Founder Profile: Jason Roberts


This interview originally appeared in Winter 2015 edition of Columns Magazine, and in digital form on AIA Dallas. 

Written by: Nate Eudaly

Jason Roberts is the founder of the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, an originator of the Better Block Project, and co-founder of the Art Conspiracy and Bike Friendly Oak Cliff. His focus on revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods was recognized with a Champions of Change award from the White House in 2012. Jason’s consulting firm, Team Better Block, has been widely recognized, including being showcased at the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Garland and other towns around Dallas. From an early age I spent much of my free time outside, playing in creeks and exploring nature. I developed an appreciation for living in harmony with nature that serves today as a framework for my wanting to see our cities be livable with public spaces for everyone to enjoy.

How did you become interested in urban revitalization?

Some of my early jobs were in the tech field during the dot-com boom. I developed websites and I had time in the evenings to read and study. I began to read books by Jane Jacobs and blogs on urbanism, and I became interested in neighborhood revitalization.

What brought you to Oak Cliff?

After leaving Denton, following time at the University of North Texas, I wanted to move to Dallas. East Dallas around White Rock Lake was too expensive for my budget, but I found affordable housing in Oak Cliff. I found some pockets of burgeoning front-porch communities in Oak Cliff similar to what Jane Jacobs described in her books.

How did you get involved as founder of the Oak Cliff Transit Authority?

Using my background in web development, I built a website for a concept called Oak Cliff Transit Authority in 2006. Having the site online for people to view almost created an illusion that what was still basically just a concept was actually a viable organization. We saw that there was interest in bringing this to reality, so we incorporated as a non-profit in 2007. We also began to hold lots of meetings to get community involvement about what the Transit Authority could and should be. The vision became to revive the Dallas streetcar system, and our group later spearheaded the city’s efforts to obtain a $23 million TIGER stimulus grant from the Federal Transit Authority to help reintroduce a modern streetcar system to Dallas. We are very pleased that the initial 1.6-mile track from near Union Station to the intersection of Colorado and Beckley opened this past spring, and there are plans underway now to expand the line to Bishop Arts.

You also were an organizer of Bike Friendly Oak Cliff. Tell us how that happened.

I enjoy riding my bike, but Oak Cliff and Dallas in general have not been very bike-friendly, historically. Over beers, some friends and I organized the group to advocate for bike infrastructure. It has been a grassroots effort with blogs, group rides, and the formation of an advisory group for the city.

How much progress has been made in making Dallas and Oak Cliff more bike-friendly?

Some progress has been made, but there is much to do. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give Oak Cliff a 3.5, and Dallas overall a 2.

How did the Better Block Project develop from a concept into reality?

In 2010, a group of friends created an art project called Better Block in which we decided to create our dream neighborhood block in about a day using very little money. We never envisioned the project becoming a national movement and being part of a larger trend of citizen-led efforts to rapidly transform blighted communities around the world.

On a European vacation I had fallen in love with city blocks filled with old and young people, street music, flower shops, cafés, old buildings, and small marketplaces. When I returned to Dallas, I drove around Oak Cliff and saw boarded-up and vacant buildings, wide streets, small sidewalks, and little street life. I commented to a friend, “Why can’t we have blocks that look like the ones throughout Europe?” He scoffed, “Let’s be honest: Dallas will never be Paris.” That night, I began looking into what was holding my neighborhood back. I found a series of ordinances that prohibited or heavily taxed things that foster amazing urban blocks. From restrictive zoning rules, parking minimums, exorbitant fees on café seating, landscaping, and more, I learned that the ability to have a great block like those I had seen abroad was largely forbidden.

We developed a plan that was the opposite of those found in traditional planning: Work cheaply and quickly, use temporary products, break rules, and focus on action over dialogue. The goal was simple: Build our dream block in 24 hours using anything at our disposal. Artists were key, borrowing was imperative, and the potential of going to jail was likely. A group of friends and I met at night in a theater prop warehouse and began laying out a vision for the block. … Paint and clean buildings; create bike lanes; set up outdoor cafés and fruit stands; string lights across the street; convert vacant buildings to art galleries, flower shops, kids’ art studios, and coffee houses. Lastly, we printed out the ordinances we were going to break and hung them in every window. On a Friday night in April 2010, we began transforming the block, and by Saturday morning the street was unveiled.

For years, we had been told that Dallas didn’t have the culture to embrace a walkable, urban environment—that it’s too hot, that people are too accustomed to driving, and that no one would come. What we saw that day challenged everything we’d been told. People walked to the street, sat outside, drank coffee, and read newspapers. Flowers hung from window sills, old men played chess, children made art in former auto shops, teens pedaled in freshly painted bike lanes, residents began volunteering in our pop-up shops, and musicians appeared unexpectedly with open guitar cases and performed on street corners. The street came roaring back to life. In 24 hours and with less than $1,000, we built our dream block and disproved the skeptics. Most notably, we learned that a vision is fruitless without action.


What has happened since then with Better Block?

