Q&A with Jason Roberts on the Community-Led Better Block

Jason Roberts of the Better Block project.

The Better Block Project is a real-time approach to neighborhood planning where living charettes are created to show communities the changes that can influence livability and health. At the Terwilliger Center for Housing’s Housing Opportunity 2014 conference in Denver, Colorado, Better Block founder Jason Roberts shared ideas that community leaders can use to see the potential in permanent changes. For example, one community used large potted plants and a pop up café to show how trees and commerce could impact local residents and visitors to the area.

How Housing Matters recently spoke with Jason Roberts about engaging more communities in Better Block ideas.

How Housing Matters: Who in a community should take the lead on a Better Block idea?

Jason Roberts: We found that absolutely anybody can do a Better Block.  We’ve published a guide on how we do them, and it gives the basics on what the project can entail. But we also found that what worked really well is having somebody who is a connector in the neighborhood, who has a broad reach to a broad network of stakeholders in the area, including the property owners and the elected officials. It needs to be someone who is not a polarizing figure and someone who is known as a “do-er” in the area. This seems to be the good skill set to have to do this kind of work.

I think every neighborhood has that handful of folks who are just known as the “do-ers” that everybody seems to know. Maybe what they’re known for is the love of bringing communities together. They may throw block parties regularly or gatherings or potlucks that bring people together. I’ve found that these connectors are good at wrangling all the resources together that are needed to pull a project off.

How Housing Matters: In the Better Block guide, you write that it’s best to address four key areas when developing a project:

  • Safety
  • Shared Access
  • Staying Power
  • 8-80 Amenities (amenities that serve young and old)

Why is safety first?

Jason Roberts:   If a place feels unsafe, everything else breaks around it. So, the first step is to make the area feel inviting, engaging, and like a place where people would want to linger. If it’s dark and there’s not a lot of lighting, add lighting. If there are a lot of hidden corners, do what you can to open up the visibility in the spaces. When an area feels safe, you have the foundation laid to start injecting in other amenities that make people want to stay longer.

How Housing Matters: What are the key things to convey with a project?

Jason Roberts:   What we’re trying to do is show people how you could rapidly transform a space and what small steps could be taken in order to create a neighborhood destination. We do it over a very short period—days typically. This process lets you use less expensive materials that don’t have to hold up over a longer period and brings down your costs for the demonstration.  We want to give people an experience. We create the stage, if you will, then if we see that it works and we can convince you that it’s worthwhile to invest in it, then you can pinpoint your work into actually making permanent improvements.

A simple example of that is say a community is not on board with planting a lot of large trees in the area.  So, people talk about how it’s going to be an expense and require an erosion control assessment, a maintenance board. The conversation will include worst case scenarios and how hard it’s going to be to manage these things. So we just put it out there and see if people can appreciate it first—using large potted plants that you may be able to borrow or buy inexpensively — so that once they see it in that space, people may feel it’s worth fighting for.

How Housing Matters: What’s your success rate of demonstration projects becoming permanent projects?

Jason Roberts:   I would say it’s probably greater than 80%.  Something typically gets adopted from the work.

One thing I’ve seen happen is that a group will bring us out and others will say “Oh great, another plan.  We’ve been planned to death, we’ve seen so many plans.” So, it’s nice for us to come out and explain that we’re not planners.  We actually are going to create things. Communities are usually taken aback by that concept that we’re not just going to draw pictures, we’re not going to have a discussion about how to create a better place. We’re actually going to create a better place, and we’re all going to experience it and we’re going to enjoy it together as well. That has been a night and day difference I think from the typical planning process.

"The Better Block" general session of the Housing Opportunity 2014 conference.

It’s been amazing how little opposition we face when we go that route, because communities also have a fear of using public dollars and then getting a bad outcome. But, people usually have no problem getting on board with a highly temporary plan and being able to see what it would be like and that often gets us around a lot of these worst-case scenario issues that we face.

How Housing Matters: Have you made changes to the original concept?

Jason Roberts: Absolutely. There are many things we continue to revise, but we’ve gotten better at realizing that you don’t have to change three or four blocks at a time. Focus on making one great block.  People don’t realize that often times the places that they love around the world are often about a block in size.

Examples of this concept are shopping streets in England, blocks in New Orleans that have a coffee shop, a flower shop and art galleries. It’s this mix of the personalities of the people and the architecture on the street and the services that are there that create a connection between a commercial space and public space. All we’re really doing is taking the public domain like the streets and we’re working with the private edge to bring them together to show how you can maximize their potential.

How Housing Matters:What are some common issues you deal with when bringing the Better Block project to communities?

Jason Roberts: I had to learn to understand that it’s a people process. That’s been a little bit eye opening for me. I’ve also come to understand that often the problems that we face in one project are pretty similar in other places. There’s this divide between older ways of thinking and a more progressive vision for an area and we’re trying to get our heads around how you engage this old guard thought that can be very reticent to change. So, we’ve gotten better at engaging all parties and bringing them to the table and having them all own a piece of the project.

It has been amazing for us to see how rapidly the ideas have been adopted and have taken hold. That has been surprising and also heartening to us because it made us realize we weren’t alone in our thinking that we wanted better places in our community and our neighborhood. We’ve seen Better Block projects exponentially jump every year from the number of cities that are learning about the concepts and want to apply it as soon as possible.