Better Block Inspiration: Jaime Lerner

As early as the 1970s, Brazilian politician and urban planner Jaime Lerner has emphasized the importance of mobility and sustainability within cities. With a focus on multi-modal transportation, reduced carbon emissions, and mixed-use spaces, Lerner has been a proponent of quick, affordable changes that can improve a city in less than three years. Like Better Block did in his wake, Lerner developed early on a series of guidelines to follow to stimulate economic development and encourage livable, accessible cities:

Make it cheaper

In his much-lauded TED talk, Lerner said, “Creativity starts when you cut a zero from your budget. If you cut two zeros, it’s much better.” Here at Better Block, we’re also big proponents of the “lighter, cheaper, faster” school of thought. Expensive, unwieldy projects take decades to plan, and are likely to become forgotten or ignored as the plans are passed through generations.

For example, his Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system revolutionized public transportation in Brazil, and cost a fraction of the amount of a light rail or trolley system. BRT simply took the idea of subway transit and combined it with a bus system, making buses more efficient and convenient to use, and encouraging multi-modal transport in the heart of his city, Curitiba. The buses run every minute, have their own lanes, never competing with vehicular or subway traffic, and mimic the loading and unloading of subway cars. Today, BRT systems have been implemented in 83 cities worldwide.

Do it quickly

When projects can be done for less money, they’re more likely to be done more quickly. Lerner also recognized that planning and hypothesizing cannot overpower the end goal of a more sustainable, lively city. When you start, he says, you can’t be insistent on having all the answers. Just do it, collaborate with the right people, and they will let you know if you’re on the right track. He calls his quick, inexpensive method “urban acupuncture.”

The Better Block team has its own way of getting things done quickly: blackmailing ourselves. When you blackmail yourself, you create pressure on yourself to make something happen by a certain deadline. To do this, make posters, a website, or a Facebook page to promote your event, even if it’s not fully planned. Tell your friends that it’s happening, and contact people in your network with whom you want to collaborate. That way, you know you need to make it happen by the date on the posters, and, in all likelihood, it will.

Transform use

Lerner noticed a perennial problem in large cities: most people work in the city, but live outside of it. This wasteful structure increases carbon emissions from its heavy dependence on cars, and makes the implementation of public transportation systems impractical, decreasing mobility within the city. Instead, he said, successful, sustainable cities are those where you can work, live and find leisure all in the same place.

To do this, spaces within cities need to be flexible and multipurpose. “You can’t have empty places for 18 hours a day,” Lerner says; sections of the city can play different roles at different hours. For example, a quarry can double as a public park, or a business district can become an outdoor marketplace on the weekends. This variety of use encourages people to live where they work, and work where they live, thereby saving energy, time and the environment.

Better Block implements this multi-use model into all of its events and demonstrations, encouraging organizers to program the street, have activities for all ages, and give attendees a reason to be there all day: a coffee shop for the morning hours, a sandwich place and independent shops for midday, alcohol and live music for the evenings, and outdoor gathering spaces throughout the day to create a perception of safety and a place for neighbors to exchange ideas. If the City and the community see the value in the Better Block project, the block can quickly become a place where people want to live, work and hang out, decreasing the likelihood of urban sprawl and its negative environmental impacts.

Minneapolis Better Block Transforms a Corner with a Parklet

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On September 20th, Sam Newberg, along with some neighbors and local businesses, transformed a corner in Minneapolis into a vibrant community gathering space using only a few roll of sod, a bench, some trees, a bike rack, and a shelf filled with books and board games.

According to Newberg’s post on his blog, Joe Urban, the difference to the street was immediate, with kids naturally gathering under the shade, morning coffee-drinkers sitting on the curb with friends, and families settling on the grass (a former parking space) with board games.

The team purposely chose the location because of its proximity to two popular businesses, Angry Catfish and A Baker’s Wife, allowing the energy from the businesses to animate the public space, and vice versa.

Newberg also noted a drastic reduction in speed from the passing traffic, as drivers would slow down to check out the parklet or hear the live music. Simply having more activity on the street made it a safer, more pleasant place for locals to gather.

To see more pictures and read the whole story, check out Newberg’s post here.