The initiative has spread more than we ever imagined. The project has now become an international movement, occurring everywhere from Melbourne, Australia, to Tehran, Iran, and has been featured in The New York Times, in Dwell magazine, in TED Talks, and on National Public Radio. Team Better Block was even showcased in the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale as a part of its Spontaneous Interventions theme. The American Society of Landscape Architects has also given a National Honor Award to Team Better Block.

Oak Cliff Transit Authority and Better Block are both remarkable achievements, but you’ve achieved much more. Tell us about being a co-founder of the Art Conspiracy.

In December 2004, Sarah Jane Semrad and I developed the idea of creating an event where local artists could create art together, fostering a sense of community while raising money for a local non-profit. We held the first event at the Texas Theatre because of its ties to the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories—hence the name “Art Conspiracy.” Each year since then, there is an open call for around 100 artists, who come together to create the art. The auction is a big party with live music, food, and drink. The live auction proceeds are given to a different local non-profit each year.

What is a typical day for you?

Busy. Calls, meetings, and planning for future events. I am a business partner in some Oak Cliff restaurants and also spend time with my kids. Over the course of a month, I usually am traveling close to 50% of the time.

How did your cancer diagnosis and treatment impact your life and goals?

I was very fortunate that my partner in Better Block, Andrew Howard, kept the organization going in a strong and viable manner. My treatment and some surgical complications kept me sidelined for close to a year, so I am very grateful to be active again.

In your limited spare time what do you like to do?

Play keyboard and guitar in a band a few times a year. I also like to ride my bike when possible.

Listening to?

Modern garage rock, ‘60s soul, ‘40s blues.

Like to watch?

French foreign films. A favorite is Amelie.

Still on your bucket list?

See a university open a campus in Oak Cliff. Help construct new buildings with and for communities. Incorporate what has been learned into a true community.


“He went beyond just talking and took action.”

Better Block Awarded Knight Green Line Grant for Wiki-Block Project


Team Better Block was recently announced as one of the 12 winners of the Knight Green Line Challenge. The Knight-funded project, entitled “Wiki-Block,” will develop, prototype, and open-source templates for snap-together urban street furniture that can be produced by anyone to transform a street or neighborhood.

Printable Parklets

Working with Friendly Streets Initiative and other local St. Paul organizations, Better Block would use the wiki-house model to develop a series of easy-to-assemble placemaking elements for use in current and future projects. These would include printable parklets, storefronts, cafe seating, bike lane buffers, planters, and more. After developing initial designs for these elements, the team would print and cut out the designs from CNC Routers, then engage with local community groups to snap them into place. Using CNC Routers would result in better quality interventions on the ground than the typical pallet construction technique often used in temporary placemaking projects.

The models could then be installed at FSI’s Better Bridges project, Smart Trips community outreach initiatives, and in the City of St. Paul’s Commercial Vitality Zones, in addition to being showcased during a Better Block event demonstration in St. Paul. Developing wiki-house models would allow us to flat-pack our placemaking materials and ship them to cities worldwide, or enable designers to download and print the designs themselves.

Wiki-Block Library

Once effective models are developed and implemented, Better Block will create an online “wiki-block” library for people to upload their designs into a public repository for placemakers to utilize all over the world. These designs can then be downloaded by like-minded community members, architects, and planners to download and implement in their cities.

The Wiki-Block Impact

The St. Paul project hopes to have a local and international impact in the following ways:

1. Engage and excite the St. Paul community through citizen-led design and construction.

2. Expand economic opportunity by slowing the street with creative placemaking elements to allow for increased potential for business on the block. The placemaking items created through our wiki-block models will help to enhance the programs already in place in St. Paul to increase commercial vitality throughout the city.

3. Create lasting collaborations that strengthen civic engagement and infuse current public improvement models with innovative ideas.

4. Contribute to the body of knowledge currently in place surrounding tactical urbanism practices by giving public access to our designs in the wiki-block library.

You can read about the other Knight Green Line winners here. 

GreenLine Challenge_Image

Better Block Revere first project of Boston Design Office

Fresh off the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Loeb Fellowship, Team Better Block Principal Andrew Howard started the five year old company’s first satellite office in Boston. “I had such a great experience over my year in Cambridge and made so many contacts in Massachusetts that it was a no brainer to start an office, said Andrew.” After speaking at the Boston Architectural Society, Team Better Block was invited by Meera Deean of Utile  Design to have a desk at their downtown office.

Team Better Block had already been working with two former Harvard Grads on projects outside Massachusetts and with the new office Cristina Garmendia and Hayro Gunc joined full time to run the office. Cristina earned her Masters in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School, developed a tech starrt-up and will now serve as project manager for the Boston Office. Hayro is a Turkish designer, architect and urbanist, received a Masters from Harvard Graduate School of Design and is lead designer. The office is focused on human centered design through rapid prototyping.


