Category: Uncategorized

Baton Rouge Better Block being made permanent

We’ve talked often about how the Better Block process leads to more rapid infrastructure changes than traditional planning methods. Here is the latest example of a street in Baton Rouge, where residents and stakeholders demonstrated a Better Block, and within a year, permanent changes tested through the activity are now being moved into permanent development. Kudos to the Baton Rouge Better Block team for pulling this together!



Richmond Better Block kicking off at Church Hill North

CommunityWalk1Planning for Richmond, Virginia’s first Better Block has kicked off in the Church Hill North neighborhood beginning with a successful community walk that took place at the project site (25th Street and Venable Street) on March 11th. A group of nearly 100 residents, stakeholders, and activists showed up to begin laying out the groundwork for the effort.


While walking through the site, property owners who held vacant structures offered access to their buildings for use by pop-up shops during the project. A handful of great, historic structures (above) have the potential to be quickly converted to cafes, markets, or art galleries. If you’re interested in developing a shop for the project, be sure to fill out the following application form. The cut-off date for applications will be April 29th. A tour for pop-up shop participants will take place on April 15th at 6pm on the corner of 25th and Venable Street.


After the community walk, participants learned more about the history of the Better Block project as well as hearing examples from recent projects. The following schedule has been laid out for the complete project:

April 15: 6pm Corner of 25th & Venable – Tour of vacant properties with potential pop up shops
April 29: Application for pop up due
June 11 and 12: pre build workshop*
June 13 and 14: Better Block

For additional questions regarding the project, please contact Max Hepp-Buchanan, Director of Bike Walk RVA at

* the Pre-Build workshop will take place on site of the Better Block and allows a chance for participants to gather their materials, gain access to vacant properties, and help assemble things needed for the completed project. More details to come!

Better Block a Workaround for all Cities

“A workaround is a bypass of a recognized problem in a system. A workaround is typically a temporary fix that implies that a genuine solution to the problem is needed.”

Andres Duany has just launched a project with the Knight Foundation, which seeks to accelerate city revitalization by helping citizens and entrepreneurs work around cumbersome regulations. The first question today on a webinar between Andres and Carol Colleta VP of Knight foundation was how can we apply Lean Urbanism across a broad spectrum of US cities?

Better Block uses the special event permit process that is found in every city to demonstrate changes to the street, seed entrepreneurs, and test zoning codes. Here is an example from a recent project in Norfolk, VA were Team Better Block identified limitations in the zoning code and then empowered young entrepreneurs to test the market with new business ideas. Better Block documented what worked and then city staff created a workaround to the zoning code that made the temporary changes permanent:

Pop up Shop Alchamey NFK in Norfolk VA during Better Block April 2013
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Building was first an auto parts dealer, then a furniture store that was put out of business when the Ikea came on the bypass. Now what do you do with all this space?
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During Better Block the building was host to a Market, Maker Space, Coffee Shop, Beer Garden and Skate Park…where does that fit in the zoning code?
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The pop shop wanted to go permanent, but how do you make it legit? City staff found a workaround by calling it a beer serving flea market!

So we need both the agitators and the experts to work together to make our cities better. This process gets around the non-contributors, the people that say changes will not work, and gets to the folks that have ideas and the will to find a way to make it happen. Cities that get this will excel and attract the greatest talent to them.



Take Away a Zero, Now a Scientific Fact

“Do you want to change things quickly?”  he asks.  “Remove one zero from the budget.   Do you want to change things even more quickly?  Remove TWO ZERO’s from the budget.” Former Mayor of Curitiba Brazil Jamie Lerner

Over the past four years we have learned this lesson over and over. Our best Better blocks have always been in less affluent neighborhoods and our projects that have had the most resistance were in affluent ones.

Science now explains what we’ve been experiencing, but have been unable to quite understand: Why do some folks who have a lot more money than others seem to be less nice and more selfish to everyone around them? Read More:

So does this mean we all need to get poor? No, money is not the problem or the answer. The issue is with wealth we get comfortable, depend less on each other and feel entitled. Wealthy people that get this, like Jack White remain creative.

“All the money in the world kills creativity… do things to make it hard on yourself…set short deadlines to make things happen,” Jack White says.

Better Blocks’ remind us that together we can do things that money alone can’t. Borrowing, giving, receiving, building together and crowdfunding are essential to the human spirit. Lets put these practice back into the way we build cities


How many Permanent Better Blocks can fit in this closed grocery store?

As a follow-up to the Building a Permanent Better Block post, we now analyze a “suburban formed” grocery anchored commercial block (across the street from our office) in Dallas, Texas, only 4 miles from Downtown Dallas.


