Building Better Downtowns One Block at a Time

For those living and working in depressed areas, one of the most difficult steps in achieving revitalization is to visualize a better future. Words and pictures can fail to capture the imagination. Plans may not seem to reflect resident sentiment. Time frames can be frustratingly long. Local governments may lack the funds for implementing improvements (see my earlier entry on Downtown Revitalization for Almost Free).

The Better Block Project provides residents an opportunity to create a revitalized block for a relatively little amount of money, complete with streetscape improvements, new stores, outdoor cafes, and live entertainment, at least for a day or so. Better block is a one- or two-day event that involves a range of different partners. City government close parking spaces and street lanes to traffic for outdoor seating, wider sidewalks, and narrower streets. Entrepreneurs, chefs, and artists partner with property owners to fill up empty storefronts with pop-up stores, restaurants, and galleries. Volunteers install landscaping, add seating and temporary lighting, and paint buildings, bike lanes, and crosswalks. Musicians perform for crowds.

Better Block Project on Grand Boulevard in Kansas City, Missouri (Image: Better Block KC)

Better Block Project on Grand Boulevard in Kansas City, Missouri (Image: Better Block KC)

The initial impetus for the project, which began in Oak Cliff, Texas in 2010 and has spread throughout much of the country, was to show how local regulations could hinder the development of small businesses and multiple modes of transportation. The events serve as a “living charrette” by enabling community members to see how their decisions play out in a real urban environment, allow entrepreneurs to test business ideas, and show government officials and businesses that bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly environments have positive safety, health, and economic effects. Some pop-up businesses and temporary infrastructure have subsequently become permanent.

The Better Block Project has focused on blocks instead of districts or corridors because they found that planning for larger areas typically involves an unmanageable number of property owners and stakeholders, and relies on large banks, large developers, and large businesses for success. The result is an area with large master development projects. They argue that locals can have a greater impact on a block, which then can have a positive impact on the surrounding area.

To date, the only event west of the Rocky Mountains has been in Las Vegas in 2012, where an environmentally conscious community organization called Green Jelly focused on developing a “greener” block of South Main Street. The Better Block Project and GOOD Magazine websites contain useful how-to guides to setting up an event and Team Better Block offers training. Building on the experiences of communities throughout the country, the better blocks approach could potentially serve as a powerful tool for revitalization in communities in California and the West in the years to come.

Thanks to Andrew Howard and Jason Roberts of the Better Block Project and Better Block KC for their assistance with this entry.

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