Now just a few months later and the team is conducting their first Better Block in Revere, MA under the auspices of the MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative.  The project will be held on October 2-3, 2015 and will prototype emerging ideas in rapid retail facade improvements, contra-flow green bike lanes, intersection repair, evergreen wayfinding signs milled using cc routers and 3D printers and of course programming from the most international community in the Boston Area. For more info check out

Also be on the lookout for the first winter better block to occur in Somerville, MA before the end of the year. Cambridge will also be using Better Block as part of their comprehensive plan update scheduled to start later this year. Working with the MIT Social Computing Lab the office will also be working with a large national development firm to develop triple bottom line metrics for grading new development projects.

The office is looking for more partnerships with municipalities, community groups, make spaces and others that are ready to take action to make their neighborhood better today. Drop us a note and let us know how Better Block can advance your ideas in Massachusetts.  Cristina Garmendia cristina@teambetterblock.com150910_poster2

How to Build a Bocce Court


During Better Block Akron, we created a bocce court in one lane of an expansive street, both to slow traffic and give attendees an activity to engage in while enjoying the public space. The court also worked as a barrier between pedestrians and the street, and provided an all-ages outlet for play; adults, adolescents, and seniors were holding bocce tournaments, and children were playing in the sand and attempting to juggle the balls.

The court was created with $200 and borrowed materials. If you’d like to create bocce court in your neighborhood, check out our recipe below. You can download a high-res PDF here.


Better Block Begins Work on the Akron Exchange House


The Better Block team was recently awarded a Knight Cities grant to convert excess housing stock in Akron, OH into a vibrant community center for the city’s thriving refugee committee. After multiple trips to survey the neighborhood and search for the perfect space, the team found their home and is beginning plans for its transformation.

IMG_20150716_104028The project, dubbed “The Exchange House,” will address multiple issues faced by the City of Akron today, including population declines, large numbers of residential vacancies, and a lowered tax base to maintain existing infrastructure. The project combats these trends by converting a vacant house in the North Hill neighborhood into a cultural hostel and gathering space. It works to exemplify the benefits of shared housing while reducing the negative side effects experienced in rapidly transforming areas.

While much of the population is declining, a vibrant refugee community exists in the North Hill neighborhood, which presents an opportunity to build and ascend through the culture that is unique to the neighborhood. The Exchange House would be programmed according to the refugee population’s traditions, and allow existing immigrants to inviteIMG_0132~2 copy community members to remain in Akron, providing a place for the non-immigrant community to stay and engage with its new population. Once complete, the project will provide a space that creates invitations for additional immigrants to temporarily reside in
the North Hill neighborhood, transfer skills, and bridge barriers between communities.

Working closely with the Knight Foundation, the International Institute, and the Bhutanese Community Association of Akron, the Better Block team began cataloging potential foreclosed homes and meeting with city officials to begin the process of gaining access to a proposed site. An area architect, whose family were refugees, is working with the team to help with the renovation and revitalization of the home.

Keep up with the project at 


“For the Community, By The Community”: How Innate Ecology in Geelong, Australia Created Their Own Better Block

 Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 1.30.43 PM

Thanks to Innate Ecology, Inc.  for providing the following detailed report on their 2014 Better Block project in Geelong, Victoria, Australia. You can download their full report here. 


The Geelong North Better Block was held in Labuan Square, 10am – 3pm Saturday March 15, 2014. The project engaged residents, community groups and business across Geelong to discuss change within the community and local urban areas over a seven week period.

The Better Block brought together community groups and residents to create an event by the community, for the community with activities to suit a range of ages and interests in an urban area in need of greater interaction and activation.

The day included many free activities such as business advice for emerging business to workshops on edible gardening, beekeeping and backyard chooks. The Labuan Art Space was a popular feature with numerous art activities including the making of two lantern types for the Mountain to Mouth walk (M~M2014) to be held locally in May.

From toddler, children’s and teenager’s activities to devonshire teas, craft stalls and live acoustic music the local community were able to access something for all ages. With a focus on health the local food swap, walking and cycling maps, free bike maintenance, and local fresh food and BBQ corn were a great success.

On the day, local councillor, Kylie Fisher was on hand to talk to locals and The Pulse local television film crew took footage of the event and conducted interviews with particpants for a future Channel 31 TV segment on local activities in Geelong.

The day was the culmination of a series of community engagement workshops and conversations, with support from nine community groups, twelve local businesses, two schools, five local groups and five council departments. With more than an estimated three hundred and twenty (320) participants on the day and eighty (80) volunteers creating the event the day was deemed a great success.

Volunteers commented on the fantastic community feeling on the day, how excited many of the children were to see so much happening in the local shopping area and the value of having free workshops and a local craft market available in the square.

Geelong North Better Block

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 1.38.31 PMThe Geelong North Better Block project was initiated by Innate Ecology after discussions with Two & Five Inc. on how to reactivate the open space at Labuan Square, Norlane, attract new business to the vacant shops and and engage with local residents, using the Better Block model.

Events organised by Innate Ecology in 2013 with the Better Block co-founders included public lectures and workshops aimed at engaging and empowering local community to create a one day activation in their urban environment. This culminated in the Geelong Better Block, June 2013 strongly supported by Future Proofing Geelong and the City of Greater Geelong.


