Article on the history of the Better Block


San Antonio’s “Plaza de Armas” just released an article on the beginnings of the Better Block project:

 

When Andrew Howard and Jason Roberts organized their first Better Block event in the Oak Cliff community of Dallas, it was largely an act of civil disobedience.

“We broke as many laws as we could with it,” says Howard. “We were ready to go to jail.”

Their cause wasn’t especially sexy. They weren’t targeting war crimes or racial oppression or animal cruelty. They were dissidents designing streets.

It worked. The Better Block Project has since applied its guerrilla street planning process to four blocks in Dallas, and been invited into at least 20 other cities. Previously abandoned city blocks have been permanently transformed into vibrant activity centers. Following one event, they saw vacancy rates on the block go from 75 percent to 10 percent, and active strorefronts from 25 percent to 65 percent.

On March 4, San Antonio will host the first in a series of Better Block events, sponsored by the City’s Complete Streets program.

After 10 years of working on transportation planning, Howard had seen his fill of streets designed with no thought for the local community. With the Better Block project he flipped the entire logic of transportation planning on its head: Forget traffic analyses, funding, long-range planning. Take one block, redesign it for a day, with as little money as possible, and subvert regulations. Put local small businesses and artists in the empty storefronts, build temporary awnings, seating, and spray-paint bike lanes. Focus on cyclists and pedestrians, rather than motorists. Try to build a place rather than a passageway.

Howard and Roberts invited City Council members and city staff to that first Oak Cliff event, hoping to drive home the point that many of the laws regulating building design and sidewalk use make it harder build vibrant communities. In many places, regulations absurdly forbid awnings, sidewalk seating, food trucks, and other amenities that help create lively, walkable streets. By cheaply and temporarily installing these elements, Better Block events simply demonstrate their power, rather than spending months or years navigating regulatory frameworks. The officials took notice, and gradually laws started to change.

While urban design does matter, what the Better Block Project has shown more than anything is that regulation and design patterns are only part of the picture.

“At first we thought it was this static thing; just build it and it will be perfect. But it is the process that makes it work,” explains Howard. “Place is also an energy.”

The low budget and grassroots attitude proved to be the project’s most important assets. Since the Better Block team didn’t have funding, they had to borrow materials and equipment, recruit volunteers, and engage local businesses. This process builds on and strengthens natural social networks. The local community becomes invested in re-envisioning the built environment, and the psychology around the place itself shifts. “More money, more trouble,” Howard points out.

The first Better Block event in San Antonio will be held at the corner of Broadway and Jones, and coincides with the second Síclovía http://siclovia.org/ along Broadway. Unlike those early, unsanctioned events, in San Antonio the team is sponsored by the City. But local businesses, artists and community volunteers are still lending their resources to create pop-up cafes, galleries, music venues and gaming areas.

Major change is already under way along Broadway north of downtown, with form-based zoning in effect, a streetcar line approved, and millions of dollars of new development underway. What city planners need now is an inexpensive way to model the effects of potential design changes and to alter residents’ perception of this stretch of Broadway, which has been a dead zone for decades. Better Block is an ideal way to meet these two objectives.

The project has evolved from civil disobedience to an alternative to the traditional public meeting. The Jack Fingers of the world may show up, but it’s a lot harder for them to derail the conversation with their unbridled cynicism when the event is about physically building a great place, rather than “gathering input from the community.”

The process also creates an opportunity to observe people interacting with the space. The Better Block team can see the flow of pedestrians, the spots people like to sit, the popularity of different types of retail business. Like William Whyte’s http://www.pps.org/articles/wwhyte/ method of analyzing the use of public spaces with time-lapse video, the Better Block team can observe and learn about how people actually use the space before the city invests millions of dollars in redesigning it.

The block becomes a kind of playground for imagining the city we’d like to have. Or, as the Better Block tagline puts it, creating “a living charrette.” Any citizen interested in breathing life back into San Antonio’s downtown should lend a hand.

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