Better Block | Michael Green

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Better Block

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Residents can take urban planning into their own hands.

IS there a streetscape near you where no one goes? Somewhere ugly to look at, hard to walk, and too scary to ride?

Just go ahead and fix it. That’s what Jason Roberts did in Oak Cliff, a rundown part of Dallas, Texas.

In 2010, with a crew of volunteers, he staged a one-off community event, called Better Block. For a weekend, they widened the footpaths and brought in tables and chairs and trees in pots. They started pop-up cafes and shops, and painted temporary bike lanes on the street.

In the process, they broke all kinds of council rules. But people loved it. Their “guerrilla art” idea has spawned a movement: in the last two years there have been 41 Better Blocks held all across the United States.

Mr Roberts is visiting Melbourne this month as one of the keynote speakers at the Sustainable Living Festival, which began yesterday and runs until February 24.

Illustration by Robin Cowcher

“By doing all those things, we created a more humane environment, and that made more people come out and use the space,” he says. They created permanent change, too. Many of the zoning rules have been scrapped, and some businesses have stayed on.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Dallas or Australia or Bangladesh, we all enjoy sitting outside drinking a cup of coffee and watching a musician play. We all love strolling through outdoor flower stands,” he says. “They’re universal things.

Mr Roberts was an IT-consultant and musician. Then, ten years ago, he and his wife visited Europe. They were astonished by the vibrant life of the cities: the bike riders and buzzing markets, the street-side cafes and public plazas where old people lingered with their grandchildren.

He returned and saw with new eyes the concrete freeways and barren footpaths of his own city, and resolved to make them “more like Paris”.

His first project was an impromptu art show, called Art Conspiracy, in an abandoned, boarded-up theatre. It happened fast: the artists painted one day and sold their canvases the next. Unexpectedly, 700 people showed up to see the old theatre back in use.

Next he set up a website – the Oak Cliff Transit Authority – promoting the reconstruction of the old tramcar that used to run through town. He was the only one in the “authority”, but no matter. A journalist wrote about it, and other enthusiasts joined in. Their crazy plan has come true: the city is actually building the tramcar line. With the help of a large federal grant, construction should be finished by 2014.

Then, a couple of years later, Mr Roberts founded Bike Friendly Oak Cliff – even though he didn’t own a bike at the time. “We just said, ‘We’re the bike part of town’, and it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he explains. “With time, people started buying bikes, and people who liked bicycling started moving into the area.”

He’s got three tips for would-be urban activists: show up to your local community groups; give your event a name; and set a date and publish it – that way you’ll be forced to make it happen.

“The projects have been successful because we commit to quick action and get local people working together to make a better place,” he says. “Even if it’s temporary, people keep talking and they say, ‘Why don’t we fix this street permanently?’”

Read this article at The Age online

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