At first, Jason Roberts may appear to be an unlikely ally and friend to landscape architecture professionals. But, for many designers, urbanites, and community activists, that is exactly what he has become. Although he has worn many hats as a musician, IT consultant, and restaurateur, beginning in the early 2000’s, Jason has found what appears to be his true calling: the role of an Urban Activist. Over the past decade, beginning with his home town of Oak Cliff, TX, Jason stopped waiting for others to transform his community. Among various other initiatives, he founded the Oak Cliff Transit Authority and Bike Friendly Oak Cliff in an effort to give his town an operable streetcar and a foothold for a non-recreational cycling community.
Jason and his friends have also collaborated with UT Arlington for various community based initiatives in North Texas while Better Block sponsored demonstrations have spread across the US and beyond. In recent years, their grassroots activities and temporary installations through Better Block continue to transform streets, neighborhoods, and cities across the US. The following post is a snapshot to where Better Block, landscape architecture, and urban design intersects.
-Taner R. Ozdil, Ph.D., ASLA, Associate Professor at UT Arlington, Urban Design PPN Chair
The Better Block Project
by Jason Roberts
The Better Block project started in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Texas in 2010 when we gathered a small group of neighbors together and rapidly transformed a blighted block of partially vacant storefronts into a European inspired, vibrant corridor.
Our team took the wide street and painted bike lanes, added café seating, painted bright facades and murals on the buildings, and installed temporary businesses like coffee houses, art galleries, and locally made curio shops. We filled the sidewalks with fruit stands, flowers, sandwich board signs, and strung lights between the buildings. After everything was laid out, we began posting the zoning and ordinance rules we were breaking in order to make the place come alive so that everyone would recognize that many of the things that made our street great were illegal or cost prohibitive.
I created the project out of frustration with the typical planning process, and the helpless feelings I had when attempting to get livable and walkable initiatives started in my neighborhood. We had attended so many meetings with experts that had us lay out post-it notes on large maps with our ideas on what should be included in a vibrant street.
Our notes would lead to elaborate watercolor drawings and 3D overlays of how great our new blocks could look. But every time, these plans would sit on shelves or the final development would be bastardized in a way that veered so far from our notes that we became cynical and distrustful of the process itself. Beyond this frustration was the idea that the great place we desired would take us 30 years to build… but we wanted a great place now.
The Better Block gave our neighborhood a voice again, and also showed us a path to how we could make change. That path used the power of our community’s shared resources, labor, and passion to transform a block in 30 days. The businesses we created started becoming permanent, the bike lanes we painted became adopted into the city’s bike plan, the ordinances we challenged were revised, and real change occurred. We took the bloated and long-range planning process and transferred it into action. That action rapidly educated the neighborhood on the value of walkability, bikeability, placemaking, urban landscape, and community building.
After that first project, we started working closely with landscape architects, city planners, engineers, and designers to incorporate more detail into the projects. With time, our city became interested and agreed to let us work directly with their planning teams to incorporate the Better Block into the process. This small guerilla art project started finding merit and was being seriously looked at by municipalities. Within months, other cities began contacting us and asked how they could start their own projects. We posted a How-To guide on our website (www.betterblock.org) and Better Blocks began springing up all around the world…from Melbourne, Australia to Tehran, Iran.
Ironically, my career didn’t start in urban planning, landscape architecture, or architecture. I was an IT Consultant with one of my major clients being SWA Landscape Architects. It was my time there that put me through a rapid education on form, landscape, and placemaking. I’d spend hours in the office with principals repairing their computers while asking questions about the built environment. One of the simplest statements that really shaped every project afterward was “Pay attention to the edges.”
I’ve since come across that same sentiment in many places, but that was my first realization that humans respond to simple stimuli and that placing trees in rows, framing an open space with shrubs, or adding vines to an overhang can dramatically increase the feelings of warmth, comfort, and safety in a place. SWA was working on entire cities in China so I had a chance to look over barren landscapes that were being dramatically changed and ask questions on how we could incorporate these basic tenants in the neighborhood.
Our second Better Block gave us a chance to team with SWA to install 42 trees on a street edge and place hundreds of shrubs in the center of the roadway to soften the landscape and slow cars. This effort changed the psychology of the street to a degree that people became upset once everything was removed after the weekend was over. It was that frustration that led to neighbors banding together and fighting to make the changes permanent. That project would go on to win an ASLA Professional Award, and be the template for every project we’ve worked on since.
At this date, there are now hundreds of Better Blocks taking place. Since the project is open-sourced, we’re learning from cities and organizations that have paired up and created new tools and resources to rapidly change landscapes. Interdisciplinary university students are now working closely with Better Block teams to incorporate design studios and capstone projects that are in some cases, getting installed permanently after being demonstrated through a project.
The key to the success of these efforts is the collaboration between cities, community leaders, practitioners, planners, and everyday citizens. This year, our work received a capacity grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation which is now helping us to create additional tools and resources for communities looking to begin their own projects. It’s an exciting time to be involved with this initiative, and I can’t wait to see how these efforts not only re-shape blocks, but communities.
By Jason Roberts, Founding Director, Better Block Foundation, www.betterblock.org