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: http://www.whydontyoutrythis.com/2013/07/take-two-normal-people-add-money-to-just-one-of-them-and-watch-what-happens-next.html

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


Team Better Block Intern Needed

Team Better Block has an immediate need for two design oriented interns who can work in a fast paced office environment that serves clients around the globe.

Learning Opportunities:

Hyper Local Social Media
City Planning and Design
Public Space Design
Create Press Packets
Innovative Public Outreach
Complex Project Management
Creating Proposals
Creating Reports
Answering Request from Media,
Magazines and Research Outlets
Travel to project location in US


CS6 Photoshop
Working knowledge of HTML and CSS
Great approach to designing print and web concepts
Video and photography a plus
Flexibility to travel on weekends is a plus

Please send resume and examples of past work to info@teambetterblock.com.

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.

Building a Permanent Better Block


One of the major issues we’re faced with across the United States is zoning and ordinance laws that prevent the type of smart, dense development that was once created around the world before the advent of large “master development” centric planning (ie. 1 owner, 1 massive block). So the question is, how do we rapidly create places again, built by communities, for communities, using limited funds?  Our early goals with Better Block projects were to retrofit, educate and illustrate examples of great places that were prioritized for people (versus cars) and to show how those blocks create greater economics, vibrancy, improved health, and provide a neighborhood destination. Now that we’ve seen enough examples around the world that prove this works, the next step is to build them from the ground up.

For this example, let’s look at a classic “High Street” in London, which is similar to classic US Main Streets and begin breaking down the form:

HighStreetAnatomyFirst of all, notice that this block is only 220′…we have enough gaps in our “suburban” style development to wedge these type of structures throughout our cities. Also, notice that on this span, instead of being owned by one “master developer” there are 12 separate buildings, owned and constructed by 12 separate entities. The buildings themselves are simple 3 story structures with two floors of either office or live spaces on top, and small retail on bottom.

That small retail is of a size that is affordable to a local business owner, and since it’s clustered with multiple businesses around it, it creates an economy of scale along with a mix of retail that makes the place desirable for people to shop, linger, and return. The spaces are only 17′ wide and 28′ in depth…small and affordable enough for the local baker or deli to setup (promoting unique local business), and too small for international conglomerate chains to even bother with (which can destroy unique character in a place and make it less desirable in the long run).

sidewalksizeAlso, notice that the pedestrian space is equal or greater than the space set aside for cars. This is an important reality when making places that people like to visit, and enjoy. If you prioritize cars over people, the place will not be nearly as vibrant or desirable. You want to create as much parity as possible here.



Both sides of the street have 20′ sidewalks, with a 20′ street for cars. It’s necessary to keep cars in the mix, but don’t prioritize them…doing so, or attempting to make places that have greater space for cars changes the equation of desirability enough to make these landscapes inhospitable.

Now notice where we’ve created similar forms (buildings, sidewalks, and streets) in Dallas:



The West Village is often highlighted as an exciting and vibrant destination for Dallas, and the parts of the block that work best, have the highest priority for pedestrians over cars. Notice just one block over where the equation is dramatically shifted for cars:



Sterile, cold, and uninviting. You can’t have places that are great for cars and great for people. It doesn’t work. We’ve all learned by now that it’s hard to find parking in the truly great places that we love around the world, and traffic flow for cars is typically horrible. That’s a reality that we need to look at for creating places that have lasting vibrancy, promote local businesses, and allow for greater local ownership.


The above block required one master developer to create. Compare that to the High Street picture at the beginning of the post. Why did we move away from small individual owners clustering buildings, to giant single owner/developer instead? Far fewer people are invited in the mix to create this, in fact, outside-the-region funds must be injected which ultimately is anti-local banks, local business, et cetera. We’re building our infrastructure in such a way that only a handful of players are able to take part, which is why communities are so reliant on big box development over local.

Notice that other places that we love around Dallas, like the Bishop Arts District, have a similar form where cars and people have closer parity. More dramatically, you can see the change on one block of Greenville Avenue. The streetview picture still shows the old form where sidewalks are small, and cars are given much greater priority:


And the re-tooled block with wider sidewalks, pedestrian amenities, and greater parity for cars and people:


One of the key insights from Councilwoman Angela Hunt was to simply focus on fixing one block only. This is exactly what we’ve learned from our work. Master planning large corridors is a great exercise, but far too reliant on massive funds and conglomerations of hundreds of property owners and area stakeholders to become a reality. What we do know is that many of the great places in our city, and even around the world, are often only a block in size (Bishop Arts), but they have a giant ripple effect on economics for an area, perception of safety, health, and other factors.


Now looking at the Camden High Street picture again, notice that these places don’t have to be large. One building is only 17 feet wide, 28 feet deep, and 35 feet tall. And if you could gather 12 separate entities to build one each, you could create a viable place with people living in the area, businesses operating, and a vibrant destination. At 220 feet per block, this is attainable, but we have to find ways to create these places with property owners willing to divide their land in a way that promotes this smart density. Also we need financing mechanisms through local banks that understand and support this type of development. Very few have taken on the challenge, but these developments should not be out of our reach.

