Better Block Project

700 W Davis St, Dallas, TX, 75208, USA

What started this project: 

Oak Cliff, Texas, located just southwest of downtown Dallas, has ample hills and verdant landscaping, forcing many of its roads and former streetcar lines to track through the town in sinuous curves. Dallas annexed this suburb in 1903, after consternation among its city leaders. Nevertheless, Oak Cliff has retained a strong sense of identity and place. No such feature has given Oak Cliff a bigger sense of self than the Texas Theatre, once the largest suburban movie house in Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President Kennedy, was arrested there in the early afternoon of November 22, 1963, shortly after numerous residents said they saw him shoot Police Officer J.D. Tippit, who had been responding to calls to secure downtown Oak Cliff. The historic nature of the building has helped it weather storms of economic decline; it was restored for Oliver Stone’s film, JFK and received money from various historic-minded nonprofits. Other storefronts and businesses, with less notoriety, have not fared as well, suffering from the removal of the important streetcar connection, economic disinvestment, and suburban zoning patterns. These historic downtown thoroughfares were characterized by vacant storefronts and felt disconnected from the everyday lives of the neighborhood’s residents. Jason Roberts, an Oak Cliff IT consultant and musician, had worked on urban issues in the past, and wanted to see a change in his section of the city, on the once-thriving Tyler Street. He and a group of enterprising neighbors conceived of the idea of a “living block art installation,” a kind of full scale artistic project. Instead of seeing “art” as those objects or performances that are placed in spaces, Roberts and his group thought of a temporary intervention on the block as an arts project unto itself. The community was the artist and the street was the canvas. Instead of waiting for private interests to reinvest in urban areas, locals focused on using art to do it themselves.

Goals: 

The Better Block Project emerged from a desire to reimagine streetscapes as urban places where people could gather together, patronize local businesses, and sustain long-term development. The public policies of Dallas no longer reflected the ways in which people wanted to live in the 21st century. Efforts to improve corridors and vacant lots were stymied by copious parking requirements for new developments, exorbitant fees and forms for temporary events, and byzantine bureaucracy for simple site improvements such as flowers and benches. These goals coalesced around a broader strategy of corridor revitalization: focusing on a high need, high-opportunity corridor in the center of Oak Cliff. These corridors were too fast, too wide, too car-focused. Residents wanted places to gather collectively; they wanted small businesses to thrive where they once did, and they wanted places to meet and engage with other people. While Oak Cliff is a relatively park-rich area, it didn’t have places to gather with intentionality and with purpose. Parks were for passive recreation and sports; the community wanted a place that felt cultural and vital.

Process: 

Jason Roberts describes the process as “reverse-engineering” what a great block looks like; start from an ideal image or another neighborhood and figure out what it would take to get there. The team in Oak Cliff looked at what worked in other neighborhoods and devised ways to recreate those fundamentals in cheap ways. This team-based mentality was important in project delivery. Everyone brought expertise that could be deployed thoughtfully in the one-block section of Tyler Street, including an urban planner designing painted bike lanes and someone in the food industry setting up a coffee shop. All in all, the first “Better Block Project” included historic street furniture, children’s art studios, craft stores, flower shops, and outdoor dining. This kind of “tactical urbanism” has become an important tool for planners around the world; it demonstrates the efficacy of a great idea in a temporary, quick way, without the same worry of negative consequences and risks that long-term solutions create.

Results: 

The outcomes of the Better Block project can be described in two ways. First, the project was a tremendous and nearly immediate success. Leaders from the community and the municipality immediately saw the positive impact that bike lanes, temporary furniture, and storefront activation made on the area. A host of city ordinances were changed in record time, bike lanes were added to a city bike plan, and a pop-up business became a permanent part of the streetscape. Years later, that streetscape is still welcoming new businesses and opportunities. The project also raised the awareness of resident participation and the arts as important and underexplored tools in community development. The project had the effect of raising the expectations of the participatory governance and showed developers how human-focused arts can make for better places. Secondly, the Better Block idea was so successful that Roberts transformed it into a nonprofit organization that advocates for similar interventions around the world. He has framed this organization as an “open-source project” that can be downloaded, used, and built upon. Their website features modular street furniture and Better Block plans.27 In cities, towns, and villages, the idea of the street has changed dramatically over time and transportation has changed as well. Undoubtedly, the streetscape has been and will continue to be part of the public realm, serving as a connection to and extension of our public parks and open spaces. Better Block confirms that by proactively demonstrating the potential for these corridors to remain people-focused, streets will continue to serve the needs of communities for decades to come.