Team Better Block one of 32 Knight Cities Challenge Grant Awardees


Team Better Block was awarded today a $155,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to pursue a project in Akron, Ohio. The funds will be used to convert excess housing stock in the city into boutique hostels and cultural hubs utilizing the Airbnb platform.


Through multiple visits and conversations with Akron city leaders and residents, we identified the need for increased hotel options near the downtown area. At the same time, the City of Akron, Ohio is faced with population declines, excessive housing stock, and a lowered tax base to maintain existing infrastructure. This problem, combined with the lack of hotels near the city’s core, the opportunity arose to temporarily repurpose existing housing stock as Airbnb hostels or hotels to demonstrate to the community how their homes can be activated and returned to economic viability. By focusing on the North Hill neighborhood, where a Better Block project is currently in development, the growing Bhutanese refugee community (representing 70% of new immigration to the area) will be engaged when developing the concept. This will give the demonstration space a cultural point of reference while providing a shared cultural amenity on the grounds for the neighborhood. The AirBnB concept will operate for 18 months, and provide a detailed prototype that residents can engage with and learn how to convert other homes in the area into shared economic resources.

The Knight Cities Challenge is an annual $5 million call for ideas focusing on one or all of these three key drivers of city success: attracting and retaining talented people, expanding economic opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement. They awarded the grant to Team Better Block for meeting these three criteria in an innovative way.

The Better Block team is celebrating the award with a party on March 31st from 5 to 9 p.m. at their new office location: 323 W Jefferson Blvd., #203, Dallas, TX 75208.


Case Study: Tampa’s First Better Block Project Reimagines District With Deep History

Guest post by Kevin Young and Kasi Martin

FranklinOn January 10th, 2015, the future of the North Franklin Street corridor was put into the hands of over 2,000 attendees, multiple media outlets, and city planners. Tampa’s first Better Block Project, on North Franklin Street, kicked off the Tampa Heights Civic Association’s efforts to revitalize one of Tampa’s most historic neighborhood corridors and bring principles of tactical urbanism to the city on a grand scale.

Recognizing a need

Franklin-montageDowntown Tampa is standing on the threshold of a major redevelopment boom. Forty acres of Tampa’s oldest suburb – Tampa Heights – are ripe for development. Bordering the northern edges of downtown, the neighborhood used to enjoy a bustling corridor on North Franklin Street. Long-forgotten, this corridor functioned as a neighborhood gathering place with restaurants, a theater, and public transportation. Now, it is home to vacant storefronts and abandoned lots. Recently a few trailblazing entrepreneurs have gravitated to the corridor, foreseeing Franklin as Tampa’s next beacon of urban development.

Seeing the potential for development, a Better Block Planning Committee formed. A Franklin-frontgroup of young professionals active in local policy came together with Tampa Heights residents and business owners in the summer of 2014 to present the Better Block project and host the city’s first visioning exercise. Through concept boards, planning exercises, and group discussion, the neighborhood expressed their long-term vision for North Franklin Street. It included:

  • Mixed-use development
  • Redevelopment with an emphasis on low-rise residential buildings
  • Pedestrian/bike friendly thoroughfare
  • Locally-owned restaurants and retail
  • Expansion of artistic and creative offerings (The Rialto Theater and Franklin St. Finest Woodworking have already set up shop)

Significant obstacles to this vision were also identified during the planning exercise:

  • Exclusion of the corridor from Community Redevelopment Area special funding districts and a general lack of city redevelopment attention.
  • The lack of a neighborhood identity (no district name)
  • Perceived safety issues associated with a large homeless population using North Franklin Street to travel to social service offerings in the neighborhood.
  • A lack of transportation planning including no bike lane, needs for traffic calming, lack of foot traffic, lack of bicycle racks, no bike share stations, and no streetcar stop.

A new neighborhood identity

Franklin-streetUnlike other bustling neighborhood corridors in Tampa, this area of North Franklin Street had lost its identity. Taking their cues from the street’s distinct, blonde brick buildings and utilizing the power of social media, the Planning Committee rebranded this corridor as Tampa’s Yellow Brick Row district. False store fronts were built to mimic the blonde brick architecture, reflecting the neighborhood’s desire to keep the development aesthetic uniform on the street. Yellow bricks were also painted in the street and on sidewalks to reflect this vision.

