In this TEDx Talk, Jason Roberts – known as the “The Bike Guy” in his Oak Cliff community outside of Dallas, Texas – gives his audience a how-to guide in improving a community one block at a time as part of a project called “The Better Block“. The project did not start off as an organization with vast goals and strong following; instead it started off with Roberts’ interest and desire to develop his community into one that had a legacy apart from the highways and overpasses that dominate the landscape. Inspired by the rich history and existing street life of European cities with their historic buildings and monuments, plazas, and vistas; Roberts started small and eventually built a foundation and organization that is now nationally recognized and used as a tool to develop cities across the country.
Read on for more after the break.
The tools of Jason Roberts own experience and those developed for Better Block demonstrate how manageable and possible it is to improve one’s city one block at a time. He began by attending board meetings, becoming acquainted with planners and policy-makers and he quickly realized that these people who make the changes he sought after possible, were looking for leaders to strike up urban projects.
He researched his own community, its history and its elements – discovering that a streetcar used to run along some of the worst streets in the neighborhood. This touches upon issues that Jane Jacobs wrote about in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. Particularly that public transportation provides a neighborhood with a constant flow of people, promotes mixed use, gives commercial spaces business, and brings in more “watchful eyes” for passersby safety. With the streetcar gone, the street became less accessible. Businesses shut down and left and people stopped having a reason to come into these areas. With the bustle of the street life gone, the social infrastructure deteriorated leaving these streets desolate and unsafe.
To turn this around, part of what eventually would become The Better Block Project involved fixing up individual spaces, creating events and reusing abandoned portions of buildings and streets, reaching out to small businesses to become part of this “manufactured” street life as a demonstration to what could be and getting people to volunteer their time and energy to benefit their own community.
Watch the video and you’ll see some of the successful charrettes that were carried out. Those which included setting up an art space in a abandoned theater or transforming a whole block into a lively commercial area. Roberts summarizes the effectiveness of this strategy with one phrase, “change the perception of a place”. By inviting cultural and social events the once abandoned space becomes alive. Create an “anchor” – a hub of activity – and you have a space that can last.
In his talk, Roberts brings up points that are present in cities all over the country, namely, outdated zoning regulations that hinder any kind of development. For example, in Dallas’s 1941 Code Book, the particular street that Roberts sought to improve had stringent restrictions and cost-prohibitive regulations on what could and could not be built there. Those things that make a street friendly and accessible that draw people and businesses such as street plantings and cafe seating cost thousands of dollars for permits, according to Roberts.
His solution was to break the law, and fortunately for him, the community and city officials that showed up to enjoy the space were just as shocked as he was to see those regulations in the guide book. Many organizations exist today that are involved in regenerating communities and cities, but Better Block puts the power into residents’ hands and gives them the inspiration, as well as the tools to bring this about.
One last piece of Roberts’ advice:
“Show up” – and bring some friends. “Give it a name” – identify it before you even know what it is. “Blackmail yourself” – commit to a date and charrette those projects.
The Better Block Project has made its way to other cities. Check out the website for training, a how-to guide and more information on future talks by Jason Roberts.