Andrew Howard and I (Jason Roberts), never set out to start an international movement in urban planning when we began our first Better Block project in April of 2010. Our goal was simply to show our neighborhood in Dallas how we could create a place, together, that would be more vibrant, sustainable, life-affirming, and accommodating to all walks of life, young and old. The fact that the effort resonated with so many others around the world was something that has inspired us each and every day since.
From the outset, Andrew’s background in urban planning combined with my work in open sourced IT gave us an opportunity to take ideas we were both reading and learning about from great minds like William Whyte, Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, Jamie Lerner, Enrique and Gil Penalosa, and Christopher Alexander, and throw them into a blender to see if we could begin incrementally, with very little money (but a lot of hands) start making places that matter.
We’ve learned far more than we ever could have dreamed through this project, and the fact that we dedicated our efforts to making sure it was an open-sourced and accessible initiative has given us the opportunity to learn from each and every Better Block that gets put on the ground. One thing that we’ve found as a common thread for these projects is the raising of social capital that occurs in a community and the strong bonds that live on far beyond the timeframe of the installation itself. We’ve made dear friends around the world, worked in every imaginable environment, and had our share of successes and overcome enough obstacles to have a better understanding on what is needed to turn a place around. To begin, you have to engage a community and set it to action quickly. The planning process itself needs to take into account that a neighborhood is motivated and wants to begin seeing immediate incremental action on the ground that shows that a commitment to change is in motion.
This year, I had my own personal challenge of overcoming cancer which instilled a greater immediacy into our work. When I was at my worst, my community came together and helped hold me up. This would not have happened had we not worked to build stronger neighborhood ties through our projects, and showed us the need to make sure places around the world also began re-stitching themselves. So often, when looking at community health, people look at diet and exercise only. What has been shown through studies like the Roseto Effect are that social cohesion is a critical third element which must be added to the mix.
From Tehran, Iran to Melbourne, Australia, one of the most common statements made from participants and coordinators of Better Block projects has been, “We’re finally talking and meeting our neighbors and helping each other!” When we began our work, we felt that form was the main issue facing places, but we found that even areas that had the right ingredients in form didn’t always feel quite right. What was holding these places back was fear, and once we were able to highlight the need for blocks to embrace the people and the natural assets they posses, things began changing on their own. The Better Block creates a stage for a community to show off it’s hidden potential.
Some of the highlights for our work this past year have been getting the chance to step outside our bounds and work internationally. Specifically, getting to know and present with groups like Rebar in San Francisco, Raumlabor in Berlin, Transition Network in Totnes, and Gap Filler in New Zealand who are all actively working to improve the built environment and create stronger communities.
Also, being acknowledged by MIT, the Knight Foundation, and National Assoication of REALTORS (R) has allowed us to expand our network and look at creating better tools for evaluating and surveying neighborhoods to gather data on what is currently working and how to begin making incremental and rapid improvements. We were fortunate to have great clients that allowed us to stretch the bounds of city building in Norfolk, VA, Saint Paul, MN and Saskatoon Canada. Our continued partnership with Toole Design Group allows us access to cutting edge bicycle and pedestrian design opportunities.
Our goals for this next year are to begin working with cities to roll out these tools so that they can not only begin their own Better Block projects, but continue assessing and building upon their successes. As for Team Better Block, we look forward to working with Parsons Brinkerhoff in Somerville, MA, The Planning Center in Fresno, CA, Atlanta Regional Council and Richmond Virginia as we further institutionalize the Better Block approach into city building. We will also be traveling back to Germany, Denmark, Sweden and England to share what we have learned.
The Better Block itself is like a tree…you can plant it, but it requires watering and maintenance, especially early on, to mature and grow. We’ve found that creating that early vision, working together to build a better place, then adapting and incrementing continued change is vital for the first two years after a block has been addressed. It’s a fragile time, but it’s also an exciting opportunity for any community willing to take on the challenge.
Other plans for the new year are books on the history of the project, case studies from past projects, and more that we hope to announce soon. I will be on tour with the Lavin Agency speaking at various conferences and Andrew has launched a new workshop program that is teaching Better Block best practices.