal lines) to allow for adjacent parking/door zone clearance.
- - Invite artists to perform in the street. Music is a key component to having an exciting street. Use a guitar amplifier and pump out tracks from an iPod, or invite DJ’s, drum circles, et cetera.
- - Remember that people want a reason to stay and be apart of the environment. Be sure to provide plenty of seating, things to read (maps, build simple kiosks to use as community boards, food/drink). Chess boards, et cetera. Print out and post the story of the block (its history, its present, its future as a neighborhood place).
- Invite your Mayor, council members, 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), and spotlight how traffic slows but people still have easy access and come out.