Better Block Brunswick – A Case Study From Down Under

Guest post by William Coogan

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The Better Block movement has gained traction in Australia, and Better Block Brunswick is an engaging case study. Following a visit by Jason Roberts to Melbourne in 2013, communities and planners began to see the potential of the approach, and at least three Better Blocks sprung up.

ASP 185Better Block Brunswick is interesting as the approach was initiated by the Local Government – Moreland City Council – as a vehicle to explore the potential of a key street. Wilson Avenue is a short street which connects a railway station to a busy high street, Sydney Road, Brunswick. Starting small, with a Park(ing) Day, the process moved from a one day “Better Block” to a 56-day “Better Block Pop Up Park” within the space of six months. This approach helped to build momentum and genuine community buy-in, even though it was driven by a Council “Place Manager”. A bewildering myriad of activities and local partners were actively invited to contribute to “make their place”. Activities included street painting, food trucks, bollywood dancing, reggae discos, climbing walls, tai-chi, drumming workshops, live music and community protest marches.

ASP 132The aim of this process was clear at the outset – transform an unloved and poorly used street into a thriving public space that people love to visit. The challenges were significant – secure political and financial support for a permanent public space where there was once a road for vehicles. The approach used could be described as community strengthening plus design.  Benefits of the approach were clear from the formal public process to close the road which was held directly after the “Pop Up Park” – 356 persons made submissions and 94% advocated to close the road and establish a permanent public space as a result of “Better Block Brunswick”. The challenge now is to close the road and build a permanent space, whilst retaining the buzz, energy and buy-in of the Better Block Brunswick program.

More info at http://www.moreland.vic.gov.au/building-and-planning/strategic-projects-moreland/wilson-avenue-brunswick.html

Portland Builds A Better Block In Old Town/Chinatown This Weekend

Photo from Better Block PDX Facebook page
Photo source: Better Block PDX Facebook page

Boris Kaganovich, along with his team of Better Block PDX volunteers, have been busy for the past month organizing their largest Better Block project to date, the Old Town/Chinatown Revitalization. Known as “the bad part of town,” the group hopes that the addition of sidewalk cafe seating, protected bike lanes and a pedestrian plaza will help change that perception, even if only for the weekend.

After plenty of meetings with neighborhood groups and City departments, the team was eager to get the project started. Luckily, the City was on their side; “At every meeting we went to, we heard not a single “No” to our project and only constructive criticism of how to make it better and tweak things a bit,” said Boris in an email to the Better Block team.

A concept plan was created with the help of the Fat Pencil design team and Nick Falbo of Alta Planning, a bike lane designer. After that, the team was ready to go.

The project is a big one with an immediate deadline — the group gave themselves a month to create four blocks worth of materials, including 150 planter boxes to carve out the protected bike lane and pedestrian plaza. Boris said he and his team purchased all of the Kreg 1″ screws in Portland and cleaned out two Home Depot’s worth of astroturf for the project.

With so many materials, the group still kept the project budget around $8,000, which they  covered with the help of sponsors who stepped up to support the project. Now that they have all the tools and props from this project, said Boris, future projects will be cheaper. They also had a large amount of volunteers step up to the plate, starting with three at the very beginning of the project and ending with more than 30. Volunteers worked every evening in the weeks leading up to the project to complete the planters in time for the demonstration this weekend.

This project, along with Better Block PDX’s other two projects (a parking space plaza during Parking Day and a temporary plaza in a former turning lane), embodies the Better Block model of giving yourself a deadline, assembling a community team, working on a budget, increasing the perception of safety and encouraging bicycle and pedestrian activity. Though it takes time and dedication, Portland is another example that quickly improving your neighborhood is a very reachable goal.

The Old Town/Chinatown Better Block takes place along 3rd Avenue in Portland today through Sunday. Make sure to stop by if you’re in the area!

Better Block Inspiration: Jaime Lerner

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.

Transform use

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.

Minneapolis Better Block Transforms a Corner with a Parklet

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On September 20th, Sam Newberg, along with some neighbors and local businesses, transformed a corner in Minneapolis into a vibrant community gathering space using only a few roll of sod, a bench, some trees, a bike rack, and a shelf filled with books and board games.

According to Newberg’s post on his blog, Joe Urban, the difference to the street was immediate, with kids naturally gathering under the shade, morning coffee-drinkers sitting on the curb with friends, and families settling on the grass (a former parking space) with board games.

The team purposely chose the location because of its proximity to two popular businesses, Angry Catfish and A Baker’s Wife, allowing the energy from the businesses to animate the public space, and vice versa.

Newberg also noted a drastic reduction in speed from the passing traffic, as drivers would slow down to check out the parklet or hear the live music. Simply having more activity on the street made it a safer, more pleasant place for locals to gather.

To see more pictures and read the whole story, check out Newberg’s post here.

Better Block South Bend Seeks to Change Local Perspective of Western Avenue

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According to a recent feature on WSBT 22, The South Bend Better Block organizers have been busy gathering support for their upcoming project along Western Ave. on Oct. 17th and 18th ever since Andrew Howard led a catalyzing community workshop there in June. Their project, sponsored by the National Association of Realtors®, has a trifold goal of encouraging long-term investment, supporting small local businesses and creating awareness for the Western Ave. corridor.

While many vacant storefronts and empty lots line the stretch between Liberty and Camden streets, there are a handful of successful businesses that the event will spotlight and use as event anchors. The community says those businesses offer a glimpse at what Western Ave. could look like in the future, hoping to spark not only interest from investors, but from other small business owners as well.

The organizers are also hoping to incentivize people to explore a new area and support some new businesses. “They don’t tend to go outside of their comfort zone and so we want to get people to go out of their comfort zone and try a new neighborhood. Try a new diner. Try a new place to eat. See what exciting things there are really happening right here in South Bend,” said organizer Sam Centellas.

Better Block South Bend will feature live music, art galleries and good food. For more information, check out their website and Facebook page. 

Source article by Patrick Roth of WSBT 22: South Bend Better Block program rallies support for west side corridor 

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: http://www.southbendtribune.com/news/business/bringing-new-life-to-south-bend-s-west-side/article_e3cb368e-13dd-11e4-87d8-0017a43b2370.html

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 info@ascowc.com.


Source article by Richard Burgess for the Advocate:  http://theadvocate.com/home/9670119-125/cameron-street-to-be-transformed

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 wedentondoit.com

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.

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Building the Better Block

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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, Denton.Radio.com, 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!