Hello…#YellowBrickRow, A bustling corridor unveiled

The planning group worked from the Better Block open source model, infusing it with distinctive local flair and ideas. The day-long event transformed five blocks of North Franklin Street into a prominent corridor of Tampa’s future.

Tampa’s offerings included:

  • Local Cuban art and food showcase inside an old dance club
  • Handmade building facades to mirror the unique yellow brick buildings on Franklin Street
  • A “Retail Row” featuring pop-ups from local jewelers, bakers and artisans
  • Handmade wayfinding signs
  • Local food truck park and outdoor cafe space
    Beer garden with up-and-coming brewery previews and local bands
  • Temporary bike station by Coast Bike Share
  • Metalwork sculptures from a local artist (one was permanently donated to the area)
  • Interactive parklets with gardens, games and rest areas
  • Interactive “Imagine____ on Franklin Street” chalkboard wall
  • Temporary transformed streets with painted crosswalks, parking and footsteps
  • Temporary greenspace
  • Artwork in street windows to reimagine vacant storefronts with tenant options
  • Franklin-boardFranklin-art








Another distinguishing element of Tampa’s Better Block was inclusiveness of the existing neighborhood and establishments. During the event, the homeless population mingled with 2,000 attendees, showing that the presence of social services in the neighborhood needn’t stall efforts to revitalize the corridor.

Better Block attendees were excited about the neighborhood, with many asking “What is next?” Business owners attended and told stories about their entrepreneurial efforts. Neighborhood residents strolling through said they were eager for a day when families could walk the sidewalks of North Franklin Street again. The most telling feedback came from an owner of Robertson’s Billiards, the oldest establishment on Franklin St. “I never thought it would take four generations to see my grandparents’ vision for this street come true.”

Follow #YellowBrickRow for continuing developments on Franklin St and the Tampa Heights neighborhood

Case Study: The Roxy Revival in East Nashville


The Roxy Theater in East Nashville had long been a neighborhood gathering place for first dates, family outings and classic films. It was the centerpiece of a vibrant commercial district that included everything a neighborhood needs within walking distance — a grocery store, barber shop, pharmacy, post office and clothing store.

But since the 1980’s, the block had fallen into disrepair due to irresponsible property owners, high crime, unemployment, and a decline in economic investment. Even in the midst of East Nashville’s resurgence in the early 2000’s, complete with hip eateries and trendy homes, the Roxy block remained blighted and neglected.

So, in June 2013, a group of concerned citizens led by Dane Forlines decided to do something about it. They noticed how loved the old Roxy Theater was, but also saw the lack of hope felt by the community in ever returning the old block to its former glory. Killing two birds with one stone, Dane took the principles of tactical urbanism to both re-engage the residents with their community and revitalize the block.

Dane and his group immediately kicked off a “Save the Roxy” campaign that regularly showed movies on the lawn of the old theater, installed public art on the block, and replicated the iconic Roxy marquee sign. “Save the Roxy” culminated at a “Roxy Revival Festival” that encompassed the whole block. Together with the community, Dane and his crew transformed the vacant street with pop-up artisan shops and restaurants, street trees, benches, lighting and landscaping, and the theater itself hosted live music acts and films throughout the day.

During the event, over a dozen inquiries were made about leasing the vacant spaces, and today six different spaces on the block have been remodeled and new businesses are opening.

Just like many Better Block projects, the “Save the Roxy” project showed East Nashville how civic engagement and a hands-on approach can revitalize a neighborhood overnight.

You can read the full case study here. 

David Sucher’s Three Rules For A Walkable Neighborhood

Nantucket, MA. Photo credit:
Nantucket, MA. Photo credit:

The Better Block ideals build upon tried-and-true principles that have been codified and outlined by urbanists in the past. One such source of inspiration is David Sucher, the author of City Comforts. In it, he explains the essential elements of walkable, livable cities in three simple rules:

1. Build to the sidewalk (i.e., property line).

2. Make the building front “permeable” (i.e., no blank walls).

3. Prohibit parking lots in front of the building.

Sucher emphasizes that, more than architecture, the success of a neighborhood lies in the orientation of its buildings. “The key decision in creating a walkable, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood, is the position of the building with respect to the sidewalk. This decision determines whether you have a city or a suburb,” he says.

Build to the sidewalk

Property lines should always abut the sidewalk, channeling pedestrians into one area to encourage neighborly proximity. As a sub-rule to this requirement, Sucher suggests that the entry level of a storefront should be as level as possible with the street, not only to abide by ADA laws, but to make it easy to see into and enter the building.