Better Block South Bend Seeks to Change Local Perspective of Western Avenue

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According to a recent feature on WSBT 22, The South Bend Better Block organizers have been busy gathering support for their upcoming project along Western Ave. on Oct. 17th and 18th ever since Andrew Howard led a catalyzing community workshop there in June. Their project, sponsored by the National Association of Realtors®, has a trifold goal of encouraging long-term investment, supporting small local businesses and creating awareness for the Western Ave. corridor.

While many vacant storefronts and empty lots line the stretch between Liberty and Camden streets, there are a handful of successful businesses that the event will spotlight and use as event anchors. The community says those businesses offer a glimpse at what Western Ave. could look like in the future, hoping to spark not only interest from investors, but from other small business owners as well.

The organizers are also hoping to incentivize people to explore a new area and support some new businesses. “They don’t tend to go outside of their comfort zone and so we want to get people to go out of their comfort zone and try a new neighborhood. Try a new diner. Try a new place to eat. See what exciting things there are really happening right here in South Bend,” said organizer Sam Centellas.

Better Block South Bend will feature live music, art galleries and good food. For more information, check out their website and Facebook page. 

Source article by Patrick Roth of WSBT 22: South Bend Better Block program rallies support for west side corridor 

More Lessons Learned from Better Block Projects

After rolling out an impressive series of 4 projects in 4 weeks time, the Better Block founder’s were able to add to their past list of “Lessons Learned” to inspire and help others looking at pulling together a project. Here are their most recent notes:
1) All Better Blocks should focus on four elements: an Edge, a sidewalk, a street, and a lab space.
 – The edge should have small retail, a minimum of 5 shops that line two sides of a street to show how these edges engage each other.
 – The shops should have a morning beverage option (coffee, etc), a restaurant, a locally made products shop (Etsy), a flower shop (to maintain street landscaping), and the Better Block Lab space. optional: bike shop, music store, book shop, kids space. This creates enough diversification of use to allow the area to sustain activity over a full day.
2) Ideally, there should be two vacant spaces in buildings, but must have at least one vacancy that acts as the Better Block lab and build space. This is where the volunteer groups can meet, complete construction, and store materials.
3) Create a concept plan for your block that notes all of the improvements you’d like to accomplish. Develop workshops to help construct the concepts, but don’t create more than 2 per day if building. The Better Block team leads should focus on construction work. If changing a street with straw wattles, plants, crosswalks, et cetera, create a street-build class that begins 2 hours before the event. Be sure to have all materials assembled and ready to install prior to workshop. If working in the heat, provide shade!
4) The basic tools required for all projects: 4 automatic screwdrivers (1 with drill bit), extra batteries, 2 circular saws, 3 hammers, 1 crow bar, and as many pallets as you can acquire.
5) Focus on parkletts at a bare minimum. Line two sides of the street with these if possible. Also, include shade. They give the semblance of a front porch, which acts as a social gathering space, and street activator.
6) If project is at night, pull an alcohol permit. Build a beer garden when possible with solid edge. String lights at a minimum. This creates the small social gathering space that can be the center of gravity for the project.
7) Combine rented scaffolding and used billboard vinyl to create a new street edge. Install small pop-up retail in these spaces.
8) The Better Block project should be thought of as a “Hardware Project”. The “Software Project” is the programming of the space itself. Partner with an outdoor market, or work with an event manager onsite to coordinate vendors, communication, and marketing of programming and activities. Taking on both pieces can stretch resources if volunteer turnout is light.
9) Look at shopping malls as an analogy for creating a smartly scaled street…small retail spaces at 18′ or less with strong edge detail, two-sided, common space (food court) which is shared and activated by food court, single elevation.
10) Focus on scale! Work to create a 1:1 ratio on sidewalk to road space.
11) Both edges must feel safe.
12) It must be comfortable for people to linger…If it’s hot,  incorporate shade. If it’s cold, incorporate heaters/blankets.

Oct. 17 and 18 : Better Block in South Bend, Indiana

This Better block will take place in South Bend’s west side, probably at Camden and Libery streets, but the location is not certain yet.

La Casa de Amistad, which mission is to empower the Latino/Hispanic Community by providing educational, cultural and advocacy services, and the Latin American Chamber of Commerce are helping to coordinate the event, which will feature retail, dining, entertainment, cultural and artistic activities for local residents and the wider community.