_To engage local community in discussion on what their shopping area needs
_To facilitate local groups & residents in creating their own event
_To support emerging craftmakers, musicians and business
_To promote fresh and healthy food
_To promote healthy lifestyles, walking and cycling
_To empower residents to create positive change
_To stimulate the Norlane and Geelong North community

The project is a Sustainable Living Festival Geelong 2014 event, coinciding with national and regional marketing of SLF2014.

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Prior to the event promotion ocurred across community radio, local and regional newspapers, community and neighbourhood centres, schools, cycling groups, Sustainable Living Festival 2014 media & events, City of Greater Geelong marketing, Geelong Sustainability Group events & marketing, Innate Ecology marketing and via social media including Facebook & Twitter.

On the day event promotion occurred across community radio, Innate Ecology marketing and via social media including facebook & twitter.
Cr Kylie Fisher attended the day, Mayor Darryn Lyons, Cr Andy Richards and MP declined to attend. Mayor Darryn Lyons retweeted on the event. Channel 31 The Pulse TV filmed the event and interviews for later use on local televsion.

Outcome: The promotion of the event to the Geelong region, creating awareness of community led events in Geelong North and attracting visitors.


The process covered a five month period from late October 2013 through to late March 2014.
Project proposal and initial funding agreement occurred in October and November 2013 with funding applications continuing throughout December and January 2014.

Early consultation with key stakeholders in the Geelong North area and key Geelong support groups ocurred in November and December 2013. Local Publicity in Geelong North local publication, ‘Northerly Aspects’ January issue provided information to residents on the event and the two scheduled community engagement workshops conducted locally. Community Engagement Workshops were held in January and February to define what was missing from the local shopping areas and what activities and support residents would like to see in their neighbourhood. Workshops were attended by twenty people and held at Urban Seed, Norlane with a meal provided at the end of the workshop. At the conclusion of the workshops a group of local residents formed a GNBB event team. GNBB event team met in February and March 2014 with inspiration via social media on the Geelong Better Block facebook page and twitter.

Local Council Coordination and event approval was provided by Innate Ecology and CoGG. Innate Ecology coordinated event plans, day schedules and volunteer listing, while CoGG coordinator liaised with council for event approvals, permits, insurance and with other departments.

Active Involvement

Volunteers at the eventScreen Shot 2015-07-16 at 1.38.15 PM
Eighty one participants (81)

Estimated number of visitors at the event
Three hundred and twenty (320)

Nine Local Community Groups/Social Enterprises
Two & Five Inc. (Labuan Square); Cloverdale Community Centre: Rosewall Neighbourhood Centre; Diversitat; The Pulse 94.7FM Community Radio; Geelong West Neighbourhood House; Playgroup Geelong; Urban Seed; Northern Geelong Rental Housing Co-operative Ltd

Five Local Groups
Cycling Geelong; Cloverdale chat group for Indigenous plants; M~M 2014 Area Representatives; Bellarine Ukulele flash mob; Not the Wolf (band)

Eight Local Businesses at Labuan Square Open at the Event
Pharmacy, Post Office, Supermarket, Bottle’O, Two and Five, Envy Icecreamery, Gary’s Collectables and Men’s Jewellery, SMS Hairdressing

Twelve Geelong Businesses
Gary’s Collectables and Men’s Jewellery & owner Shop 9 (Labuan Square); Envy Icecreamery (Labuan Square); Shop 5 Owner (Vacant Shop – Labuan Square); Shop 13 Owners (Vacant Shop – Labuan Square); De Grandi Cycling and Sport; Urban Planters; The Chicken Feeder; Hobo Country Bakers Coffee Van; Poppy & Clover; Vintage Mama; The Leather Man, Innate Ecology;

One School
Geelong Technical Education Centre, East Geelong

Five City of Greater Geelong Departments
COGG Future Proofing Geelong (funding contribution); CoGG Community Development (Liaison with council); COGG Enterprise Geelong (Business Hub); COGG Events Department (event approval); and COGG Youth Development (Youth Can Van)

Public Relations

Meetings held with Cr Kylie Fisher, Sam Smith, FPG, Cathy Walker CoGG, Northern Bay Technical College Principal and Trade Coordinator, GTEC Trade Teacher.

Communication with Cloverdale Community Centre, Norlane Neighbourhood Centre, Rosewall Neighbourhood Centre, Diversitat, Wathaurong Community, Geelong Mens Shed, Queenscliff Mens Shed, Victoria Police

Councilors /Politicians invited to the event:

Mayor Darryn Lyons (not available) (retweeted event tweets across two accounts on the day)

Cr Kylie Fisher (Corio Ward) Attended Cr Andy Richards (not available)

The Hon Richard Marles MP, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Member for Corio (not available)

Funding the Project

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 1.38.24 PMEarly support for the community based project was sought from Future Proofing Geelong as part of the Sustainable Living Festival 2014 Geelong funding, Cr Kylie Fisher, Corio Ward and Community Development personnel for Corio, Cathy Walker in October & November 2013.