Make the building front permeable

“Life attracts life,” says Sucher. Therefore, pedestrians should be able to see and participate in the activities and amenities offered in their community; place windows and doors along the sidewalk instead of blank walls, don’t block parks with high walls, and ensure that the main entrance to a business is immediately off of the sidewalk. A sub-rule to this mandate is to prohibit anything that would block visibility from the street, such as mirrored glass or heavy blinds on storefront windows, which discourage pedestrian engagement with the businesses in their community.

Prohibit parking lots in front of the building

In true urban neighborhoods, there are no parking lots in front of the buildings; they are either below, above, behind, or beside it. Sucher doesn’t deny the necessity of parking lots in cities, but they should never be the focus. “Parking lots are crucial,” Sucher says, “But unless you are in high school, or are at a tailgate party before a football game, or at a classic car concours d’elegance, parking lots are not the place you want to hang around. It is ironic, of course: we invest such great money and emotion in our cars and yet we don’t want to hang around them in parking lots.” If buildings must be built to the sidewalk to encourage pedestrian life, there can’t be a parking lot separating the business from its patrons. “Save the front for people,” Sucher says.

The following GIF illustrates how something as simple as the placement of a parking can dictate whether an area is suburban or urban:



Though Sucher’s rules are simple, they are often ignored in today’s planning processes in favor of big box stores, tight budgets, or strict parking requirements. Better Block attempts to take neighbors negatively impacted by these malpractices and re-creating vibrant, walkable neighborhoods by bringing storefronts to the sidewalk, making them inviting to the pedestrian, and encouraging streets and neighborhoods that don’t ignore the importance of the car, but are primarily designed for people. Any planning department can follow the three rules as a basic pattern for creating a successful city. “After the three rules,” says Sucher, “everything else is epilogue.

You can read more about Sucher’s three rules in “City Comforts,” or his summary online here. 

Tampa’s First Better Block Hopes To Revitalize Underused Corridor


In its inaugural Better Block, The Tampa Heights Civic Association, Congress for New Urbanism, and Urban Charette are teaming up to bring a historic block on Franklin Street back into the city’s focus. The project will take place on Saturday, January 10th from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Franklin Street between 1-275 and Henderson Avenue.

“By bringing Better Block to Tampa Heights, we will simulate what a thriving and lively corridor would look like on Franklin Street,” said Brian Seel, president of the Tampa Height Civic Association Board. “The block is part of a Tampa neighborhood where we are starting to see urbanization. Our project builds on this momentum and gives the community a voice in the development of Franklin Street.”

Using Better Block’s principle of creating small-scale, short-term improvements to encourage lasting change and bringing the community together to build and improve their neighborhood, the group hopes to transform the block into Tampa’s “Yellow Brick Row.” The event will feature local vendors, retailers and residents hosting pop-up storefronts, local breweries will be offering beer samples, and the street will be reimagined with Cuban art and music, parklets, street art and entertainment for the one-day demonstration.

Earlier this year, Tampa Heights neighborhood members participated in a visioning exercise with the CNU, sharing their preferences and desires for the future of historic Franklin Street, and the Better Block is the group’s opportunity to see their ideas in action.  


Loeb Video Profile of Better Block Co-Founder, Andrew Howard

In 2014, Andrew Howard, Co-founder of the Better Block project, became a Loeb Fellow at Harvard. This opportunity has allowed him to study the projects that have developed around the world and led to real change on the ground and stronger ties between communities. Andrew originally came from the traditional urban planning world, but tired of its strict rules and lack of regard for on-the-ground realities that derail most planning initiatives. See more about Andrew and his path in the above video.

Better Blocking the Harvard School of Design



That’s me, Andrew Howard, co-founder of the Better Block with the 2015 class of Loeb Fellows at the Graduate School of Design. Now half way complete with the year long program, my thoughts have already changed about what can be done to make American Cities more liveable. When I first started the program, which brings planners, architects, landscape architects and all sorts of do gooders out of practice and into academia, I thought most of my days would be spent arguing with Harvard (STAR)architects about good building form.

rem-koolhaas-cctvThere have been some days that I wanted to run out of a class because the dialogue had turned to modern architecture as the standard design method for all buildings. I regress, what I have found is that architecture and architects are not the problem.

