On November 15th, the City of Fresno, California launched its first Better Block effort on East Ventura Avenue, spotlighting ways to make a more pedestrian friendly street. The project was part of the Revitalize Ventura / Kings Canyon effort, funded by an Environmental Justice grant from CalTrans. Team Better Block worked with the Fresno Council of Governments, Placeworks, and various community organizations to develop and implement a rapid community-built streetscape plan utilizing locally sourced materials. The temporary measures demonstrated how proposed street improvements will bring more vitality to the corridor.
Beginning in September, community groups gathered to walk portions of the blocks of Ventura Avenue to review ways to address issues with the street. Like many commercial corridors, Ventura Avenue is uninviting and generally unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. Ideas like creating more landscaping, improved crosswalks, and areas for outdoor cafe seating were all included in the initial planning process. In order to repair a portion of the street’s missing historic edge and create human scale, Team Better Block made plans to install a shipping container with vertical architectural elements. The temporary structure was designed to fill in the gaps in the urban form caused by excessive setbacks and parking requirements.
Working with teams of community volunteers, work was set out the day prior to the Better Block with construction of multiple parklets, pallet furniture, and crosswalks. On the morning of the event, landscape crews from Tree Fresno arrived and set out landscaping based on plans provided by Broussard Associates Landscape Architects. The landscaping created a canopy and soft edge that invited pedestrians to linger and enjoy the space.
Local school bands, mariachis, and a classic car show were programmed for the event to create additional opportunities for the community to re-take their block. By the project’s conclusion, hundreds of residents and stakeholders visited and lent support to the effort. Local news services including NPR and Telemundo covered the Better Block event.
As a result of the Better Block, Placeworks was able to collect valuable feedback from the community about the proposed changes to the Ventura Avenue. Although the changes, including curb bump-outs and landscaped improvements, had been discussed at community meetings, this was the first opportunity for area residents to see them in action. Placeworks can now take the community’s feedback from the event and parlay it into their plans for permanent changes in the corridor. The Fresno Better Block yet again demonstrated the power of temporary improvements to energize a community and fast track change.
Everyone wants out of Micheal Brown’s neighborhood (Canfield Green) according to several resident accounts.
Now Canfield Green’s residents find themselves trapped in the same kind of segregated, violent, deteriorating neighborhood they had hoped to leave behind.
That process took years, but since Brown’s death, the change at Canfield Green has been swift and ominous. “It’s a ghost town over here now,” said David Whitt, a 35-year-old married father of three who’s lived here for a year and a half. “Nobody wants to live like this.”
Place like Canfield Green were built to fail, using out dated urban design principals. Lets take a look at the Neighborhood of Michael Brown:
This is not a place anyone wants to live anymore. Went first constructed it was attractive, but as the newness wore off it aged poorly and the form did not support investment. Now lets look at a low income development in Baltimore and compare designs.
Where do people in Canfield Green shop and meet others?
Pretty lifeless? Let’s look at my neighborhood destination in Oak Cliff (Dallas, TX).
The issues in Ferguson are not limited to form, but how could we start to repair parts of cities that were never built to foster community and sustainable economy? The City of Saint Louis has completed four Better Blocks to date and there was even one in Ferguson in 2011. The role of temporary changes that can insight new perceptions about a place might play a role in Ferguson, but for now we pray for justice.
Albert Kahn was known as the architect of Detroit and built more than 400 buildings there. Some of these massive industrial buildings had no precedent in the World and subsequently no land use or building codes to govern their construction. In the words of Jana Cephas, Harvard Graduate School of Design Lecturer, “the Dearborn planning commission was silent on the regulation of these new building types.”
Free to use his own ingenuity and discretion, Kahn (and Henry Ford) crafted buildings to augment the assembly line, like the giant crane pictured below. The complex of buildings became an industrial trend setter for the 20th century and were emulated around the world. What if the City of Dearborn would have demanded that these buildings that housed the second industrial revolution had to conform to rules for the first revolution? I doubt a 19th century millworks building would have been able to produce enough military aircraft to win WWII!
Where are our places today to experiment with how the built form will prepare itself for the next revolution, the Human industrial revolution?
What we need is fewer rules and more discretion…. Too much of the time, the government tells people exactly what to do and exactly how to do it… rather than just describing its general goal and letting human beings use their own creativity and initiative to get there. The Future of Government, Cass R. Sunstein (2013)
The Better Block has been testing over a weekend how to adapt old buildings and spaces to the new sharing, innovative, human focused economy we are currently living in. We have done this as guides, gentle curators that express a goal to people and allow them to create without too many boundaries. The results of everyday people innovating in the city are fantastic!
20000 SqFT Building in Norfolk, VA that was once a car parts store and then a furniture store had gone vacant. With no dedicated parking or interested parties, what do you do with it?