Sam Centellas, executive director of la Casa de Amistad, says: “A lot of time has been spent catering to the big developers and trying to attract big businesses to the area, and we forgot all that our small businesses can and already do to grow our city. For me, this is about creating a better environment for our families, and more importantly, for our children.”

Juan Hernandez Jr., president of the Latin American Chamber says: “”The most comments received from the residents near the Western Avenue corridor is that traffic needs to slow down, sidewalks are too narrow and need widening, and street lighting needs to be improved.”

South Bend city leaders have started working on identifying possible corridor improvements that can happen in the weeks, months and years ahead at Western Avenue and Lincoln Way West to improve the quality of life for those who live and work there.

Local organizers of the effort, which also has proven successful in communities across the country, are working on obtaining grants and fundraising to make the October event possible. But Centellas says it’s not a big-dollar event. Rather, it’s designed to show what can be done on a budget to demonstrate that growth and change can be easy.

Source article by Heidi Prescott for South Bend Tribune: http://www.southbendtribune.com/news/business/bringing-new-life-to-south-bend-s-west-side/article_e3cb368e-13dd-11e4-87d8-0017a43b2370.html

Better Block in Lafayette, Louisiana, on July 19th

Better Block Cameron, set for July 19, will bring Cameron Street down to two lanes between Poydras and Martha streets, with the third lane set aside for foot and bike traffic in a one-day demonstration project.

The block is just east of the so-called Four Corners intersection of University Avenue and Cameron Street, once a center of commercial and cultural activity.

Rachel DeCuir, who is among a contingent of residents working to revitalize the Cameron Street corridor in that area. “One of the major goals of Better Block … is to show them what we envision Cameron Street could look like,” she said.

This Better Block will focus attention on the local neighborhood economy and the need for a more suitable road for pedestrians and bicycles. Existing businesses and pop-up shops will offer food, crafts and other wares.

Three neighborhood organizations are involved in the planning: the Bridge Neighborhood Association, Townfolk and LaPlace Coterie.

For information on the July 19 event, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., including how to participate, email info@ascowc.com.


Source article by Richard Burgess for the Advocate:  http://theadvocate.com/home/9670119-125/cameron-street-to-be-transformed

Denton Better Block – Vacant Grocery Store Converted into Main Street

Better Block Denton from MindToMindCreations on Vimeo.

The first Better Block project in Denton, Texas wrapped up last weekend and introduced several ideas to revitalize a vacant property including development of human-scaled spaces, enhanced pedestrian infrastructure, local business incubation, and public space amenities.

Human Scale

Better Block community walk to discuss converting a vacant grocery store to a neighborhood destination
Better Block community walk to discuss converting a vacant grocery store to a neighborhood destination. Photo from wedentondoit.com

One of the challenges facing cities around the country are an abundance of large scale buildings with over-built car-centric infrastructure that makes redevelopment cost prohibitive and limits re-use to a handful of businesses due to scale. The Denton Better Block sought to demonstrate how you could convert a large, vacant grocery store into a classic Main Street. Where one large business existed previously, the goal for this project was to change the building to allow for multiple small local businesses, and to use the space from the over-scaled parking lot to create a 25  foot wide pedestrian street with a second edge lined with parklets which would create the semblance of a new edge of buildings.

Other elements discussed were related to making the place a neighborhood destination that made it comfortable for residents to linger outdoors and bring their families. The Better Block designed a concept that would bring shade structures and water features onto the new street that would help cool the area. Finally, the effort needed to link the existing neighborhood, which was situated across a large road, and help create accommodations and invitations for people to walk and bicycle.

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Building the Better Block

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Work began quickly after the initial community walk through of the space and teams assembled to tackle individual elements of the project. Working with local materials and identifying organizations and resources in the area that could assist, groups set out to build 5 major components: Temporary facades for small business store fronts, a series of shaded parklets that food trucks could line up beside to offer an outdoor cafe seating experience, a hay bale “splash pool” that children could cool off in, a large round water fountain automated by an arduino device, a pallet stage, and pallet furniture.

