Category: Better Block Projects

More Lessons Learned from Better Block Projects

After rolling out an impressive series of 4 projects in 4 weeks time, the Better Block founder’s were able to add to their past list of “Lessons Learned” to inspire and help others looking at pulling together a project. Here are their most recent notes:
1) All Better Blocks should focus on four elements: an Edge, a sidewalk, a street, and a lab space.
 - The edge should have small retail, a minimum of 5 shops that line two sides of a street to show how these edges engage each other.
 - The shops should have a morning beverage option (coffee, etc), a restaurant, a locally made products shop (Etsy), a flower shop (to maintain street landscaping), and the Better Block Lab space. optional: bike shop, music store, book shop, kids space. This creates enough diversification of use to allow the area to sustain activity over a full day.
2) Ideally, there should be two vacant spaces in buildings, but must have at least one vacancy that acts as the Better Block lab and build space. This is where the volunteer groups can meet, complete construction, and store materials.
3) Create a concept plan for your block that notes all of the improvements you’d like to accomplish. Develop workshops to help construct the concepts, but don’t create more than 2 per day if building. The Better Block team leads should focus on construction work. If changing a street with straw wattles, plants, crosswalks, et cetera, create a street-build class that begins 2 hours before the event. Be sure to have all materials assembled and ready to install prior to workshop. If working in the heat, provide shade!
4) The basic tools required for all projects: 4 automatic screwdrivers (1 with drill bit), extra batteries, 2 circular saws, 3 hammers, 1 crow bar, and as many pallets as you can acquire.
5) Focus on parkletts at a bare minimum. Line two sides of the street with these if possible. Also, include shade. They give the semblance of a front porch, which acts as a social gathering space, and street activator.
6) If project is at night, pull an alcohol permit. Build a beer garden when possible with solid edge. String lights at a minimum. This creates the small social gathering space that can be the center of gravity for the project.
7) Combine rented scaffolding and used billboard vinyl to create a new street edge. Install small pop-up retail in these spaces.
8) The Better Block project should be thought of as a “Hardware Project”. The “Software Project” is the programming of the space itself. Partner with an outdoor market, or work with an event manager onsite to coordinate vendors, communication, and marketing of programming and activities. Taking on both pieces can stretch resources if volunteer turnout is light.
9) Look at shopping malls as an analogy for creating a smartly scaled street…small retail spaces at 18′ or less with strong edge detail, two-sided, common space (food court) which is shared and activated by food court, single elevation.
10) Focus on scale! Work to create a 1:1 ratio on sidewalk to road space.
11) Both edges must feel safe.
12) It must be comfortable for people to linger…If it’s hot,  incorporate shade. If it’s cold, incorporate heaters/blankets.

Oct. 17 and 18 : Better Block in South Bend, Indiana

This Better block will take place in South Bend’s west side, probably at Camden and Libery streets, but the location is not certain yet.

La Casa de Amistad, which mission is to empower the Latino/Hispanic Community by providing educational, cultural and advocacy services, and the Latin American Chamber of Commerce are helping to coordinate the event, which will feature retail, dining, entertainment, cultural and artistic activities for local residents and the wider community.

Sam Centellas, executive director of la Casa de Amistad, says: “A lot of time has been spent catering to the big developers and trying to attract big businesses to the area, and we forgot all that our small businesses can and already do to grow our city. For me, this is about creating a better environment for our families, and more importantly, for our children.”

Juan Hernandez Jr., president of the Latin American Chamber says: “”The most comments received from the residents near the Western Avenue corridor is that traffic needs to slow down, sidewalks are too narrow and need widening, and street lighting needs to be improved.”

South Bend city leaders have started working on identifying possible corridor improvements that can happen in the weeks, months and years ahead at Western Avenue and Lincoln Way West to improve the quality of life for those who live and work there.