Financial support was proposed for a five month period of coordination at a reduced cost of $8000 by Innate Ecology. Future Proofing Geelong committed $3000, with a further committment to assist with an application to council for the remaining funds. In addition City of Greater Geelong personnel were committed as support for the internal event coordination.

Due to changes with the council community funding process in late 2013, the remaining funding was difficult to obtain. The final outcome resulted in the City of Greater Geelong COGG funding non-profit Two and Five Inc. $1950 for event costs and coordination.

The remaining $3050 was unfunded. This became an additional probono contribution to the community project by Innate Ecology totalling $9795. While Innate Ecology supports community engagement and events this level of contribution by a small emerging business is unsustainable. Funding will need to be secured prior to project commencement in future.

Project Value

Innate Ecology

1. Event Co-ordination October 2013 to March 2014 by Including: Meetings, Community Engagement Workshops, Traders Coordination, Graphic Design, Marketing, Event Day, Event Report valued at: $14,580

2. Expenses (excluding travel costs) – $165

Total Innate Ecology valued at: $14,745

Community Volunteer Time

1. Volunteer participation at workshops and meetings: $2,100

2. Community event team: $3,375

3. Three vacant retail shops on day and storage: $1,500

4. Gardening workshops: $800

5. Musicians: $400

6. Volunteers on the day: $12,300

Total community volunteer time valued at: $20,475


1. GTEC street furniture and bicycle rack hire estimated value: $300

2. De Grandi bicycle repair kits valued at: $50

3. Marketing value estimated at: $10,000

Total other: $15,350

Total project estimated value (excl. council time and input): $45,570

Funding allocated from CoGG and Future Proofing Geelong

1. CoGG FPG Contribution to event coordination: $3,000

2. CoGG contribution to event contribution to Two & Five Inc: $1,950


The value of empowering community to create positive change in their own neighbourhood!

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About Innate Ecology
We contribute to the evolution of healthy, livable communities, towns and cities based on equality, diversity, regional foods and services.
Our work encompasses innovative strategy, design and research for the development of urban ecologies and settlements.

Suzette Jackson, Director |


Church Hill North Better Block Project: One Year Later

By Max Hepp-Buchanan

This is re-posted from Read the original post here. 

For two days in June of last year, we built a better block in Church Hill North. We facilitated dozens of “pop-up” shops in taking up residency along North 25th Street, including inside several vacant storefronts. We added bike lanes and new crosswalks for the weekend using duct tape and other temporary materials, saw the rise of a pocket park on an undeveloped piece of land, turned a concrete slab into a stage for an afternoon of soulful music, painted buildings, painted murals, and doled our thousands of dollars donated by Capital One for façade improvements to the existing businesses.

In case you missed it, you can watch a short documentary about the Better Block Project here:

The project took months of planning and forming partnerships with Team Better Block, the City of Richmond, Bon Secours, Capital One, Davita Dialysis, Storefront for Community Design, Groundwork RVA, Partnership for Smarter Growth and others.  And finally, on June 13 and 14 of 2014, the East End community came together for a weekend of temporary transformation of two blocks of North 25th Street into a more walkable, bikeable, vibrant and economically healthy corridor.

But what has changed since then? Did we help create any lasting improvements? I went back to the intersection of N 25th St and Venable St this week to find out.

While it wasn’t my first time back all year – I’ve been back many times since then – I looked hard for what I could interpret as permanent positive change. At first glance, the street looked almost the same. But as I walked the corridor and peered into windows, I began to see the subtle and not-so-subtle changes that told me it was all worth it.

At the northern end of the Better Block project site, big changes are happening on the Track-Muralstreet with the addition of a large roundabout at N 25th St and Nine Mile Road. Construction is currently underway, and while this is not a direct result of the Better Block Project, it does demonstrate the City of Richmond’s ongoing commitment to make the East End a better place. Making my way south, I was happy to see Ed Trask’s mural that was painted during Better Block still in pristine condition on the side of a building, and that the business in that building had a new, secure front door paid for by Capital One’s contribution to façade improvements.

Our home base for the Better Block Project was located at 1105/1107 N 25th St. While it was originally envisioned to house a coffee shop, it now has a tax office as new tenants. But previously, the space was vacant and uninhabitable due to major repairs that needed to be made, and many of them were made as a direct result of Better Block.

1008-N-25thThe building that sticks in my mind the most from Better Block is 1008 N 25th St. Once a bright blue and white exterior, a team of volunteers repainted the entire two-story building over the course of a week to match the color pallet of the historic district. Nothing was in there before Better Block, so the property owner agreed to host a pop-up clothing shop for the weekend. Today, it’s clear that a new retail store is about to open in the remodeled space – there’s a new door and windows, fresh carpet and paint on the interior, and retail merchandise is starting to fill the shelves.

The grassy area next door to 1008 – which was transformed into a pocket park for Better Block – has become a priority project of Better Block partner organization Groundwork RVA, which is engaging Armstrong High School students in the planning and design of what will hopefully become a permanent park and asset to the community. Currently, it is still privately owned but appears to be maintained regularly.