Lastly, these small live/work blocks which are similar to the streetcar stops that existed throughout the city years ago and nestled comfortably into single family home neighborhoods, are proven models even to this day. Unfortunately, we now require single owners to do the heavy lifting of gathering capital, massive construction contracts, and more to make the same thing today. Our work now should be focused on breaking down the elements that make this “tiny clustered building” type of development more accessible and viable for communities around the country.




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

Can Retirement Plans Help Shape New Blocks?

Skinny Buildings

An issue we’re beginning to delve into with the Better Block is how can we begin creating places that support and incubate small local businesses, while increasing density so that a large enough population can help keep these places afloat, all while promoting a greater sense of place.

When you look at the above picture of a row of skinny buildings, you might not realize that much of what is shown that we built regularly in the past, is now illegal. One of the major initiatives of the Better Block project is to expose the policies and rules that restrict this type of development and to begin a plan to revise these in order to allow more optimal land use patterns that generate greater economics, and help provide a stronger revenue source for its surrounding infrastructure.

Multiple skinny buildings which were constructed by multiple individuals as opposed to the now typical “Master Developer” process

Two major hurdles we face are that block development of this type is now largely placed in the domain of single “master developers” who create large buildings that will fill the entire block. These developments are typically uniform, and reliant on massive outside capital investments to construct. Also, international fire codes restrict much of this development, preferring to create greater separation of the buildings which diminishes land use potential, increases construction price, and reduces walkability.

Thinner streets, which are more affordable to maintain and construct, alongside skinny buildings with high retail activation and affordable residential on top, creating a more sustainable and walkable neighborhood.

So how can we begin building anew in a form that we regularly created in the past? One area to look at is having large financial groups like pension funds diversify their investments and look at identifying multiple blocks in a community and constructing a single skinny building in these places. Also, work with existing businesses in community to change retirement plans from volatile market based investments, and look at investing in their own communities with additional skinny buildings. These investments, if done properly, could allow the same returns for employees, and also create a vested interest from the shareholders since the health of the buildings future is directly tied to the future retirement of the individual. Also, we’ve heard time and again that real estate is a good bet for long term investment strategies.

Residential tower development constructed with Firemen’s Pension fund. How many skinny buildings, sprinkled throughout neighborhoods could have been built for this same price?

We hope to look at more of these models in future Better Block initiatives and to even help craft our own retirement plan for future employees that does exactly this. Stay tuned!

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.

Our built environment should reflect our New Year’s Resolutions

Did you notice that people’s New Year’s Resolutions rarely say things like: Drive faster, Eat more fast food, Spend more time on Facebook? In fact, what we often resolve for ourselves is to take care of our personal well-being and what makes us feel whole: Create more (write, build, etc), Exercise more, Eat healthy, Spend more time with others, Spend more time doing what we truly love (reading, music, dancing, cooking, etc.), Live our values. If these things truly make us happy, why does our built environment often de-emphasize these things? Why is convenience and speed placed above quality and slowing down?

With our work, we’ve found that a healthy community naturally manifests itself onto the physical environment. But what we fail to often measure and support is how people really feel in a place. Architect, Christopher Alexander, notes that a healthy building, bench, or anything made in the past took into consideration not only “its capacity to support life, but went into considerable depth about the way people really feel: what they experience as human beings, what they experience spiritually, what is worthwhile for them, not in monetary terms (their salaries), but in felt, human terms involving creativity, fellowship, the experience of being of service to the world, and the experience of love and affection.”

He goes on to state that “The connection between human feeling and the wholeness of the world is profound. The presence of profound feeling in the hearts of human observers is the most sensitive, most reliable measuring stick.”

Spend one hour in the Bishop Arts District in Dallas (a small, walkable environment filled with local businesses, murals, and old buildings) and notice how many people take their wedding photos there, are holding hands, or simply sitting on a park bench. People feel better in these environments, yet we have so few of them.

This is why the process for change, and the act of working together as a community to re-shape the built environment from a fear-based, convenience (read: auto-centric) focused form, to one that embraces human life and the shared human experience is so powerful when encountered. Whether it be watching a boarded up, abandoned home find a new owner and slowly come back to life, or seeing Times Square convert from a cold and pedestrian hostile environment, to a place that people can meet, linger, and gather, this process of embracing life is moving for anyone witnessing the transformation. It charges something inside of us, and the moving of the needle from fear to love ultimately improves the greater social health of a community (something which we noted in past articles is just as important as diet and exercise for our well-being).

The problems we face now are not understanding what makes us truly happy, but overcoming the obstacles to change, which are largely based on fears and concerns over hurdles to convenience. With this in mind, let’s resolve to educate others on the need to create places that support and uphold life, and commit to action immediately!