5.2 Better Block: Norfolk, VA
Community engagement through rapid placemaking
• Temporary urban interventions can help a community envision permanent changes in
• City officials can use temporary zoning and transportation “grace periods,” allowing placemakers to break regulations to explore permanent regulatory changes
• Communities build powerful connections around the shared experience of “making” a vision for the future together
• Process and community engagement can be as important or more important than the
“product” of a built-out place
In April 2013, the City of Norfolk hosted the Dallas-based consultants Team Better Block to organize a “rapid placemaking” event on Granby Street in the city’s proposed downtown Arts District, the first of four planned projects in the city. The efforts use temporary collaborative placemaking to coalesce the community and change citizens’ and City officials’ sense of “what’s possible.” During the weekend-long event, residents created temporary spaces, piloted small businesses, and forged important connections. The weekend also led to the City’s adoption of permanent zoning changes.
Though the full long-term impact of the Better Block events remains to be seen, they have precipitated a sense of excitement, engagement, and energy among residents, business owners, and City leaders to revitalize Norfolk.
Better Block was founded out of what co-founder Jason Roberts calls “rendering fatigue,” where community enthusiasm wanes during a long planning process. Roberts says, “We [founded] Better Block as a 30 day vision, not a five year vision.” Roberts, who founded
the social-enterprise consulting firm Team Better Block along with Andrew Howard, believes that good placemaking aims to create “a highly connected community or tribe.” His firm engages communities by planning and orchestrating weekend-long local events to temporarily improve the physical and economic environment on a specific city block. The
team has led twelve efforts around the U.S., beginning with one in the founders’ hometown of Dallas. Roberts and Howard’s work purposely flouts existing zoning and land use regulations that they feel are counter to good placemaking, such as restrictions on commercial activity.
Their built projects often include a posted list of city regulations that have been broken. Of the legal transgressions, Roberts says, “what’s the worst that could happen? A newspaper writes a story: ‘Guy goes to jail for trying to bring coffee shop to neighborhood’—that would make a great newspaper story!” Team Better Block focuses on smaller cities that aren’t typically thought of as hotspots for tactical urbanism or progressive planning policy—and that’s the point. Like many such cities, Norfolk shows the scars of chronic underinvestment, uburbanization that has drawn population (and tax bases) from the core, and outdated zoning codes and regulations which even City officials acknowledge hinder creative development.
The Team does not offer solutions or “expert” suggestions; they try to help the community generate ideas about how to build on their city’s assets to improve public space. They only work where some social capital already exists; of the four Norfolk streets targeted for Better Block interventions, all are historic commercial “main streets” in good locations but suffering economically. The process begins with a preliminary site walk with community members— the second project walk, in August, drew about 50 people—followed by a series
of community meetings with the City and a self-selecting core group leading up to the implementation event.
The April Better Block event focused on transforming downtown’s Granby Street into the commercial spine of a new Arts District. The weekend of implementation drew over one hundred and thirty participants, including, according to the Better Block blog, “Moms, artists, DIYers, architects, cycle advocates and Norfolkians from all walks of life [who]
joined together to create three pop-up shops, a Dutch bicycle intersection, a giant public plaza, 80 feet of parklets and countless amazing pieces of art.”A low budget for interventions is a hallmark of Better Block projects, and according to its founders, one of its major strengths. Tools, materials and street furniture are borrowed, donated, or improvised.
“Borrowing,” Roberts asserts, “builds ownership and trust within the community.” In-kind donations in the form of art, landscaping, and construction materials are solicited from residents, local businesses and organizations. (What little actual funding is required,
including fees for the consultants, usually comes from a mix of sources, though in Norfolk the effort was largely City-funded.) Roberts also believes in the strong power of connection created when people work together physically—Better Block efforts encourage community members to physically make things and place them in their shared environment.
The Better Block model also tests small businesses on a temporary basis—in Norfolk, these pop up businesses ranged from a cupcake baker to a barber shop. This strategy gives would-be entrepreneurs a low-commitment way to test business models while providing the greater community with a vision of what the block would be like with commercial activity.
After the conclusion of the weekend, Team Better Block provides the client with a report including metrics and an implementation guide for moving forward.
Following the Granby Street event, resistance to land use and zoning changes subsided and the City Council unanimously approved additional uses that would encourage a viable Arts
District, including art studios, breweries, flea markets, farmers markets, used merchandise stores, and commercial recreation centers. Frank Duke, Norfolk City Planner, says of the effort, “The first Better Block awakened the City officials and previously hesitant neighborhoods on the market potential for an Arts District in this downtown area.” Within several weeks food trucks were authorized and design consultants working with the City developed a streetscape plan and began feasibility studies to examine narrowing some driving lanes to provide more on-street parking and wider sidewalks. The event also resulted in a $1.1 million sale of a long-listed building in the district as well as the opening of several new businesses that had been piloted during the event.
On the softer side, lasting friendships and open lines of communication were forged. Six months after the event, small business owners marveled at the changes in the area, such as seeing a runner jogging alone on the street past dark, which as one merchant stated, “you never wouldhave seen” several months ago.
To read the full white paper visit: http://dusp.mit.edu/cdd/project/placemaking