Think Small, and Perfection is Boring – Quick tips for a successful Better Block Project
We were just asked the question, “Is there any advice you can give to help me pull together a Better Block Project in my neighborhood?” by Avital Berman in Australia. Here’s some important things we’ve learned from the many projects we’ve organized:
Money is not the answer (people will tend to say, “we just need money to make this place great”). Get to the root of what they’re asking and find a fun solution. You might need some funds to pull it together, but that process is what’s incredible, not the money itself. An example of this is that we have a group on the East coast who wants an old historic neon sign re-lit, and they need about $500. They initially asked if we could help find donors, and we’ve said, just throw a “Help us re-light the sign” car wash. That process is what brings community together, helps build a collective sense of ownership, and creates a “barn-building” exercise that sparks all kinds of amazing conversation and neighborliness that’s missing in places. It helps tell the story to the broader community that’s easy for everyone to contribute to (eg. who doesn’t have $5 to help?)
Remember to relay to anyone who defaults to a fearful position (ie. we can’t do this because xxxx…) that the project is only temporary and a chance to test ideas out on how to make a more livable, vibrant block. Invite criticism and tell them, “You might be right, this could fail, but let’s try and see…we’re going to use the scientific method and test ideas to see what works and what doesn’t”. Keeping that humble, and let’s give it a try attitude is very important. Being stubborn and “my way or the highway” immediately creates adversaries. If someone says, “that’s great, but how could we maintain this (the trees, the events, etc.”, say, “great question…let’s find a solution” as opposed to the default, “you’re right, it’s too much trouble, let’s stick to the status quo”). Be open to the fact that you might be wrong, but understand that the current planning process is highly theoretical and tends to embrace worst-case scenarios that make places boring and un-livable.
– Don’t take on too large of a space. Stick to 250 to 400 feet (I’m not sure what the equivalent is in meters, but probably between 80 and 150 meters). Otherwise you’ll extend your resources far beyond your ability to manage and the energy will drop between “activity stations” (ie. pop-up shops, pop-up parks, etc) you create.
The way to get things done when you have a large project, but little means is to bring as many resources (people, local businesses, non-profits) to the problem and give them each a piece. Don’t micro-manage them…let them create something that is uniquely their identity. The hodge-podge and lack of order makes places fun. Think of it like clothes..if everything matches, it’s boring, but when you throw in some order (matching) and a little bit of chaos (bright accessories), it makes things unique and fun.
This is a chance to spotlight the identity of the community. What is it you do well (art, music, food, local spirit, crazy local characters) and put it out there for everyone to celebrate and enjoy with you. Make t-shirts of unique signs or things that are unique to the place…even if it’s something as crazy as a broken laundromat sign. Celebrate your unique, odd, and fun personality.
Think Small! Everyone tends to make things much larger than they need to be, but we all respond well to beautiful small things…and those are actually much easier to create and manage/administer. Remember, no one goes to New York and says, “I went to this AMAZING MASSIVE Italian restaurant!”…they say, “I went to this incredible, tiny, and romantic Italian restaurant with only 5 tables, a singing waiter, and a cook that came out and drank wine with us.” That’s the good stuff! Great places are made up of hundreds of tiny things, not one giant expensive thing. In Dallas, we invested millions in an Italian designed modern bridge, but people respond most to a block in my neighborhood called the “Bishop Arts District” that is made up of 30+ local businesses nestled into a neighborhood…no national chains, just small storefronts filled with wonderful shop owners, local goods, and things you can’t find in big box stores. The great places you love around the world whether it be in NYC, Paris, or Mexico City, are often only a block in size, but they’re filled with a lot of small things…a fruit stand, a deli, a flower shop, a book store, a cafe, a shoe shine guy/gal, a musician, outdoor seating, landscaping, a pocket park for kids. These things are simple, but beautiful when put together.
Don’t over meet…people have limited time…get them on the hook early to provide a piece to the equation, “ie. you handle the coffee shop”. Have them bring their friends and resources to the table. Document with photos, and video and promote via social media…help incite FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) with the broader neighborhood. If others see their friends are involved with helping revitalize their neighborhood, they’ll want to help too. Tag as many people on facebook as possible.
Keep it fun! Even though it’s not a street fair, it’s an urban planning exercise and community building process, people just want to celebrate, and allow them to do that. But your back-end goal is to create permanent, lasting change. Creating things together is the first piece. If people aren’t talking yet though, start by throwing a block party and just get everyone communicating. Remember, good food and wine can fix so many things.
If there’s something you really need or want, (ie. trees, wiring, etc), ask, “Are there any landscape architects in the neighborhood?”…or “are there any electricians in the neighborhood?”). You’ll find that you have most of the things/people you need to get things done within a 500 meter radius of your project. Need cafe seating? Ask the group, “Who here has any spare tables/chairs, or knows someone with these in their garage/home/apartment?”. Since the project is only temporary, it’s typically easy for people to lend those things out.
Embrace the chaos. You’re going to naturally want to have a nice and orderly system, but people aren’t that simple. You have to trust that the outcome will be magical. It might not be what you envisioned, in fact, major pieces that you want might fall apart at the last minute, but that’s okay…great things will happen, and the unexpected accidents are where the great stuff lies. Perfection is boring.
Be careful of egos…everyone’s got’m. Be accommodating, tender, but firm. Pay attention to people’s fears and find an answer that embraces love. That sounds all hippie dippie, but an example would be if someone says, “this area is dangerous, so we should hire police officers to stand on the street for extra protection” that solution is based on fear, and actually broadcasts to the greater community that this place IS dangerous, and we’ve brought in armed guards to get you through. A loving solution would be to create an inviting, romantic environment (piped in music, string lights, outdoor cafe seating) that allows people to come out naturally, creates more eyes on the street, which ultimately makes a place safer (bad guys don’t like to be seen), but embraces the good.