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.

| May/June 2011

  • The Better Block team painted a colorful bike lane to keep cars at bay.
    Photo Elliott Muñoz
  • The Oak Cliff Better Block event drew more than 3,000 people.
    Photo Elliott Muñoz
  • Safer streets brought out bicycles—and bubbles.
    Photo Elliott Muñoz
  • Better Block organizer Jason Roberts takes matters into his own hands.
    Photo By Andrea Roberts
  • The team brought in landscaping to provide shade and transform a dangerous shared turning lane into a landscaped median.
    Photo Elliott Muñoz

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.

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