At the southern end of the Better Block Project site, a once vacant building is now Pocket-Parkinhabited with a thriving business. 1000 N 25th St, one of the city’s first gas stations and later converted into a bologna sandwich take-out spot had been vacant for years. During Better Block, a woman sold home-made cosmetics out of the uniquely shaped triangle building. But today, a new place to eat has taken residency, selling fried fish. Appropriately named, “Jus’ Fish”, the sign hanging from the building makes sure you fully understand: “All we do is fish.” So don’t go there looking for fried chicken! When Jus’ Fish opened a few months ago, the owner of the building emailed me to say:

“Just wanted to thank you for your hard work and efforts toward revitalization of my community. Thanks to that great weekend last year, I have secured a tenant and a new restaurant is open… Thank you again for such an eye-opening event!”

The last and most subtle – but arguably the most important – thing I observed was a sign hanging in the window of the N 25th St Market, a corner store that sells junk food, cigarettes, and alcohol (among other things). The sign read: “Fresh Local Produce”. Thanks to Tricycle Gardens, Church Hill North residents now have the option to buy healthy food in what is otherwise a significant food desert.

Fresh-Local-ProduceBetween the City of Richmond, Bon Secours, and a community of non-profits and residents who are fully invested in Church Hill North as a place to live and work, great things are taking shape in the East End. For example, four blocks away, residents are organizing in support of the area’s first “neighborhood byway” on N 29th St, which would offer a comfortable place for people of all ages and abilities to walk and bike for transportation, and would be a central connector to key destinations in Church Hill.

That stretch of N 25th St on Church Hill still has a ways to go. But things are certainly changing for the better, and there is a whole community up there who still cares a lot about building a better block.

How to build a green bike lane

Akron Better Block green bike lane
Akron Better Block green bike lane

We’ve been working on a book outlining lessons learned from Better Block projects occurring around the world, and as a part of the effort we’ve begun assembling recipes for interventions that are often implemented. One of the most notable has been the inclusion of temporary green bike lanes, which we stumbled across with help from the Baton Rouge Better Block team, and later applied with enhanced detailing in the Akron Better Block project sponsored by the Knight Foundation. Check out how we did it below, and pass it on to others (high res PDF here):



Akron Better Block: Transforming North Hill Into A Vibrant International District


Through a partnership with the Knight Foundation, Akron, Ohio’s first Better Block project was realized the weekend of May 15th-17th and showed how the community could come together to transform a blighted block into a vibrant neighborhood destination. By introducing buffered bike lanes, enhancing pedestrian infrastructure, and creating two public plazas, the Better Block proved that a street that once existed only for cars could be scaled down to make way for bikes, people, and programming.

Why North Hill?

Akron Better Block took place in the North Hill neighborhood on N Main Street, a wide, intimidating four-lane thoroughfare that was created to quickly move carsakronbetterblock from Downtown to the suburbs. The expansion of Main Street is a “solution” too often used in cities around the U.S. to allow for increased capacity on the road and to relieve congestion. Instead, the added lanes left the road under-trafficked, allowing
cars to blitz through the neighborhood at high speeds.

As a result, businesses have suffered and pedestrians fear being on foot. While the street is home to a number of charming historic buildings, many are vacant, neglected, and are beginning to be torn down, leaving empty lots in their place. These gaps in the street discourage pedestrian activity and make it difficult for small businesses to prosper.

The Better Block was introduced in Akron as part of an ongoing effort to increas
walkability in the City. Road reductions in the Highland Square neighborhood set precedence for the project, and the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS) has been creating a comprehensive road diet plan to present to the City.

To spur these ongoing improvements, under support from the Knight Foundation and with the help of a dedicated group of Akron community leaders, Better Block worked to reduce the scale of the street to allow for human activity, and encouraged local entrepreneurs to test out their business ideas in the vacancies for the weekend. The Akron Better Block team filled the gaps made by parking lots and demolished buildings by creating pedestrian plazas and fields for playing sports, yoga, and ping pong. For one weekend at least, N Main Street realized its potential as a thriving, economically viable block.

Identifying the location

In Akron, as with any City Better Block works in, we evaluated the community’s assets and redevelopment potential before choosing a block. Blocks that house pre-war buildings with good pedestrian form but lack a complete street are preferred. These blocks are typically found at former streetcar intersections, which was the case with N Main Street in Akron. We seek out these former streetcar neighborhoods because they were constructed with the pedestrian in mind, and traditionally follow a human-scale, classic Main Street model. When surveying location in Akron, we paid attention to five different factors for a neighborhood with redevelopment potential:

Edges that define space. Walkable districts always contain buildings that edge the sidewalk, with storefronts facing the street to create a welcoming atmosphere and gather pedestrians into one space. N Main Street, being along an old streetcar line, still maintained many of its traditional pre-war buildings that lined the street. However, a number of the historic buildings had also been torn down to make way for parking lots and to eliminate eyesores on the street, giving the Better Block team plenty of “gaps” to fill in order to exemplify how a pedestrian-friendly district should flow.

