Recap of the Better Block 2

Sep 14, 2010 22 Comments by

Amid the wonderful smells of smoked barbeque, and just beyond the music, we managed our second “Better Block” project, where we took a gray, concrete, and car-focused block and converted it into a more humane space that placed people first. First off, big thanks go to SWA Group, and Metheney for providing us with amazing landscaping plans and with 42 trees and 100 shrubs which were strategically placed throughout the area.  We started with the 1300 Block of West Davis:

The area is filled with 1920′s – 1940′s structures built to the sidewalk with one exception…a gas station set back that breaks the people-friendly form.  The businesses built in the area received a large portion of their foot traffic from the streetcar which ran along Seventh Street and turned onto Edgefield. Once the streetcar was removed in 1956, the block was retrofitted over time to push people aside for cars. As sprawl developed and zoning laws changed, businesses that could survive in these spaces had a hard time managing Dallas’ post-war transition.  Lanes were widened creating faster traffic patterns, landscaping was uprooted to allow for more parking, and building windows were filled with mirrored glass, making the space unusable for window-shopping, and allowing little light to pass through. Though it took half a century to devolve, we were able to revive the space in under 24 hours:

 David Thompson at SWA Group was instrumental in helping us walk the block and outline a plan of attack. First, we had to bring landscaping back. Dallas is hot, and people want shade…seeing these old buildings tree lined dramatically improved the area.  The middle turn lane, which is only needed at the intersections but runs the entire length of the block, was reclaimed with 100 shrubs that gave an extra layer of safety for families crossing the street.

To make a space feel more humane, and inviting to people, we looked at all of the obstacles facing us. Intersections were the most glaring with little to no cross walks. Here, we recreated our own Abbey Road.

Mid-century lights, which had burned out years ago were painted lively colors and given a second chance at life. When looking at what is necessary to bring people out in a community, perception of safety ranks as the highest priority. Lighting is a key element, and an easy way to revive an area is to begin changing burned-out/broken light bulbs.

An abandoned telephone pole sat waiting for some kind of treatment. We decided to do our own version of the Nasher pole in downtown Dallas.

As the morning unfolded, two construction vehicles went to work lining the street with 42 trees that were set to be installed at another client site the following week. The landscaping group, Metheney, pulled off a coup by letting us install them on our block before they were set to be planted. As we watched each of the trees roll out of the semi-trailer, you could feel the block coming back to life.

We worked with local vendors and asked them to bring their merchandise outdoors and to the block to help draw life and activity to the street.  This tienda had just opened a few weeks prior, but the owner said business had been slow…at the end of Better Block he said, “We needed this!”. 

On the North East corner of the 1300 Block sat a glass building that had been covered in mirrored tint, and was vacant for over a year. We immediately removed the tint to open the space and allow window shopping and light to permeate the space. This light adds to the perception of safety in the area at night as well. We worked with local artists to bring out as many products highlighting the talented crafters of OC.

(photo by Karla Garcia)

At the gateway to the Better Block, we coordinated with one of our favorite muralists, Kevin Obregon, to help bring color to the bare white walls of Chango Botanica, and to allow the theme of the store to be highlighted outside of the building.  Our area botanicas bring a mixture of spirituality, culture, and folk art that help identify Oak Cliff.

 

The most simple, but important element to the Better Block project was just giving people a comfortable, shaded place to sit and linger. In Copenhagen, the city measures its quality of life improvements by the number of outdoor cafe seats that open up each year. Not a bad metric for Oak Cliff to follow. 24 hours prior, there were cars filling this area. The small ice cream shop, which only has two parking spaces, now wants to create seating instead.

The landscaping performed the same element of slowing traffic as with our first Better Block. A main street should be slow and feel safe so that people can see the businesses clearly, and stroll comfortably along the block. When the lanes were widened and cars sped through the area, people felt less inclined to walk with strollers along the sidewalk. Cars that entered the area respected the new lines and commerce was able to increase.

When I was beginning to study urban planning, mentors would regularly tell me, “It all starts with the street…if you get that wrong, everything else breaks.” I didn’t understand that early on,  but as I’ve helped organize these projects, it’s become incredibly notable. Simply put, if you build a wide 6-lane road, you’re going to get a big box styled development with high speed roads and little pedestrian foot traffic. If you build 2 lanes, slow and landscaped, with wide sidewalks and any other multimodal transit options (bike lanes, streetcars, etc.), you’ll get small shops and places that people love to spend time in.