This was formerly a grocery store that recently closed leaving a large void in the area. Beside it is a strip of small chain businesses including a Little Caesar’s, O’Reilly’s Auto Parts Store, Bank of America branch office, Go Clips Salon, ACE Cash Express, and an Insurance office. All total, including the now vacant grocery store, 7 businesses. The lot itself, including parking lot is 120,000 square feet, half of which is parking (ie. unusable land that will generate no revenue, taking up potential product shelf space).


Now let’s look at the Camden High Street commercial and residential block example again from the past post. Taking less than one quarter of the same land area at 18,700 square feet, you see far more productive use of the land with residents, businesses, and vibrant street life:

And to break this down further, notice that we can comfortably fit 4 of these blocks into our semi-productive commercial block:


From 7 businesses to 96 in the same area. Also, 300+ people living in the same block. Far more productive, far more efficient for the utilities (that we all pay for) that run under the ground, and the potential for a lively, neighborhood destination. And if we can figure out the financing mechanism at a local scale, where each building (total of 96) is constructed by individuals as opposed to single master developers, then we’ve got a new model built on historic precedence, which spreads ownership to a broader group.

Next, we’ll break down the sheer metric tons of concrete poured surrounding the area for roadway and parking lots to show how this (comparatively) unproductive land use can’t generate enough tax revenue to even cover the maintenance costs of the road that fronts it, yet we still build it without questioning it’s long term viability.

Norfolk’s Second Better Block a Success!

Andrew Howard of Team Better Block leading Norfolk’s second Better Block project community walkthrough


Last year, we highlighted the outcomes of the first Better Block in Norfolk, Virginia (ie. rapid zoning changes, new business creation, and building sales) so to ring in the new year, the final report has just been released on the second Better Block which took place in November in the Park Place neighborhood.

Download (PDF, 7.75MB)

This project, a collaboration with the city of Norfolk, the National Association of REALTORS®, the Hampton Rhodes REALTORS® Association, and the Park Place Business Association, took two blocks of semi-vacant historic building stock with wide streets, and converted them into an active, and vibrant neighborhood destination complete with 19 new businesses, pedestrian calmed intersections, and re-claimed right-of-way for greater use by the neighborhood.

Norfolk Park Place Better Block build team


Prior to the effort, local merchants organized to help spearhead the Better Block project and create a unified vision for the area. Outreach occurred to locals interested in starting new businesses, and city staff was advised on the creation of outdoor cafe seating, pedestrian bulb-outs, and improved landscaping. Vacant spaces were cataloged, and baseline metrics were gathered to show existing vehicle counts and speeds, and pedestrian use. Code for America’s Streetmix tool was used to profile the existing streetscape:


All total the Better Block took place over two days, totaling 10 hours of business operation. Within that time, with $13,000+ in revenue generated. Also, after the project ended, one of the local businesses incubated through the project is now setting up permanent shop on 35th Street.

Re-lighting of the historic Newport marquis, which had been off for 37 years.
Re-lighting of the historic Newport marquis, which had been off for 37 years.


One of multiple parklettes created during the Better Block
One of multiple parklettes created during the Better Block
Former vacant building converted to use with local business
Vacant lot converted to pocket park for residents with farmers market


local restaurant created in vacant business space
local restaurant created in vacant business space
Mid-block crosswalk installed at Better Block
Mid-block crosswalk installed at Better Block

Subsidizing Sprawl

In cities across the nation, we’re currently faced with a heated debate on growth and the need for improved infrastructure to facilitate “future development”. Arguments on promoting regionalism vs. localism are a mainstay and bonds are passed to widen streets in communities to mitigate traffic flow with the hope of speculative tax revenue to one day pay for the long term costs of roads. I was struck by a recent mantra by groups opposed to making existing infrastructure more productive, dismissing urbanism and multi-modal transit options as a novelty or worse, a UN conspiracy labeled “Agenda 21″. One critic argued, “Just Fix the Streets” without understanding that there is no money available to do this…we’re still paying for roads we built 20 years ago that promised future development that never came. What really amazed me was the lack of understanding many voiced in favor of our modern car-centric, sprawling development…a network that was completely brought about by massive government intervention and subsidization. The free market would never have created something so wasteful and inefficient on its own. An example I gave recently was the following:

If you wanted to develop a small bakery in your neighborhood, you would not be able to due to zoning restrictions brought about by local government separating basic uses (homes here, business there). This is the first step in deconstructing pedestrian oriented environments. It’s no longer the industrial revolution, yet we still base much of our land use on the ideas of separating factories from homes.

Next, let’s say you finally discover a plot of land where you can build your own bakery. Before you even begin construction, the local government will require you to use at least 40% of your private land for free parking. No if’s, and’s, or but’s…you’ve just been told by the government what to do with your property and your valuable retail shelf space has been truncated with the slash of a pen. Now, let’s extrapolate this out to hundreds of other businesses who own private land and are forced to provide everyone free parking. At some point, the system has been sufficiently gamed to where it no longer makes sense to walk.