Local organizers of the effort, which also has proven successful in communities across the country, are working on obtaining grants and fundraising to make the October event possible. But Centellas says it’s not a big-dollar event. Rather, it’s designed to show what can be done on a budget to demonstrate that growth and change can be easy.

Source article by Heidi Prescott for South Bend Tribune:

Better Block in Lafayette, Louisiana, on July 19th

Better Block Cameron, set for July 19, will bring Cameron Street down to two lanes between Poydras and Martha streets, with the third lane set aside for foot and bike traffic in a one-day demonstration project.

The block is just east of the so-called Four Corners intersection of University Avenue and Cameron Street, once a center of commercial and cultural activity.

Rachel DeCuir, who is among a contingent of residents working to revitalize the Cameron Street corridor in that area. “One of the major goals of Better Block … is to show them what we envision Cameron Street could look like,” she said.

This Better Block will focus attention on the local neighborhood economy and the need for a more suitable road for pedestrians and bicycles. Existing businesses and pop-up shops will offer food, crafts and other wares.

Three neighborhood organizations are involved in the planning: the Bridge Neighborhood Association, Townfolk and LaPlace Coterie.

For information on the July 19 event, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., including how to participate, email

Source article by Richard Burgess for the Advocate:

Denton Better Block – Vacant Grocery Store Converted into Main Street

Better Block Denton from MindToMindCreations on Vimeo.

The first Better Block project in Denton, Texas wrapped up last weekend and introduced several ideas to revitalize a vacant property including development of human-scaled spaces, enhanced pedestrian infrastructure, local business incubation, and public space amenities.

Human Scale

Better Block community walk to discuss converting a vacant grocery store to a neighborhood destination
Better Block community walk to discuss converting a vacant grocery store to a neighborhood destination. Photo from

One of the challenges facing cities around the country are an abundance of large scale buildings with over-built car-centric infrastructure that makes redevelopment cost prohibitive and limits re-use to a handful of businesses due to scale. The Denton Better Block sought to demonstrate how you could convert a large, vacant grocery store into a classic Main Street. Where one large business existed previously, the goal for this project was to change the building to allow for multiple small local businesses, and to use the space from the over-scaled parking lot to create a 25  foot wide pedestrian street with a second edge lined with parklets which would create the semblance of a new edge of buildings.

Other elements discussed were related to making the place a neighborhood destination that made it comfortable for residents to linger outdoors and bring their families. The Better Block designed a concept that would bring shade structures and water features onto the new street that would help cool the area. Finally, the effort needed to link the existing neighborhood, which was situated across a large road, and help create accommodations and invitations for people to walk and bicycle.


Building the Better Block


Work began quickly after the initial community walk through of the space and teams assembled to tackle individual elements of the project. Working with local materials and identifying organizations and resources in the area that could assist, groups set out to build 5 major components: Temporary facades for small business store fronts, a series of shaded parklets that food trucks could line up beside to offer an outdoor cafe seating experience, a hay bale “splash pool” that children could cool off in, a large round water fountain automated by an arduino device, a pallet stage, and pallet furniture.

Pop-up store fronts, parklets with shade structures, hay bale splash pool for kids, public seating,  and an arduino automated water fountain all developed by the Denton Better Block team.
Pop-up store fronts, parklets with shade structures, hay bale splash pool for kids, public seating, and an arduino automated water fountain all developed by the Denton Better Block team.
Pallet furniture
Pallet furniture built by the community

By the end of the afternoon, merchants had sold out of goods, children splashed in the hay bale pool, and locals walked and ate under shade awnings sometimes lingering for hours in the space. The concept of reducing the scale of the area and highlighting how spaces under 200 feet could be redeveloped into permanent, locally-focused destinations was proven. For more on the project and the day itself, check out the Denton Chronicle story here.