Pop-up store fronts, parklets with shade structures, hay bale splash pool for kids, public seating,  and an arduino automated water fountain all developed by the Denton Better Block team.
Pop-up store fronts, parklets with shade structures, hay bale splash pool for kids, public seating, and an arduino automated water fountain all developed by the Denton Better Block team.
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Pallet furniture built by the community

By the end of the afternoon, merchants had sold out of goods, children splashed in the hay bale pool, and locals walked and ate under shade awnings sometimes lingering for hours in the space. The concept of reducing the scale of the area and highlighting how spaces under 200 feet could be redeveloped into permanent, locally-focused destinations was proven. For more on the project and the day itself, check out the Denton Chronicle story here.

Thanks to everyone who helped with the Better Block Denton. It was definitely a team effort–Team Better Block–Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard, Zac Lytle; Green Leaf Environmental Planning Vicki Oppenheim and Kati Trice of the Denton Community Market. Thank you to the Denton Community Market vendors for moving their businesses to the site. We appreciate the vendor efforts in being flexible for locating to a new space. We wanted to also thank Katharine Wilcox of Painted Flower Farm for plants, Meadors Nursery for plants, Oak Street Draft House for some plants, Shirlene Sitton with the City of Denton, Devin Taylor, Amber Briggle of Denton Splash Park, Jeff Amano for his graphics, Lauren Barker of Keep Denton Beautiful, Julie Buchanan, Amanda Davenport, Alan Cudd, Camille Green, Ashley Bender, Harrison Wicks, Glen Farris Squibb, Larry Beck, Heather Gregory of SCRAP Denton, Glen Haas, Michael Leza, Denton.Radio.com, City of Denton Planning Department, and the many other diligent volunteers (a very long list), neighborhood groups, the Pallet Furniture Team, the Splash Park Team, the Pop-Up Facade Team, the Stage Team, and helpers. Thank you to the City Council as well for its support. Thank you to La Azteca Meat Market for letting us hold the event on their property!

 

Myth Busting at Oak Cliff’s Better Block Plaza

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The public plaza, a place to celebrate community

On Sunday, the Better Block plaza project was developed in Oak Cliff at the site of the original effort to celebrate the anniversary of the project, and test the idea of a plaza.

5pointTo understand the history of the project, residents were concerned with a dangerous 5 point intersection at Seventh Street and Tyler Street which held poor sightlines, high speed one-way streets, and overly wide auto-infrastructure. Accidents have occurred in the area and pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers have all complained about the danger on the block. A solution to cut off an unnecessary segment of roadway at King’s Highway was developed and further enhanced by allowing a public plaza for neighborhood residents to engage and enjoy.

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Original 2011 flyer for the first “Safer King’s Highway” meeting

A series of public meetings were held on January 15th, and February 8, 2011 to discuss King’s Highway and making it a safer place for the community. Thousands of dollars were spent on design charrettes, public involvement, and discourse. At the end of the process,  a report was created that addressed concerns of residents and commercial property owners.

Specifically, the idea to demonstrate through three 90 day trial increments would occur and be vetted for the best possible permanent solution. One called for a one-way street (half closure), another called for a full closure (plaza), and a third called for a roll-up street for weekday parking, weekend activation. The demonstration was to work through potential problems.

After the report was delivered, approval was then made by the Davis Garden TIF board to allocate $400K+ to the project. On two occasions, funds were approved.

In 2012, a single property owner issued three concerns for the proposed plaza which included:

  • Reduction of Parking
  • Economic destabilization for existing business
  • Sustainability / Management

Fortunately, the demonstration options allowed for these worst-case assumptions to be tested. Sadly, we learned that the project was stalled and funds potentially re-allocated due to these fear based scenarios.

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Community talent displayed in the public plaza

On Sunday, we set out to test each of these. The advantage of the Better Block project is that it’s done in days to gather data, and use the scientific method to test whether assumptions are right or wrong. No claims of assurance are given on any outcome, but a pedestrian oriented environment is created to watch in real time.

So what happened? Over 500 people attended the event throughout the day and parking was never an issue. Second, businesses in the area were not only not hurt but thrived, in fact, more small local markets were created to give residents the opportunity to test their business ideas in a highly visible area celebrated by the community. The existing businesses which opened for the day enjoyed the space and its high volume so much so that they signed a petition to keep the plaza permanent. Lastly, management of the space was handled by the community with little issue.