Leasable buildings. In order to encourage development, there need to be some vacancies on the street to instigate change and to incubate entrepreneurs during the Better Block weekend. N Main Street had a number of leasable spaces where we placed pop-up shops, giving them a low-risk way to test their businesses.

Potential for multi-modal infrastructure. N Main Street had been expanded to accommodate additional traffic, making it easy to pinch it back to down to one lane in each direction to allow for wider sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes.

Proximity to a neighborhood. As with most streetcar intersections, N Main Street at Cuyahoga Falls is located within a grid of residential homes, making it easy for residents nearby to walk to the commercial corridor and support their local businesses.

Interest from local partners. No matter how great the location, a project is only as good as the community it’s within. Luckily for the Akron project, we were privileged to work with an extremely engaged and active community of leaders and volunteers that were eager to get involved in any way they could. From sharing ideas to lending tools, creating pop-ups, organizing outdoor markets, and painting pallet furniture, the project suffered from no lack of community involvement.

Community Walk



After choosing the location, we partnered with a number of organizations on the ground in Akron to conduct a series of community walks. These walks are designed to incorporate interested community members and hear what they’d like to see in their neighborhood.
From our Akron walks, we gathered that the perception of safety was the biggest factor preventing pedestrians from visiting the block. Additional lighting, filling vacancies, and putting eyes on the street can increase the perception of safety, so we decided to string lights in the plaza, place pop-up businesses in the vacancies, and build a number of outdoor seating areas for pedestrians to gather and feel welcome. Attendees also repeatedly mentioned that high traffic speeds prevented them from feeling safe crossing the street, so the team narrowed down the street to one lane in either direction, moved the parallel parking spaces to the outer edge of the bike lanes, and installed crosswalks to slow traffic and begin to train drivers to interact with pedestrians and bikes on the street. The data we gathered before and after the event showed that average car speeds decreased by 15 mph during the event.


The Workshops
After months of planning, the Akron team hit the ground running to transform the IMG_6251block in under a week. In the days leading up to the Better Block, we conducted a series of workshops with volunteers from the community to help us expedite the process and have the community take ownership of the project. The workshops conducted included Plaza Preparation & Build, where volunteers built a bocce court, created and strung bunting over the street and painted pedestrian areas; Street Repair, during which volunteers cut crosswalks from recycled materials and striped bike lanes; Parklet & Pallet Furniture Building, where volunteers constructed and painted street seating and parklets out of old pallets; and Measurement Workshops, allowing community members to gather data on elements of walkability and safety before and during the event.

Building the Block

These workshops, combined with invaluable community partnerships with Tina and John Ughrin, International Institute, Keep Akron Beautiful, AMATS, Countryside Conservancy, 427 Design, ECDI, and countless others, we introduced five major improvements to the block: buffered bike lanes, 2 pedestrian plazas, an activity field, an open air market, and 6 pop-up businesses.

The Street

IMG_20150514_103625Unlike many of our past projects, where the bike lanes were painted by volunteers using rollers and tape, the City of Akron came on board and enlisted Public Works to help us paint the lanes. While the paint was still temporary and the borders were marked with white duct tape, the lanes could have easily been mistaken for the permanent green lanes found in major cities across the country. By including a buffer and moving street parking to the outer edge of the bike lane, we created a space where cyclists can enjoy the street without the stress of traffic. The addition of the lanes, as well as the widened sidewalks, pinched the portion of the street reserved for cars down to one lane in either direction, reducing speed and making the street safer not only for cyclists, but pedestrians and drivers as well.

The team also added areas for people to gather around the street, including an outdoor beer garden, seating areas outside of restaurants, a parklet and benches along the sidewalks. Shade and seating, combined with food and drink options, invite people to linger and get to know one another in an otherwise unfriendly, car-centric atmosphere.

IMG_20150515_151039The Plazas

The pedestrian plazas included one on the East side of the street that housed a bocce court and seating area, and a Western plaza that staged the outdoor market as well as an art installation and landscaped garden inspired by timeless plaza layouts found throughout the world. Countless volunteers came out in the days before the project to plant flowers, build furniture, shovel crushed limestone into the bocce court, and create bunting to be strung across the street. The Akron chapter of the League of Creative Interventionists constructed an art piece for the plaza, and International
Institute and Asia, Inc. enlisted dozens of talented performers to showcase their music, dance, and storytelling on stages throughout the weekend.



Like all of our projects, Better Block sources its materials locally and works to use borrowed tools and equipment to save on costs and to engage the community in the build process. Temporary donations were used to landscape the street, recycled billboard vinyl became bunting, chair covers, and mural backdrops, and old rubber tires were turned into art.


The Pop-Up Shops

Starting a brick-and-mortar business can be intimidating to a first-time entrepreneur, making Better Block the perfect platform for local makers to test out their concepts. By eliminating many of the barriers associated with starting a business, six different pop-ups were able to open for the weekend, including Three Sisters Momo, Stray Dog Diner, Summit Cycling Center, a local art gallery, International Welcome Center, and Neighbor’s Apparel.