Thanks to everyone who helped with the Better Block Denton. It was definitely a team effort–Team Better Block–Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard, Zac Lytle; Green Leaf Environmental Planning Vicki Oppenheim and Kati Trice of the Denton Community Market. Thank you to the Denton Community Market vendors for moving their businesses to the site. We appreciate the vendor efforts in being flexible for locating to a new space. We wanted to also thank Katharine Wilcox of Painted Flower Farm for plants, Meadors Nursery for plants, Oak Street Draft House for some plants, Shirlene Sitton with the City of Denton, Devin Taylor, Amber Briggle of Denton Splash Park, Jeff Amano for his graphics, Lauren Barker of Keep Denton Beautiful, Julie Buchanan, Amanda Davenport, Alan Cudd, Camille Green, Ashley Bender, Harrison Wicks, Glen Farris Squibb, Larry Beck, Heather Gregory of SCRAP Denton, Glen Haas, Michael Leza,, City of Denton Planning Department, and the many other diligent volunteers (a very long list), neighborhood groups, the Pallet Furniture Team, the Splash Park Team, the Pop-Up Facade Team, the Stage Team, and helpers. Thank you to the City Council as well for its support. Thank you to La Azteca Meat Market for letting us hold the event on their property!


The People’s Plaza in Oak Cliff


This weekend, we held the 4th anniversary of the original Better Block on the site of the first ever project. One of the major issues we’ve faced since that original effort was that funds were directed by the city to convert an unnecessary and dangerous strip of roadway to a quality public plaza. $600,000 were set aside to the street, but local property owners who originally were on board with the effort, decided later that it wouldn’t be sustainable, and that the space should fall into private hands. For our birthday event, we wanted to show how a plaza would actually work in the area and outlined the needs and hurdles that would be required to understand and negotiate in order to have a great plaza like we’ve seen in places around the world. So here’s the quick list:

8 Elements for creating great public plazas

- Affordable food businesses facing plaza, and something for each major meal time of the day. For Texas, think breakfast tacos in the morning, sandwiches for lunch, and pizza by the slice for dinner. Nothing too fancy, but accessible and easy to grab and go.

- Tables and chairs

- Shade providing landscaping, and specifically, tall trees that can create a canopy feel that shed their leaves in the winter so sunlight comes through

- Edges that define the space with easy access for pedestrians and strong connections from the nearby neighborhoods

- Free amenities, whether it be a dog park, table games, bocce ball, or a stage for local musicians.

- Alcohol fixes most broken space. If you allow beer in your public space, you’ve just upped the usage and success rate by 100%.

- Lighting, and elements that make the area feel safe.

- Regular programmed activities. Let the surrounding merchants or community organizations schedule markets, art shows, concerts, plays, or anything that celebrates the neighborhood’s assets.


If any of these elements are skimped on, then expect low usage, and potential failure for the space. Now let’s address the potential problems:


-Sustainability – Who’s going to take care of all of the tables and chairs, trash, et cetera? Simple, the small businesses facing the plaza. If you are not able to help setup, clean up, and maintain, then you are no longer allowed to be a business in the area. As simple as that.

- Keeping programming happening – This is something that should be developed alongside the rollout of the public space. Develop a “Friends of” organization that can sit under an existing communities foundation, and have its sole purpose be to manage, administer, and improve the activities and amenities in the public space. Allow the merchants and property owners the first seats since they stand the most to gain from the enhanced space.

- Parking – Keep the space small, focus on locals, and recognize that the higher quality the public space, the further out people will be willing to park (read: Klyde Warren Park). We all have to recognize and be okay with the fact that it’s hard to find parking in great places, no matter where you are in the world.




The Fragile Block: How to Kill a Good Thing

Warren Buffet has some great insight regarding the natural progression of good ideas that he refers to as “the Three I’s,” which I feel applies directly to the classic gentrification curve. Here it is from the Harvard Business Review:

First come the innovators, who see opportunities that others don’t. Then come the imitators, who copy what the innovators have done. And then come the idiots, whose avarice undoes the very innovations they are trying to use to get rich.