The Dallas Morning News wrote about our city’s pending Bike Plan, and ironically, one of the blog commenters cited the weekend as an example of how it’s “too hot and humid in our city for people to take bicycling seriously”…apparantly Oak Cliff didn’t get that memo. The reality is that all communities face challenges with climate. In Portland it rains 1/3 of the year, in Copenhagen it’s freezing cold 1/3 of the year. Creating safer ways for people to walk and bicycle in an area creates more eyes on the street and adds to an areas feeling of safety as well as creating more life in a community.

In the end, it’s all about the people and giving families young and old a safe, comfortable, and dignified area to live in. When we build for cars only, we make things fast, unsafe, and less humane…we adopted an 8 and 80 rule, where we should look at our community from the eyes of an 8 year old and the eyes of an 80 year old. If it feels safe for those two age ranges, it will be safe for everyone. Our city needs to refocus its priorities and think about what it is that people really want in a community. For the price of a single Calatrava bridge, we could have built a thousand Better Blocks…and made them permanent.

More pics here.

More info on our Better Block StreetSpace collaborative team here.

News

About the author

Jason has lived in Oak Cliff for 10 years, and when not playing guitar in the Happy Bullets, can be found bicycling throughout the neighborhood searching for old trolley tracks.

22 Responses to “Recap of the Better Block 2”

  1. Lauren Nitschke says:

    This entire effort was/is so impressive. You guys built a talented, visionary team that performed a miracle on West Davis. Over & over we heard, “why can’t we make this permanent?” Well, why can’t we? Isn’t the drastic improvement in quality of life in a neighborhood worth what it would take? Sales tax revenues from OPEN and THRIVING businesses do a lot more for the city budget than closed up, empty buildings.

  2. Our new artwork at the Better Block 2! « Bike Friendly Oak Cliff says:

    [...] Check out our latest artwork at the Better Block 2 at Davis and Clinton. We have a full write-up on the event here. [...]

  3. Stephanie "tefi" Hindall says:

    It was a lot of fun, and the work and love you guys put into it evident. Congrats on a great event! (I’m sorry I wasn’t able to participate this time around selling my handmade goods. Maybe next time, and I’ll bring a bunch of my crafty friends with me!)

  4. dfwcre8tive says:

    The transformation was quite dramatic! There are countless blocks in Dallas that would greatly be improved by just a few of these changes; your group has shown it doesn’t need to be elaborate/expensive to be effective. Hopefully these demonstration projects will change the auto-centric mentality of the region.

  5. Twinkle says:

    We had a wonderful time despite the heat & humidity. Absolutely loved the trees and seating along Davis; it would be wonderful to have these things as permanent fixtures along the street. Thanks again for all the hard work in putting together a great family-friendly event with a uniquely OC vibe.

  6. Recap of the Better Block 2 « Bike Friendly Oak Cliff says:

    [...] September 14, 2010 in Oak Cliff (reposted from Go Oak Cliff) [...]

  7. John Stolly says:

    Having lived in OC most of my life I’m familiar with the area of course, but I’m sure the last time I WALKED that stretch of Davis I was a kid at St. Cecilia’s in the ’60s (The Griddle System, Coghill-Simmons record store, Cannon’s variety…)
    So, to sit at a table and watch the scene Sunday, with people I know strolling by, was for me a vividly surreal, dream-like experience.
    It was brilliant, and all the hard work put into demonstrating what could be was well-appreciated.

  8. What the Heck Is a “Better Block”? | FrontBurner says:

    [...] applying some simple urban design concepts. But you want specifics and pictures, don’t you? Jason Roberts breaks it down for you. tweetmeme_url = [...]

  9. Michael Dilger says:

    Remeber what the Dallas Police Officer said, “streets are for cars not people”. I think we all proved him wrong! Kudos to Go Oak Cliff for another great event!

  10. Sarah Blaskovich says:

    The PegNews photographer Elliott Munoz also got some gorgeous shots of the event. Check them out! http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2010/sep/13/photo-gallery-blues-bandits-bbq-oak-cliff/

  11. Rita Heep says:

    Bravo, Oak Cliff! Bravo, Jason Roberts for leading the charge.

  12. Josh E says:

    I rode my bike from Deep Ellum, and the event was just great.

    However, traffic seemed to be backed up for a looong way. I question the message you might be unintentionally sending. You give the casual observer the idea that better pedestrian access and an awesome street vibe equals traffic nightmare. Surely we can have both? Plus how “ethical” was all the wasted gas from the idling cars?

  13. Amy says:

    How much of saidctraffic was special event only? Not really a day to day sampling.

