Jason Roberts is standing before a seated assembly in a vacant storefront in the hipster enclave of Deep Ellum, Dallas a few miles from Oak Cliff where he first acted on an idea to reverse decades of decline on a derelict city block. Roberts thinks he’s cracked the code on what unloved city streets need; if not to change the larger market dynamics that led to urban decline, then to make those living with it feel better, somehow, more empowered.
Co-leading a session on Tactical Urbanism with Mike Lydon who literally wrote the now-fourth volume on the topic, in a vacant storefront, Roberts distilled the lessons from his experience bootstrapping a pop up shop / street reclamation movement.
“Selfishly, this is all in the service of making my own block better,” he said. “Making my kids want to stay.”
Roberts’ Better Blocks has launched a thousand imitations. And that’s the idea, he says. He published the results of his many rapid prototypes of storefront-to-sidewalk space into this handy guide. But the magic is harder to distill without his deftness for organizing and directing his army of followers. He now consults, and recently travelled to Akron to work on a Better Block intervention in the North Hill neighborhood.
Later, as we hammer and saw shipping palettes and paint them in bright colors to lend them a second life as benches in a pop up block project that one of the local groups is organizing, Roberts says that he’s learning from the Akron project. Its major institutional support—the buy in from the Knight Foundation, the city, and AMATS, the transportation agency—means the usual not-asking-for permission mode of operation is reversed.
“It opens up a bunch of doors,” he notes. “We have city staff, for example, saying ‘we’ll paint the temporary bike lane.’ We can focus on the policy side, like, how do we make a parking lot not a parking lot. But a park.”
The key to Better Blocks, says Roberts, are picking the right kind of sights. He likes old streetcar suburbs where the train stops have the right type of building, a small scale—like 200 feet of retail—people who can bring a mix of skills, energy and permission from at least one property owner or politician. So, in his estimation, a place like downtown Garfield Heights or Noble Road in Cleveland Heights or a stretch of Lorain Avenue in Ohio City might have the physical set up. Can the actors be brought together who could dumpster dive a theater set and aren’t afraid to test new ideas in washable paint and movable planters before committing to concrete?
Lydon’s latest book collects the work of Tactical Urbanist around the world. He describes their goal of “having cities function and be more nimble.” Cities like Memphis whose mayor has been inspired by the next generation (plus resources like the Green Lanes Project) to launch a program called MemFix with a goal of doing Better Blocks—like Critical Mass—every month. Lydon tells of how looking critically at place and challenging the bias that government can’t deliver inspired entrepreneurship in Memphis. Sometimes the simplest idea can unleash a movement, like when hundreds of normal people unfolded lawn chairs in Times Square and started the ball rolling to make it a car-free zone.
“Something like that can express all the frustration and hope people have for their city.”