We often say that Better Blocks are like speed dating for communities. They are quick projects that help identify and organize leaders in neighborhoods. For neighborhoods that are going through change, with long-time residents and newer transplants, these can be helpful exercises. Such was the case in the Belmont neighborhood of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Situated east of Uptown between the thriving neighborhoods of Noda and Plaza Midwood, Belmont is a historic African American mill village. Belmont’s proximity to Uptown, Plaza Midwood, and Noda and its relative affordability have attracted many new residents to the neighborhood, primarily young families. As a result, Belmont has two distinct voices, each with its own vision for the development of the community; the original residents and the newly transplanted.
The Belmont Community Association received a neighborhood matching grant from the City of Charlotte to host a Better Block to address some of the issues in the neighborhood. The site that was chosen was the intersection of Belmont Avenue and Harrill Street. The intersection consists of three commercial corner store buildings that are currently vacant. The Better Block project worked to highlight the potential for those spaces.
After surveying the community, we found that there were a few recurring themes. Many of the respondents asked for a community mural, a grocery store with fresh food, and a community space. Using the survey results, we created a list of interventions to meet these requests.
Based on the desire for a community space, we worked with volunteers to create an outdoor living room in the parking lot of an old car garage. One of the Block Captains found astroturf, which was used as a ground cover, the community spent a morning building Wikiblock furniture, we hung string lights, and local vendors created a pop-up coffee shop and beer stand. We wanted to create something unique for Belmont, and designed a special rocking chair. We also partnered with 8Lincoln30, a local design and production shop, to design a chandelier, representative of the Queen City.
Many residents of Belmont talked about the neighborhood being a food desert, lacking in options for higher-quality, fresh, unprocessed food, especially produce. To address this issue, we partnered with Freshlist to create a grocery store in front of one of the vacant buildings, with the display shelves and fruit stands being filled with produce from local farms.
We also worked to improve the intersection and buildings. With volunteers, we built an awning and hung vinyl window coverings on the buildings to freshen up the facades. The community also painted creative crosswalks, bike sharrows, and installed a Wikiblock bus stop. The crosswalks had a much higher visibility for cars, making crossing the street safer and slowing down traffic.
The space was programmed throughout the weekend to help activate the intersection and highlight local businesses and performers. There were dance and yoga classes, bike rides and workshops, and a local jazz duo performing jazz and swing standards.
One of the most popular elements was axe throwing put on by the local company Lumberjaxe. Belmont residents of all ages and demographics were able to come together, throw axes, and form stronger bonds with their neighbors.
Throughout the Better Block workshops and event, we collected data on how the space was being used. We asked local residents to fill out a 12-quality criteria survey to rate their thoughts on the space. The survey asks for a 0-1 ranking on the impression of the space based on 12 characteristics. One of the most drastic changes from before and after the Better Block was the sit and stay criteria. This category rates how comfortable the space is to sit and the reasons for you to stay and spend time. Before any of the interventions were installed, residents rated the space a 0.5. However, during the Better Block, this measurement increased to 1. This proved that the living room seating and the programming were successful in creating a community space where residents can come and enjoy everything their neighborhood has to offer.
We also partnered with MIT and Gehl Institute to use their Bench Mark benches and sandwich board to collect data. The benches are equipped with a sensor that can track when someone is sitting on the bench, for how long, and where they are being moved within the space. This technology can help determine how the space is being used and can inform the design for any permanent changes that may be made. The Bench Mark program also created a sandwich board that used a GoPro camera as a pedestrian counter to track activity in the area. At this point, the data is still being analyzed but we are excited to see the results on how the benches were used during the Better Block.
While the data speaks volumes, we believe that a project is not successful unless a community feels it was a win. So we asked Karen Sullivan, one of our Block Captains and a long-time property owner in Belmont, to give her thoughts. “Better Block was most successful in giving the Belmont community a voice and a vision for influencing change,” she said. “It was a way for long-time residents and newcomers to come together around a project and build trust. Long-time residents often feel that they are losing their neighborhood as they see change. Better Block was a way to build something together, with everyone able to make a difference.”