The Better Block project, founded less than 10 years ago in Dallas, Texas, is not only changing streets for the better — in many ways, it’s changing the urban planning process.
Jason Roberts (right) was working as an IT consultant in Dallas when he started wondering why a particular part of his neighborhood was in such bad shape. Image: Pegasus News
Better Block brings “pop-up,” temporary businesses into abandoned buildings, creates temporary bike lanes with chalk and cones, turns underused parking spaces into outdoor cafés, and generally celebrates the awesome potential of ordinary urban places. The strategy of using temporary installations — a prime example of “tactical urbanism” — allows people to reimagine their neighborhoods while circumventing time-consuming and potentially hostile regulatory and political processes.
At the CNU 21 conference in Salt Lake City, I had the chance to sit down with Better Block’s visionary founder, Jason Roberts. Here’s his inspiring call to action:
Angie Schmitt: What is the history of the Better Block project?
Jason Roberts: The Better Block project started in April 2010, in Dallas, Texas. I had a series of blighted buildings in my neighborhood and a street that was really wide. I started trying to figure out why they were boarded up.
I found out it was zoned for light industrial, it wasn’t zoned for retail. The original reason these buildings exist was no longer allowed.
We looked at the streets and said, “Why can’t we get bike infrastructure in the area?” At some point I said, “Couldn’t we make this into our dream block, the blocks that I love in European cities or other places I’ve seen that are filled with flower shops and bakeries and cafes and bike infrastructure and landscaping and people sitting outside and eating and drinking?” I got together with some friends and we decided to do a guerrilla installation.
It was really inspired not so much by New Urbanism because I hadn’t known much about this. I came from an artist background and I also was an IT consultant. Really, I was looking at what happened with Shepard Fairey and the street art movement. I loved how those things were sort of shocking the system. I was thinking, why can’t we apply those same ideas to a block?
The first project we ever did was very guerrilla. We didn’t get permits, we just painted bike lanes in the streets. We found props like old historic lighting. We put café seating out. We took away car lanes. We went into the vacant buildings, we talked the property owners, they let us use the space. We created our own coffee shops, flower shops. We turned an old car garage into a kids’ art gallery and we built fruit stands and things like that. And then we printed off the ordinances and zoning for the area that we were breaking and we put it in the window, to show these are all the things that aren’t allowed in our city.