  14. Jason Roberts says:

    Hi Josh,

    Thanks for coming out to the event, and glad you enjoyed it. Regarding backed up traffic…remember that the Better Block also had a large festival adjacent to it so vehicle counts were far greater than would be seen on a typical day. The idea is to slow vehicles to a speed that is safe for families to traverse by foot. No different than slowing speeds for a school zone. When you ask, “How ‘ethical’ was all the wasted gas from idling cars?” I would simply state that you have to give weights to the two possible negative and positive outcomes…pedestrian/vehicle collisions vs. environmental impact given set period of time/space.

    I would argue (as I feel 99.9% of the population would agree) that it’s FAR more ethical to slow vehicle speeds for pedestrian safety over environmental concerns of slow or idling vehicles in a two lane heavily pedestrianized area. Arguing the alternative on the basis of ethics would mean you would be a proponent of raising vehicle speeds in school zones to their minimum polluting speeds (I assume around 30 mph). Given that speeds over 20 mph greatly increase the potential for fatalities (http://humantransport.org/sidewalks/SpeedKills.htm) and that high speed car/ped collissions are typically catastrophic, it’s honestly a no-brainer to me. Also, you have to look at the cumulative effect of increasing speeds on the overall quality of life of a community…remember, raising the speeds decreases safety, which reduces the number of people who consider walking…when people stop walking in these areas, not only do you lose the potential revenue of these older formed buildings, but you push retail options further away so that people “have” to drive to get items as small as a gallon of milk. With that in mind, you have more cold starts that occur than would be seen if we had viable, walkable neighborhoods (with that, I mean neighborhoods that have many needs within a 10 minute walk/bike ride)…you also decrease the health in the community due to the lack of physical activity. This is actually something that has been pretty heavily documented in Copenhagen, where they measured the benefits/costs of implementing greater bicycle infrastructure. I’ve posted it on Bike Friendly Oak Cliff and will probably write another post here shortly outlining it in greater detail.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  15. Josh E says:

    I get that it was a lot of event traffic, too. And I like the idea of permanent slower traffic in central neighborhood areas. But while we associate the traffic backup with the extra event traffic, others might (incorrectly) associate it with the “better block” landscaping. So I’m worried that long term, I’d be concerned that by tying the better block redux with an event, you’re reinforcing a wrong association in the public’s mind. They’ll start thinking that reconfigured street == car traffic backups. And not event foot traffic == traffic backups.

  16. Stephen Lawrence, Cambridge, UK says:

    Some Buddhist monks have a tradition of making elaborate mandalas using coloured sands – which they then allow to ‘blow away’ naturally after they’ve made them, to create space for tomorrow’s mandala.

    What you’ve shown here is your inner power to spend time creating a vision and not being phased about its temporary nature. Far easier to get permission to build something temporary. And then – people want to make it permanent.

    Far easier than getting permission for something permanent from the outset.

    The London Eye has been a tremendous success – and it was only supposed to be up for a year – it’s been rotating faithfully since the Millenium!

    Good Luck Oak Cliff!

  17. Kristan Huntley says:

    This is a fantastic demonstration of the importance of proper urban planning and the overall impact it can have on the local community’s health, both safety-wise, economically and mentally. As a resident in a small community in Tennessee, it is always great to see things like this happening in the US.

    My community currently has a 4-lane street in an otherwise prime pedestrian and bike friendly community, bustling with shops and restaurants and artisans, and are now talking about adding bike lanes. Can you direct me to the article in the Dallas Morning News that was discussing this plan by chance?

  18. Jason Roberts says:

    Hi Kristan,

    The article in the DMN related to the upcoming bike plan is here: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/bus/stories/091210dnbusbikeplanner.2b632cb.html

    Regards,

    Jason

  19. Better Block Project Inspires Copycats in Maryland | FrontBurner says:

    [...] page from our buddies in Oak Cliff. They’re going to try to fire up their own version of the Better Block Project. Kudos to Jason Roberts and his merry band of hipsters. tweetmeme_url = [...]

  20. Better Everywhere | Bike Friendly Deep Ellum says:

    [...] This is going to be big! and we’re pumped! Check out some of the past event over in Oak Cliff here or the Ft Worth one [...]

  21. Humanizing a city, one block at a time « Bluegrass reVISIONS says:

    [...] Oak Cliff also held a second, even bigger, Better Block event earlier this month. Barren streets were lined with trees. Merchants brought their wares to sell on [...]

  22. Things To Do In Dallas Tonight: Feb. 29 | FrontBurner says:

    [...] demonstration that builds out areas in need of redevelopment (Roberts explains it so much better here). And I know. I’m directing you the Magnolia Theatre, again. Sorry. But our own Peter Simek [...]

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