Akron Better Block concept map

As an international district, North Hill is home to hundreds of refugees from Bhutan, Nepal, Burma and the Middle East, making it a community rich in culture and diversity. The shops and activities throughout the weekend reflected the multi-cultural flair of the neighborhood; Three sisters served traditional Nepali dumplings by employing Bhutanese refugees; Neighbor’s Apparel employs local refugees to create its unique clothing and accessories; the art gallery showcased work made by local refugee youth; and the International Welcome Center served to educate attendees about the global identity of the neighborhood and provide resources to immigrants in the community. In addition, businesses that already existed around the block, such as a family-owned grocery store and  Nepali Kitchen, benefited from the increased pedestrian activity in the area and saw a boom in sales over the weekend.


By engaging the refugee community in Akron and giving them the resources they need to start businesses and invest in their community, the neighborhood has the potential to become a self-sustaining, vibrant economic center that thrives from its own residents.


The Results

During the event, pedestrian activity and perception of safety drastically improved. Average vehicle speeds decreased from 29 mph to 13 mph, and we saw an exponential increase in the amount of bikes, families and neighbors on the street.

The pop-up businesses made record sales during the weekend, and a few of the them are already in negotiations with property owners about making their locations permanent, or at least continuing to conduct business temporarily while the space is vacant. The owners of the parking lot that housed the outdoor market and plaza garden for the weekend was disappointed to see it go and is interested in making the plaza a permanent addition to the block.

As far as the street improvements are concerned, plans are now in the works to begin taking concepts developed for the Better Block and making them permanent. AMATS is including the results of the better block project in their road diet recommendations to the City of Akron.
Many thanks to all of the community members, property owners, city staff, and volunteers for making this an incredibly successful event.



Analyzing a block by asking “Would it work in a mall?”

In Better Block projects, the areas we look to revitalize are often former streetcar stops, which are neighborhood Main Streets that conform to Dave Sucher’s “three rules for a walkable neighborhood”. The important form of the street, buildings built to the sidewalk without setbacks for parking, are often disrupted over time due to structures being demolished creating “gaps in the teeth.” These gaps are often converted to parking lots which break up the walkability of the block but are deemed crucial to the business which no longer has the luxury of heavy foot traffic the streetcar once provided. This parking problem solves one issue, but creates another.

Akron Better Block project study area showing gaps in the street wall that have since been converted to parking. A compromise that helps the building’s tenant but hurts the walkability of the block (Google Streetview image)

While developing concept plans to activate the historic wall, the gaps are where we find the energy of the street rapidly decline. Other common issues are half walls, or places where one side of the street is intact and the other side has been leveled. The symbiosis of the two walls is important to create a street that feels alive and hugs the public space correctly. Fortunately, temporary ways to re-engage these gaps is to use things like food trucks, or biergartens which begin re-stitching the street. Unfortunately, many people don’t see the necessity for having these spaces tightly interconnected and activating each other in a way that allows the parts to help the sum. Where we see this most commonly working correctly is in the suburban mall, a place that has re-appropriated many of the successful concepts of a Main Street. In fact, to simplify the analysis of what works and what doesn’t work in a Better Block, we’ll often ask “Would it work in a mall?”. Specifically, taking the example of a half-wall street, we could ask the question, “Would a mall with a hallway that one side is empty and the other side is full work well?”. It might work partially, but it wouldn’t be nearly as successful as both parts together. Also, looking at several of the new mixed-use developments occurring where the retail on the bottom floor is homogenized and all of the store fronts have little detail and appear to be one similar store front after another, would that same aesthetic be appealing in a mall? This is often what shopping strips employ, and those with the least detail and differentiation between facades lack character and are often described as feeling artificial.

An example of a “failing” mixed use project. Would creating a wall of identical store fronts on one side and empty space on the other work in a mall? If not, then why would it be expected to work on the street?
Mall food court. Seating and tables act as shared space for multiple food vendors.

When developing plazas or similar commons, we look at areas like food courts for examples. In a mall, these areas are open spaces edged with food retailers that all manage the public space. To be successful, we’ll look at bringing in tables, chairs, then lining the edges of the square with multiple food options (where it be food trucks, trailers, or tents). An area we often have to mitigate with vendors is the fear of losing business due to perceived conflicts of competition. What is important is for those vendors to note that what makes a district feel complete is having multiple options that create a dense feeling of mixes that all engage the space and bring as much foot traffic to the “commons” as possible. The series of options that are presented create spaces that people want to gather around and the “rising tide raises all ships” phenomenon can be seen.

"Food Truck Fridays" at RDV Sportsplex
Multipe food trucks at “Food Truck Fridays” in RDV Sportsplex (photo from

If using the mall reference as an example, imagine a large food court with one food vendor. It might receive all of the foot traffic, but it will also make the space feel isolated and empty.

Realizing the complex symbiosis of the businesses with the public space is important to making a place feel vibrant and inviting. Although many suburban malls are in decline, the principles behind their walkability, mix of retail and food, public space engaging with private space, and facade detail can all be referenced in Better Blocks. Understanding the clustering of storefronts and noting how even small gaps can dramatically reduce the success for the relationship businesses have to the street is crucial and can make or break projects.