Building a Better Community: The Better Block Project

A community group transforms a rundown city block into a vibrant spot for walking, biking, dining and shopping.

Better Block Oak Cliff bike lane

The Better Block team painted a colorful bike lane to keep cars at bay.

Photo Elliott Muñoz

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On an inner-city block where boarded-up buildings once lined the street and cars barreled through at breakneck speeds, a group of neighbors and activists decided to take back the street. 

It happened in the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff and was led by Jason Roberts, a 36-year-old information-technology consultant and cyclist who dreamed of a walkable, bikeable community where business would flourish and outdoor spaces would encourage meaningful interactions. So he made it a reality—for a weekend.

Roberts and his crew took matters into their own hands, painting crosswalks and murals. They extended narrow sidewalks using more than 40 potted 15-foot oak saplings borrowed from a landscaping company and set up outdoor seating where cars normally parked. They transformed a dangerous shared turning lane into a landscaped median with rows of potted shrubs, and installed bike racks.

They called it Better Block.

“I felt we should just roll up our sleeves and start fixing our blocks one at a time instead of waiting for some broad, comprehensive citywide initiative,” Roberts says. “The community often gets angry with the city. They don’t realize that we are the city, and when we collectively organize—even if there are just 20 of us—we can actually move an initiative forward.”

And move it they did. The project went beyond typical beautification efforts to reveal the area’s untapped economic potential. In the block’s vacant storefronts, the Better Block team installed temporary “pop-up” businesses and art galleries. They persuaded property owners to grant them access by pitching the idea as free real estate marketing, and they convinced community members who fantasized about owning a business to give it a try.

More than 3,000 people turned out for the event on September 11 and 12, 2010. Shortly afterward, making good on the group’s promise of real-estate marketing, one of the vacant spaces was leased. “The long-lasting effects and the success of it have really surprised all of us,” Roberts says. And achieving success didn’t require millions of dollars, consultants and years of planning. Roberts’ hope is that, as area businesses continue to come back to life, the city will implement permanent change such as expanding sidewalks and adding bike lanes.

Similar citizen-led improvements have popped up throughout Texas. They’ve spread to Memphis, Tennessee; Mount Rainier, Maryland; and all the way to Oyster Bay, New York, where pop star Billy Joel, inspired by YouTube videos of the Oak Cliff event, underwrote a Better Block project for his hometown.

Hoping to inspire more initiatives, Roberts has created a blog, betterblock.org, to provide news, information and a guide to help other cities develop their own Better Block projects. He writes, “In the end, it’s all about the people and giving families—young and old—a safe, comfortable and dignified area to live in. When we build for cars only, we make things fast, unsafe and less humane.”

Plan of Action  

What makes the Better Block movement so appealing is that anyone can do it—including you. If you want to help your community develop its own Better Block project, use these tips taken from betterblock.org

■ Identify a block of buildings that has a good pedestrian form but lacks community engagement and amenities.

■ Assemble a team of community members.Consider latching Better Block to an existing event, such as an art crawl or street fair.

■ Work with area property owners to allow access to vacant spaces for a weekend.

■ Install temporary businesses to show the potential for what could be. Possible ideas include a café with outdoor seating or an interactive kids’ art studio.

■ Invite musicians to perform, or use a guitar amplifier to pump out tracks from an iPod.

■ People want a reason to hang out. Provide seating and ways to interact such as maps, chessboards and food.

■ Promote throughout the neighborhood, city and more. Send flyers to local schools. 

■ Invite your mayor and city council members. Track sales to show the increase in area business, and spotlight how traffic slows but still flows easily.

■ Consider latching Better Block to an existing event, such as an art crawl, bike parade or street fair.

■ Add aesthetic touches such as greenery and lighting.

■ Paint your own bike lane.

■ You’ll probably need a permit to close a portion of the street. For the Better Block team’s first event, they asked to allow one lane of vehicle traffic: that way, residents and city officials could see that a “complete street” allowing all modes of transit (driving, biking and walking) is a viable solution.

■ Invite your mayor, city council members and other municipal staff. Track sales to show the increase in area business (the potential for increased tax revenue is a city’s largest motivator for change), and spotlight how traffic slows but people still travel through the area easily.