My first realization was that the problem with architecture and city building today is that we don’t have enough developers. The majority of new development in America is done by multinational conglomerates that build projects using a master developer approach. Meaning they get huge loans for hundreds of millions of dollars, receive public incentives of equal amount and build projects on a short time frame all at once. Which makes for a great ribbon cutting, but a lousy community. So architects are forced to come up with designs and programs for clients that are most of the time only focused on return on investment (ROI) and completion dates. See the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg below.








This instant gratification city planning and development is directly counter to the way we built some of the most beloved places in the world. Like the High Streets in London that have multiple owners, built over a number of years. The character and life that is found on these streets have yet to be duplicated in any master planned project I have seen.


There has been much debate and trials of changing zoning in American cities to try and require developers to build small, walkable places. New Urbanist plans, form based codes, performance based zoning and even no zoning have been touted as the way to rebuild our fragmented cities. Many have resulted in places that got the form correct, but something seems to be missing. I call it the  “Truman Show” effect. A little to plastic. Maybe perfection is boring!









The question I have now come to is not how to change architecture or zoning, but how to change who is building the city. For most Americans it is easier to invest in a company in a far away country or on the stock exchange than in the coffee shop across the street. In fact, the Security and Exchange Commission says that if you are not an accredited investors with a net worth of $1 million and income of at least $200,000 per year you can’t openly solicit for investment in Real Estate. So most of America is being built and is owned by less than 3% of it’s population. Increasingly the capital is also coming from outside the US.

A combination of changes to laws and practices are beginning to disrupt the status quo Real Estate practices in the US. First, the Wall Street Journal reports that equity crowdfunding holds the greatest potential for opening Real Estate investment up to everybody. The Federal Securities and Exchange Commission is yet to write the new rules, but when it does we could see the greatest transfer of wealth in America. People will be able to move their investment from low yield stocks and bonds into higher yield Real Estate investments, making the American Dream closer to reality for everyone. Political pressure from the US House and Senate on bureaucrats to write the rules is well overdue and is restricting the progress of the JOBS Act and the full recovery of the economy post Great Recession…not to mention local funding would be the catalyst for great small developments and a platform for community building.

Second, Lean Urbanism is tackling the red tape of local government building and zoning controls that have contributed to the extinction of the small developer. In most cities it is easier to build a 40,000 sqft Wal-Mart than a single story streetfront 5,000 sqft commercial space. We have basically built a set of rules that benefits corporate big box and big lot development over small. Lean urbanism is set to  dissect codes and bureaucratic process down to the bare bones to allow for innovation and small developers to take hold. Coined Pink Zones, think less red tape, these enterprise zones in cities will allow for small developers to seed themselves and grow.

Still the question arises, who will build the cities of the future? We can clear the financial hurdles, sweep away the zoning, but who is going to do it? On-line platforms that marry facebook with investing promise to match investors with developers, but that still requires small developers.

We know more people are becoming interested in the state of the city and are no longer satisfied with being users of place, they want to be owners and builders. To date we estimate over 5,000 people have undertaken the organizing of a Better Block and over 300,000 have attended a version of one. We have been successful in making city planning cool again! Better block is speed dating for future investors, developers and business proprietors to meet and test ideas out in real time.  From those projects people have gained the courage and first hand skills to start businesses, run for planning commission, show up to support a zoning changes and some really want to be developers.


Working with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Project for Lean Urbanism and the National Association of Realtors we will create a Developer in a Box set of tools for individuals and groups that are seeking to try their hand at development. Imagine if lessons learned could be passed down and if technology could fill the gap in small developers skill set. Apps for pro forma, ROI, maintenance, operations and taxes could be created to give a leg up to small timers.

This work will culminate in 2015, during my second semester at Harvard, when I will produce my findings in the Harvard Real Estate Journal, host a forum at Harvard with leading finance professionals and test our ideas in several cities across the US. The result will be a playbook for the next generation of city builders in the United States. A developer in a box platform that will radically change how cities are built one block at a time. Its going to be a great year!



Better Block Christmas Market



Join us on Dec. 20th for the Better Block Christmas Market! There will be hot beverages, unique gifts made by local artisans, live music, a holiday bike ride and plenty of Christmas cheer!

5 to 10pm

Lucky Dog Books – 633 W Davis Street, Dallas, TX 75208

Fresno Better Block a Success


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.

Ventura Ave before
Ventura Ave after 








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.