So if we look at gentrification as a process where on one end of the spectrum you have high segregation by low economics (poverty) and race (specifically minority) and the other end of the spectrum also being segregation but by high economics (wealth) and race (specifically majority, read: “wealthy white”), the middle ground becomes an area where we find greater integration both economically and racially, but tends to be a fragile space in time to maintain due to a tendency of what Buffet calls “idiots” to over-capitalize on what is working, without realizing the balance of identity, economics, and integration is what makes the place sustainable (for jobs, affordability, improved health, character, et cetera). I’m also a partner at a small restaurant in our neighborhood, and our group gets asked on a weekly basis to take our concept and bring it to another city in hopes that the same energy can be rubber stamped elsewhere. While the idea of “cashing in” might seem appealing, what makes our place truly special is the local ownership and the connection with the people and identity of the neighborhood. As opposed to simply using the traditional developer backed economic gardening ideas, economic harvesting within existing neighborhoods is a much more powerful and lasting solution to help make a place vibrant and sustainable. Find the locals on the ground that always dreamed of owning their own businesses and partner them with others who can help them achieve their dreams. It’s harder work, but the results are much more powerful and honest.  I’m sure this process has been talked about at length by others, but we find this regularly when discussing revitalization of areas that suffer from mass disinvestment.

In our community, we have a small block of historic, walkable buildings filled with  30+ local businesses called the Bishop Arts District that have an interesting mix of quality and services (from $1.5o tacos to a 5 star restaurant) that exist at a very small moment in time. Fortunately, this area has a handful of property owners who understand the value of maintaining a places legacy, and that this fragile balance is important. These businesses provide affordable options for locals, generate much needed economics that bring a regional draw, offer jobs, promote an identity, but is also dangerously close to being damaged by its own success. For example, once investors from outside of the area see that they can quickly create a bar that’s going to generate a healthy profit, they will rapidly jump in to build on the area’s increased economics. Others will see and do the same and potentially over-saturate the neighborhood with something it doesn’t want and can’t control.  My business partner says “it’s like eating ice cream all the time”. It sounds like fun, but the reality is it’s extremely unhealthy and hard to control.

So should we stop creating these great places for communities that provide jobs, promote identity, lowers crime, and improve an area’s health? Absolutely not, but what we face is a supply and demand issue. Since most cities, like ours, have so few of these places (less than 1% of Dallas is made up of places with well connected, walkable neighborhood destinations), but the desire is so high to have them, they quickly can become overrun by excessive capital. The answer to the problem is for us to try and replicate the form and function of these small places and  have them throughout the city because everyone deserves great places to live and walk in their neighborhoods, regardless of race or economics. A large city should be made up of one hundred Better Blocks that are all well connected (pedestrian, bike, car, and public transit), but have small spaces that locals can create their own dream business which helps support the community. In fact, our “Think Small” mantra is key because an individual who has a dream of opening something like a bakery, has to have a small but affordable space to work from. And placing several of these small spaces together creates power in numbers that allows these small business to leverage their combined resources for marketing and placemaking. Once the scale of the building becomes too large, the local business person cannot afford the rent or overhead, which leaves a series of chains who will fill the void, but with empty calories that contribute little to the character and cohesiveness of the neighborhood. Obviously, more car-centric cities face an issue of low density (higher density is needed to maintain strong walkable commercial blocks), so this problem has to be addressed in the same way that we have to address changing the auto-dominated landscape…incrementally. The gut reaction to seeing a great place like the Bishop Arts District is to say, “It needs more parking!”…the reality is that this would make the place less walkable (the reason you love it in the first place), because historic structures surrounding the area would need to be leveled to accommodate cars which would ultimately hurt the area. So what’s the solution?