Communities across the country are redefining how architecture, land use and building codes need to respond to the changing economy and people centered approach to building the city. What cities are listening and who will be the next trend setter? While Detroit is getting a lot of press for attracting young creatives because of relaxed code enforcement, what city is going to invite innovation?
Lean Urbanism with support from the Knight Foundation is going to test the idea of Pink Zones (think less Red Tape) in several cities across the US this next year. Already, places like Boston, MA are looking at Neighborhood Innovation Districts that are converting buildings designed for the old production economy into the new creative economy.
Opportunity exists in second, third and fourth tier cities to be innovators. The bureaucracy is smaller and the threshold for risk lower. Using the better block method to dissect codes, rapidly test business and development methods we will try out our own version of innovation districts in various small to medium sized cities in the mid west and east coast. We hope to release these groundbreaking projects in the coming weeks!
After successful Better Block projects on 35th Street and in the Arts District in Norfolk, Virginia, Norview Five Points community members and business owners are leading a third Better Block on the 6100 block of Sewell’s Point Road.
The event was catalyzed by organizer Austin Loney’s attempt to relocate their pawn shop business to a building on the street. They found that strict zoning laws regulated, and often prohibited, certain viable businesses from operating on the block.
Therefore, with funding from the Hampton Roads REALTORS © Association, the City and the community are coming together on November 14th and 15th to install pop-up businesses of local Norview entrepreneurs in the vacant storefronts and program the street with activities, outdoor cafe seating, landscaping, live music and food trucks. This, Loney says, will hopefully spur economic development and zoning changes to allow for new businesses to move to the block, reducing crime and making it a more inviting place to live, work and play.
The event will take place from 5 to 11 p.m. on Friday, November 14th, and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, the 15th.
On June 13th and 14th, Richmond, Virginia held its first Better Block project sponsored by Sportsbackers, Bon Secours, the National Association of Realtors, Capital One, and Davita. The block of 25th Street and Venable was temporarily transformed into a neighborhood destination, complete with pop-up businesses, a cycle-track, parklets, pallet benches, and plaza with the help of community volunteers and residents.
Capital One offered a series of Microgrants to local businesses who used those funds to install new windows, re-paint buildings, and build 15 picnic benches that were installed in a pop-up garden and cafe on the block. The Better Block project galvanized the community around the idea of making a better place immediately and helped communicate principals in walkability, livability, and placemaking in a hands-on approach that has moved the neighborhood beyond the traditional planning process and into implementation.
The video above and report below provides greater details about the project and we would like to thank all the volunteers and sponsors for making in this a great project!
The Better Block has been hard at work on our upcoming project in Fresno, California. In partnership with the Fresno Council of Governments, Placeworks, California Department of Transportation, Fresno Center For New Americans, Southeast Fresno Economic Development Association, Sigala, Inc., Centro La Familia, and Ventura Kings Canyon Merchants Association, we’re bringing the Better Block project to the 3600 block of Ventura Avenue as part of a larger effort to revitalize the corridor.
From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on November 15th, the street will be transformed with street landscaping, live music, mobile food vendors, outdoor seating, an outdoor market and classic car show.
As with all Better Block projects, the Fresno project aims to help area residents and business owners see the potential of the block by temporarily improving its infrastructure, adding programming, and making it a more lively, pedestrian-friendly environment. These temporary improvements will hopefully one day become permanent ones.
The Better Block team will be hosting workshops leading up to the event to build parklets, pallet furniture, and work to repair the street. If you’re in the Central Valley area and would like to participate, you can sign up for workshops here. We are also still accepting vendors to take part in our outdoor market. The sign up form is online here.
Better Block Fresno Schedule of Events:
Friday, November 14th
6 – 9 p.m. : Community Build Workshop onsite
Saturday, November 15th
8 – 10 a.m. : Community Build Workshops onsite
10 a.m. – 1 p.m. : Classic Car Show, Outdoor Market, Outdoor Dining
10 – 11:00 a.m. : Sunnyside High School Marching Band
11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. : Roosevelt High School Mariachi Band
Think about the disruptive innovations of the twentieth century like Henry Ford’s Model T or Steve Job’s Macintosh personal computer, which started at the bottom of the market and eventually displaced established competitors. Now think about all the vacant or underused space in your city. New approaches and technologies for using that space are increasing in popularity and could soon change the commercial real estate business as we know it.
This post will introduce emerging disruptive real estate innovations such as Better Block, which uses temporary community placemaking and pop-up shops to build momentum for new real estate markets, and Opportunity Space, which opens data about underused government property to developers. Real estate professionals who understand the appeal of these disruptive innovations will hopefully recognize that they provide the potential for the greatest expansion of the real estate practice in modern times by inviting more people into the symphony of building cities.
