Earlier in the year, Team Better Block of Dallas, Texas was brought to Australia by a collaborative of the National Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, New South Wales Departments of Planning and Infrastructure, and the city of Greater Geelong to create a series of workshops that provided springboards for communities to develop their own Better Block projects. Cities around the world have begun recognizing the break down that’s occurred in the traditional public outreach process and are looking for innovative solutions to bridge the gap between a shared communities vision and the need to see measured improvements on the ground. By June, communities in the cities of Geelong and Coburg were ready to unveil their first efforts. Each project focused on different neighborhood issues, but both highlighted the need to focus on re-building social capital in order to encourage revitalization.
Geelong Better Block
The first project took place on a once vibrant commercial laneway in the city of Geelong. Businesses in the area were struggling due to reduced pedestrian traffic, while residents began advocating for stronger bicycle connections throughout the city. The Better Block tied both of these initiatives together, and pinpointed the need to create a greater sense of place which would create more invitations for people to linger.
The project coordinator, Suzette Jackson, worked with city officials to communicate to businesses and organizations within the area to activate a two block stretch. Groups built street furniture, created alfresco seating for cafes, installed veggie boxes, highlighted local food sources, hung art on building facades, and offered bicycle repairs for cyclists.
Through this effort, city staff was able to recognize hurdles to development which are now being identified for change. Also, a pop-up business which was highlighted during the project is set to open up a permanent space in one of the vacant storefronts. We expect to see even more on the ground activation in the coming months due to the success of the Better Block.
Coburg Better Block
The Coburg Better Block project took a different approach from the traditional commercial corridor revitalization efforts typically seen, and spotlighted ways to improve a residential street. Neighbors within a block noted the lack of landscaping in their area and set out to temporarily install street trees to not only help beautify the roadway, but also provide greater shade, and calm traffic. Melbourne Water also worked with residents to install a functioning rain garden and educated other homeowners within the area on how they could also take part.
Beyond the landscaping and environmental initiatives promoted by the project coordinators showing how the street could be improved, one of the strongest outcomes of the Better Block was something noted in all projects that have occurred around the world: a greater sense of community. Neighbors who had not talked for years were now bringing wine to each other, and talking about ways to continue building upon the success of the project.
We’ve found that time and again, re-stitching the social ties inside of a community are the first steps for truly creating an improved physical environment. In fact, great form and function on a block are natural byproducts of a strongly connected neighborhood. Often times, city leaders talk about problems with cities that can simply be overcome if more money were available. The reality is that bringing the people together that already have an ownership stake on the ground and removing the obstacles that prevent them from creating great places is the major step needed to providing a pathway to real, vibrant, and permanent change. Engaging a commercial or residential neighborhood in rapid public and private space improvements that allow for a manifestation of a shared public vision, like the Better Block, begins that process and not only creates a better sense of place, but the kind of neighborhood everyone wants to be apart of.