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A place for the community to relax, and engage. photo by Stephanie Hindall

Every assumption not only debunked, but proven that the space not only made the area more economically viable, but improved safety at the intersection, while creating a quality of life amenity that the entire neighborhood could use and celebrate in. Local school musicians performed, residents danced, and local markets setup stalls and enjoyed brisk sales. The neighborhood had a center to gather, and people celebrated. This is what makes great public plazas work.

As of yesterday, a petition was forwarded to be signed by residents asking for momentum to continue on keeping the plaza development on task. Sadly, we’re three years into the effort and the intersection is still a danger and funds are in a holding pattern.

To make matters more confusing, an effort to turn the public right-of-way into private space only is now being pursued. This leaves the community at the behest of any individual who may or may not wish to activate the space and permanently changes the legacy of the area. Beyond that, it’s potential to sit as a parking lot only or be held up in land speculation limbo puts the street in jeopardy for years to come. While Dallas might not do the best job of administering public space, the recent additions of Klyde Warren Park, and Main Street Garden prove that it’s beginning to understand the value of these amenities. And while those two examples are larger and less neighborhood focused, an alternative locally managed solution is well within the sights of the Oak Cliff community.

With empty cinder block buildings in the area now selling for $500K+, the chance for locals to continue to create small businesses for the community is diminishing. The public plaza keeps a space open for everyone to keep testing business ideas with small markets, even as the area becomes more affluent.

At a larger level, our city is facing these private developer vs. public space disputes in several areas. Most notably, the toll road effort which is being pushed by commercial endeavors in the Stemmons Corridor which takes precedence over the desires of the community at large’s public space plans. This small, 250 feet unnecessary roadway segment in Oak Cliff presents an identical issue. A community which sees the value of a shared public space verses a commercial ownership that potentially favors an auto or business use.

The People’s Plaza in Oak Cliff

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This weekend, we held the 4th anniversary of the original Better Block on the site of the first ever project. One of the major issues we’ve faced since that original effort was that funds were directed by the city to convert an unnecessary and dangerous strip of roadway to a quality public plaza. $600,000 were set aside to the street, but local property owners who originally were on board with the effort, decided later that it wouldn’t be sustainable, and that the space should fall into private hands. For our birthday event, we wanted to show how a plaza would actually work in the area and outlined the needs and hurdles that would be required to understand and negotiate in order to have a great plaza like we’ve seen in places around the world. So here’s the quick list:

8 Elements for creating great public plazas

– Affordable food businesses facing plaza, and something for each major meal time of the day. For Texas, think breakfast tacos in the morning, sandwiches for lunch, and pizza by the slice for dinner. Nothing too fancy, but accessible and easy to grab and go.

– Tables and chairs

– Shade providing landscaping, and specifically, tall trees that can create a canopy feel that shed their leaves in the winter so sunlight comes through

– Edges that define the space with easy access for pedestrians and strong connections from the nearby neighborhoods

– Free amenities, whether it be a dog park, table games, bocce ball, or a stage for local musicians.

– Alcohol fixes most broken space. If you allow beer in your public space, you’ve just upped the usage and success rate by 100%.

– Lighting, and elements that make the area feel safe.

– Regular programmed activities. Let the surrounding merchants or community organizations schedule markets, art shows, concerts, plays, or anything that celebrates the neighborhood’s assets.

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If any of these elements are skimped on, then expect low usage, and potential failure for the space. Now let’s address the potential problems:

Problems

-Sustainability – Who’s going to take care of all of the tables and chairs, trash, et cetera? Simple, the small businesses facing the plaza. If you are not able to help setup, clean up, and maintain, then you are no longer allowed to be a business in the area. As simple as that.

– Keeping programming happening – This is something that should be developed alongside the rollout of the public space. Develop a “Friends of” organization that can sit under an existing communities foundation, and have its sole purpose be to manage, administer, and improve the activities and amenities in the public space. Allow the merchants and property owners the first seats since they stand the most to gain from the enhanced space.

– Parking – Keep the space small, focus on locals, and recognize that the higher quality the public space, the further out people will be willing to park (read: Klyde Warren Park). We all have to recognize and be okay with the fact that it’s hard to find parking in great places, no matter where you are in the world.

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