Incrementally reduce parking at a rate that is almost imperceptible per year (they reduce parking by 3% in Copenhagen), while incrementally increasing the density (use the same 3%). How do you handle the latter? Simple, return to the way we did it during our “streetcar suburb” period in the 1920′s. In our part of Dallas (Oak Cliff), homes were regularly outfitted with “granny flats” in the back, and we had a healthy mix of duplexes, triplexes, and quads sprinkled around single family homes. Sadly, we’ve outlawed many of these places, due to unfounded fears. Fortunately, with the advent of applications like AirBnB, several enterprising locals have figured out that they can generate a small revenue for themselves (which helps keep them in their homes…especially in case hard times hit…read: job loss), provides more eyes on the street (heightening safety), and greater economics (tourists spend money locally).

In the end, it’s a very fragile system, but as long as we understand the process that tends to take over, we’ll have a much better chance of mitigating the downside to helping revitalize a community.

Sydney’s First Better Block Community Meeting

Check out this great video produced by Elin Bandmann. Phil Stubbs, co-ordinator of Sydney’s first Better Block, met with Andrew Howard and Jason Roberts of Team Better Block on recent Better Block tours of Australia and has begun organizing his community to begin their own project. For more progress, be sure to check out their facebook page.

Welcome to Clovelly Road Better Block (our first community meeting) from Clovelly Road on Vimeo.

Norfolk’s Second Better Block set for November 8 and 9

Photo by Rebecca Disbrow

Team Better Block identified three site last year in Norfolk, VA that were ripe for Better Block. Norfolk’s first project was a great success and acted as a training session for other neighborhoods on how to use Better Block to advance revitalization. Inspired business owners and community members in the Park Place neighborhood took it upon themselves to set a date and make it happen for their emerging area. The Better Block will take place on the historic W. 35th Street and Newport on November 8th and 9th.

Team Better Block’s role is to provide consultation on best practices and give planning tools to the large group of volunteers that will take on this project. Andrew Howard began the first step of the Better Block process by leading a community walk through the block to identify opportunities and constraints. Community leaders and business owners told stories of how the block has evolved over the recent years. And young folks discovered new ways for the old buildings to be reused.



One of the first observations, was that the street has had great investment in streetscaping, but still has high vehicle speeds, many large trucks and is difficult to cross when walking or biking.


The group agreed that the Better Block should test ways to reduce vehicle speeds and increase safety for people walking and biking, while maintaining access to vehicles at all times. Try the new web tool to create your own cross section for the better block and add it to the comments section of this post.

Streetmix rendering
Streetmix cross section rendering of 35th Street

TheatreThe group identified a high vacancy rate in the small commercial buildings and minimal street life around the ones that are there. The newly formed Park Place Business Association is focused on changing the perception of the area and believes it starts with Better Block.

The community began to ask during the walk, “What invitations can we create to the block for bicyclists?”, “How can we make the block feel accommodating to 8 and 80 year olds?”, and “How can we make this place a neighborhood destination?”, ideas begin forming which will be tested and measured during the Better Block project.

Team Better Block is in a support role on this project and is much more focused on documenting and measuring the success of the project. Part of their services are being funded by a grant from the Hampton Roads National Association of Realtors with this partnership they will be creating an open-source metrics gathering platform to help neighborhoods identify what is holding the area back from investment and set goals that can incrementally be accomplished during and after the Better Block effort. Such as, before the Better Block zero cafe seats, during 100 seats and now three months after 25 seats. We call the part digital part community interaction platform SANDBOX and Norfolk will be the first community in the country to try it. Think of it like a dashboard to the health and vitality of your neighborhood. 

If you live in or near the area of the project and would like to volunteer, please contact Park Place Business Association President Vernon Fareed Also, for updates about the project, check out the group’s facebook page here.


Marfa Better Block


The town of Marfa, Texas will be holding its first Better Block project on September 21st. Information has just been posted on the Design Marfa website here. Sign up today to volunteer and help bring more life to one of their small commercial strips.