Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

One Block at a Time

Do you know of a neighborhood in your community that has seen better days and is now a place with vacant storefronts, empty buildings and without much life? If so, you may want to consider “Better Block.”

Better Block is a demonstration tool that rebuilds and revitalizes an area using grassroots efforts to show the potential to create a great walkable, vibrant neighborhood – and even a destination. The project acts as a living charrette where residents and stakeholders get to try out their vision for the area on a temporary basis. It’s a way to give residents a taste of what’s possible.

A Better Block project’s focus is to bring back a neighborhood rapidly rather than developing a larger scale, more financially complex project that could take years. It can help people come together to create a community destination quickly.

Better Block was developed when Jason Roberts,  Team Better Block co-founder along with Andrew Howard, wondered why his neighborhood couldn’t have “a block I could walk to, have a cup of coffee, get outside, take my kids to something.”  He found several barriers to a vibrant community:

  • zoning regulations discouraged sidewalk traffic and pedestrian life
  • putting flowers outside a building and installing awning incurred a fee of $1,000
  • installing cafe seating on the sidewalk cost $1,000
  • displaying goods on the sidewalk was forbidden
  • gathering a crowd was forbidden

“We had all these rules that stripped away beauty.”  Roberts decided to skip the City Hall route. Instead, he got a group of people together to take a weekend and build the place they wanted.  Hear more about his story.

Better Block activities in Dallas, TX.
Better Block activities in Dallas, TX.

The whole Better Block process usually takes about 3 months from site selection, usually a one to two-block area, to event day, which could be a one to two-day event. Temporary activities and projects that could be planned and activated include pop-up shops, seating and café tables,  landscaping and  planters,  local musicians and artists, farmers’ markets, beer gardens, bookstores, food stands, swings and play areas, traffic patterns changes, parklets, and bike lanes -- all to make the area more people and bike friendly.

After an area in need of revitalization is selected, the project planning begins with a “keynote” where community stakeholders will get together to learn about the Better Block process. The keynote is followed by a tour of the area and a planning workshop to discuss the who, what, where, when and how:

  • who are the volunteers and partners
  • what will each volunteer and partner do
  • what type of activities will take place at the Better Block event
  • who will be responsible for each activity
  • how to get the word out to the community
  • how will all the logistics be handled
  • when will the event take place

As for the budget for the logistics of the Better Block build, Roberts believes things go better with a tiny budget. “These never cost more than $3,000,” he said, “and we can pull them off for as low as $500 if we have to.” Borrowing stuff from local businesses and residents creates trust; nailing and painting together creates community.

Results include the realization by neighborhood stakeholders that they can organize and become leaders to revitalize themselves.  Tommy Pacello, with the Memphis Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, believes a Better Block “serves as a catalyst for building social capital within neighborhoods — if we can do this, we can do other things.”

And tangible outcomes from Better Block include reformed the zoning rules; permanent bike lanes;  one way to two-way streets, which slow traffic;  vacant properties being leased and sold and opening of new businesses.

The Hampton Roads REALTORS® Association (HRRA) received an NAR Smart Growth grant to help fund a Better Block in Norfolk, VA. The block of 35th Street to be transformed was a commercial corridor embedded in a residential neighborhood.  The temporary vision was called "The Soul of Norfolk."  Local bands and entertainers performed; temporary street-scaping and traffic calming measures enhanced the pedestrian experience; and pop-up bike and hula hoop shops, coffee shops, bistros, bakeries, a terrarium garden enterprise, craft and jewelry vendors, food stalls, and tables of chess sets were set up.

Pop-up shop at Better Block 35th Street Norfolk Virginia.
Pop-up shop at Better Block 35th Street Norfolk Virginia.

HRRA also arranged for six vacant houses within a five-block radius to have open houses over the course of the Better Block weekend. It created a pop-up REALTOR® office in an empty storefront on 35th Street, staffed by a rotation of 18 members who promoted the open houses with walking maps and listing information.

For the first time in 37 years, the Newport Plaza sign lit its corner at 35th Street in Park Place for the Better Block festivities. Today the Newport Plaza building at 35th Street and Newport Avenue in Park Place will be developed into apartments and will host a soul food and seafood restaurant called Croaker's Spot.

If you want to see a Better Block in action, the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of REALTORS® will be partnering with others to host a Better Block on November 7 in conjunction with NAR’s Annual Conference in New Orleans. They plan on having temporary bike lanes, food vendors, a parklet, lighting, local musicians and a “second line” (parade).

Here’s what the area looks like now.

Lasalle Street, New Orleans, LA
Lasalle Street, New Orleans, LA

Come to the Better Block on November 7 in New Orleans to see how this block will be temporarily changed and to see if this is something that would work in your community.

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NAR Placemaking Resources

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REALTORS® and state and local association staff can learn the details of Placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.

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The Placemaking Grant funds the creation of new public spaces, like pocket parks, trails & gardens, in a community. The grant focuses on “lighter, cheaper, quicker” placemaking projects, which can be built under a year and cost less  than $200,000.

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