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.