You just drive, my business will make sure you have a free parking spot.

Next, let’s say you want to save money by living above your business and operating on the ground floor. Again, this option has been regulated out of existence, further promoting auto-centric development because now you have to live in the residence zone, and work in the business zone.

So far, we’ve separated land uses by great distances, required private property owners to ensure their land was split in half for free parking, and cut off the potential for live/work environments. It’s fairly difficult to justify pedestrian-oriented development at this point. For what it’s worth, we’d been allowed to do all of these things for hundreds of years prior to government intervention and our communities did fine. In fact, many of the problems we face today are related to our need to try and manage the unsustainable nature of suburban sprawl. From the subprime mortgage crises to constant highway/tollroad development (which we can’t afford to maintain), we’re continually having to accommodate an unnatural development pattern.

Okay, we’re not done yet. Now that we’ve separated uses and incentivized cars over other modes of transit, your bakery is going to have a harder time competing because now the all-in-one store can do away with your business model. Since everyone is now driving, it’s inconvenient to hop from one store to the next…you might as well mix the bakery, with the farmers market, and the butcher, and the pharmacy. Voila, small business can barely compete while the multi-national box store can now offer loaves of bread for pennies and chalk it up as a loss leader. Hey, that’s the free market working…except, the market was completely dominated by government intervention throughout the chain and we’re not even close to being finished. Also, though we’re saving a dollar on bread, the social fabric of our community is beginning to erode because the Super Target doesn’t seem to want to pay for the local school’s baseball uniforms, but Joe’s Deli, which is no longer around, was always supporting the team. If you don’t believe that’s the case, you don’t own a small business. As a local restaurant owner, I can tell you firsthand that we’re asked for and give out donations to neighborhood fundraisers (PTA’s, girl/boy scouts, soccer teams, chess clubs, etc.) on a weekly basis. Head to any community silent auction and you’ll see nothing but local products being offered as prizes…Home Depot and Tom Thumb are surprisingly absent.

Notice, 2/3rd’s of this lot is for free parking.

Now let’s look at the land itself that we’re developing on today. A 250 foot block on a classic Main Street in any downtown would have contained ten commercial buildings built next to each other (saving on distances for utilities, and creating greater energy efficiency) with retail establishments on the first floor, service related businesses on the second floor, and space for business owners to live on third and fourth floors. Now, thanks to zoning and more, we can fit roughly 2 to 3 businesses on that same plot of land, and they’re separated by more free parking that isn’t really free. This is why your average suburban block will only contain a fast food chain, a gas station, and an auto parts store. Small businesses can be developed in shopping strips that are tied to large chain retailers, but once that chain decides to move on (from Wal-Mart to Super Wal-Mart), then your business will die a slow death as your customers move on to the next, larger strip two miles down the road. Oh, and the city is going to be on the hook to pay for the tear down of the old, now closed, big box store because no other shop can take residence in the space.

You wouldn’t be allowed to build this today if you wanted to.

We haven’t even begun to touch suburban housing. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was created which subsidized middle class families moves to the newly developed suburbs. The Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) mortgage loan program provided over eleven million low-cost mortgages after WWII. These mortgages, which typically cost less per month than paying rent, only insured homes of a typical type and size – generally new single-family suburban construction. Furthermore, a home insured by the FHA was required to be of a certain size and quality desired by those of above-average means, to guarantee quick resale of the home. FHA did not support renovations of already-existing homes, construction of row houses, mixed-use buildings, and other urban housing types. These policies led to deterioration of the urban housing stock and disinvestment in existing urban housing.

Alright, we still have the Federal Highway program and a host of other government interventions that sufficiently tore apart pedestrian oriented environments that existed naturally for hundreds of years in favor of heavily subsidized (from the oil pumped out of the ground to the GM badge on the grill) auto dependency. Sadly, it was only in your grandparents generation when you could have opened that bakery at the end of the block, lived on the top floor, while the community walked by and picked up a loaf of bread.

A counter to this unproductive land use development is the Better Block project, which looks at existing, non-performing land, and temporarily transforms places into desirable, active, neighborhood destinations that take into account an entire community regardless of age, or ethnicity, and creates as many invitations as possible for people to interact, play, work, and grow together. When these places are successful, they naturally produce greater economics, promote health, and allow for manageable sustained growth. The fundamentals for a good Better Block use what has known to work in great places for generations and applies those ideas rapidly.

The Year of Meeting our Heroes

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.

street mn

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.

Andrew Howard of Team Better Block radar guns West Commerce prior to the project installation.
Andrew Howard of Team Better Block radar guns West Commerce prior to the project installation.

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. 

Download (PDF, 592KB)

 Thank you to all the Better Block Champions out there! Your countless volunteer hours and work are paying off. See you in 2014!