There are now hundreds of examples of disruptive innovations in real estate. Some are probably fads, but at the very least, these innovations recognize that people have gone from users of the city to active participants in it. There has been a fundamental shift in culture, and these ideas are here to stay. Like the recent transformation of print media, users are expecting a more social, interactive experience; comment sections, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts allow people to be active participants in news. The same transition is now happening in the city as Code for America, StreetBlogs and Tactical Urbanism are giving people the tools needed to directly influence the development of the city.
Even more interesting are the disruptions now occurring in the financing of real estate. Social network investment platform Fundrise contends that only 3% of the wealthiest Americans are considered “accredited investors” and are allowed to invest in real estate development. Their connecting of investors directly to individual properties online is disrupting the Security and Exchange Commission’s outdated rules and inviting more people into real estate.
Also, there is an increasing demand for more flexibility from commercial and office property owners. New companies like Storefront and Liquidspace are facilitating short-term leases for the ever-mobile retail and office markets; a space can be an art gallery one day, designer fashion boutique the next; a conference room one day, IT hackathon the next. Retail and office will likely never be dominated by a pop-up model, but innovation in real estate could create new profit models for underperforming spaces in new and existing buildings.
Disruptive ideas sneak up on you. At first they seem too small or unscalable to pose much competition. Why would big cab companies or mega hoteliers ever fear a smart phone app? Now, Uber and AirBnB transport and lodge more people than their competitors. Better Block and Opportunity Space methods may not erase current real estate practices, but the cultural shift they represent will disrupt the business sooner or later. Over the coming weeks BetterBlock.org will speak with experts in Real Estate and blog about how the change is manifesting, stay tuned!
As early as the 1970s, Brazilian politician and urban planner Jaime Lerner has emphasized the importance of mobility and sustainability within cities. With a focus on multi-modal transportation, reduced carbon emissions, and mixed-use spaces, Lerner has been a proponent of quick, affordable changes that can improve a city in less than three years. Like Better Block did in his wake, Lerner developed early on a series of guidelines to follow to stimulate economic development and encourage livable, accessible cities:
Make it cheaper
In his much-lauded TED talk, Lerner said, “Creativity starts when you cut a zero from your budget. If you cut two zeros, it’s much better.” Here at Better Block, we’re also big proponents of the “lighter, cheaper, faster” school of thought. Expensive, unwieldy projects take decades to plan, and are likely to become forgotten or ignored as the plans are passed through generations.
For example, his Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system revolutionized public transportation in Brazil, and cost a fraction of the amount of a light rail or trolley system. BRT simply took the idea of subway transit and combined it with a bus system, making buses more efficient and convenient to use, and encouraging multi-modal transport in the heart of his city, Curitiba. The buses run every minute, have their own lanes, never competing with vehicular or subway traffic, and mimic the loading and unloading of subway cars. Today, BRT systems have been implemented in 83 cities worldwide.
Do it quickly
When projects can be done for less money, they’re more likely to be done more quickly. Lerner also recognized that planning and hypothesizing cannot overpower the end goal of a more sustainable, lively city. When you start, he says, you can’t be insistent on having all the answers. Just do it, collaborate with the right people, and they will let you know if you’re on the right track. He calls his quick, inexpensive method “urban acupuncture.”
The Better Block team has its own way of getting things done quickly: blackmailing ourselves. When you blackmail yourself, you create pressure on yourself to make something happen by a certain deadline. To do this, make posters, a website, or a Facebook page to promote your event, even if it’s not fully planned. Tell your friends that it’s happening, and contact people in your network with whom you want to collaborate. That way, you know you need to make it happen by the date on the posters, and, in all likelihood, it will.
Lerner noticed a perennial problem in large cities: most people work in the city, but live outside of it. This wasteful structure increases carbon emissions from its heavy dependence on cars, and makes the implementation of public transportation systems impractical, decreasing mobility within the city. Instead, he said, successful, sustainable cities are those where you can work, live and find leisure all in the same place.
To do this, spaces within cities need to be flexible and multipurpose. “You can’t have empty places for 18 hours a day,” Lerner says; sections of the city can play different roles at different hours. For example, a quarry can double as a public park, or a business district can become an outdoor marketplace on the weekends. This variety of use encourages people to live where they work, and work where they live, thereby saving energy, time and the environment.
Better Block implements this multi-use model into all of its events and demonstrations, encouraging organizers to program the street, have activities for all ages, and give attendees a reason to be there all day: a coffee shop for the morning hours, a sandwich place and independent shops for midday, alcohol and live music for the evenings, and outdoor gathering spaces throughout the day to create a perception of safety and a place for neighbors to exchange ideas. If the City and the community see the value in the Better Block project, the block can quickly become a place where people want to live, work and hang out, decreasing the likelihood of urban sprawl and its negative environmental impacts.
The most recent issue of the New York Times features the Better Block project in an article titled “How to Build a Better Neighborhood“.
Also, founders of the project kick off an Atlanta project on the site of Martin Luther King, jr.’s church alongside Mike Lydon (author of Tactical Urbanism) and more. Check back for more details soon.