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How To: Build a Better Block

Unhappy with what's going on in your neighborhood? If you're like most people, you might attend a meeting at your local Chamber of Commerce or similar organization and may soon realize that the loudest voices at these meetings tend to have the fewest new ideas. That was the experience of Jason Roberts, an IT consultant and bike advocate living in the historic Oak Cliff Community in Dallas, Texas. But rather than join the chorus of complainers, he took action.

Working with a core team of about 10 people, Roberts co-founded Go Oak Cliff, a nonprofit news, advocacy, and quality of life organization focused on supporting and inspiring the local community. The group's projects involve everything from staging art exhibits to restoring an old local swimming hole that had been closed for over 40 years. Go Oak Cliff's most recent effort is The Better Block Project—which would make Jane Jacobs proud. It brought music, art, food, and street life to the neighborhood.

"We'd done PARK(ing) Day and this was a glorified version of that," says Roberts. "Now the city is allowing us to create other things. They're giving us free range. We learned that city staff has piles of work to do. They're understaffed, and the work they are having to do is fixing a stoplight or drain. If we come to them as citizens and say 'make a walkable community,' they just scratch their heads. So if we create the work and present a plan they're particularly amenable because they want to succeed as well."

"It's easy to get hipsters out," continues Roberts. "But how to get oldsters playing chess and kids playing in fountains? If you can make something appealing to 5-year-olds and 95-year-olds, you're going to be successful." On the heels of Go Oak Cliff's successful Build a Better Block weekend in April, Roberts offers 10 tips for organizing one in your neighborhood.

1) Pick your spot. Look for a block of buildings that has a good pedestrian form, but lacks a complete street.

2) Assemble a team. It should consist of grassroots community activists, artists, and DIYers. If possible, work with existing area nonprofit leaders or organizers (community gardens groups, local volunteer corps, etc.)

3) Connect. Make your Better Block part of something larger like an art walk, ciclovia, fun run, etc.

4) Use empty storefronts. Work with area property owners to gain access to vacant spaces for a weekend. We pitched the event as a giant "art installation" so the vacant spaces become de facto art galleries. Our property owners were excited to allow access because we were actively marketing their properties. And, immediately following our original better block, these vacant spaces were leased.

5) Pop up! Develop and install temporary "pop-up" businesses to show the potential for what could be if the street had a more inviting presence. This might include a café, a kids' art studio, a flower/gift market, or bookstore.

6) Gussy it up. We worked with a local props warehouse to bring in planters to help divide the street, and temporary street lighting.

7) Invite artists to perform. Music is a key component to having a dynamic street. Use a guitar amplifier and pump out tracks from an iPod, or invite DJs to spin.

8) Give people a reason to stay. Provide plenty of seating, things to read, games to play, and food to eat.

9) Get a permit. You'll probably need to close a portion of the street. We specifically asked for a permit to allow one lane of vehicle traffic so that residents could see that a "complete street" that allowed all modes of transit was a viable solution.

10) Invite local VIPs. Include your Mayor, council members, and city staff, so they can see the possibilities for themselves. Be sure to track sales to show the increase in area business—potential for increased tax revenue is a city's largest motivator for change.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user blhphotography

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