Jim Kunstler once said that if the 20th Century was about getting around, the 21st Century is about staying in places worth staying in. A prescient statement, it seems, as demographic, cultural, environmental, and economic trends continue influence the recovery of walkable urban neighborhoods where live, work, and play happen in close proximity. But despite ongoing, substantive market shifts, conventional city making processes continue to lag behind the demand for places worth staying in. Nonetheless, from Dallas to Brooklyn, Do it Yourself (DIY) urbanists are taking it upon themselves to institute place-based change at the scale urban dwellers understand best: the city block.
The Better Block Project
If you are a blogosphere surfing urbanist, then you have likely stumbled across "The Better Block Project." Carried out by Dallas, Texas urbanists Jason Roberts, Amy Cowan, and a cadre of local change agents, the Better Block effort takes (PARK)ing day one step further by effectively demonstrating how a simple vision and a little sweat equity can ably transform an auto-dominated city block into a vibrant, people-oriented neighborhood center-even if only for a single day. The installation, which cost less than $1,000 to produce, has gone viral across the country and may have seeded more permanent change in the Oak Cliff neighborhood. As always, a YouTube video speaks more than a thousand words:
DoTank:Brooklyn seeks to catalyze local intellectual capital. Yet, rather than dwell on navigating the myriad of political structures that eventually institute change, this informal group of Brooklyn based urban planners, artists, and public space advocates directly produce positive urban interventions at the block scale.
To date, DoTank: Brooklyn has created a digital community board, re-purposed work pallets into fully functional, zero waste urban Adirondack chairs, and have taken to sharing films of New York City's most seductive public spaces. Each project is designed to raise awareness and contribute to a better built environment. And like The Better Block Project, the work of DoTank: Brooklyn demonstrates how harnessing technology, ingenuity, and everyday community resources point the way towards realizing a more livable block, street, neighborhood, and city.
Whether a temporary café,or a sidewalk installation project, North American cities would do well to view these two efforts not as disruptive code violations, but as signs of true vitality; the presence of an engaged population; a reason to push a more progressive planning agenda; and a mandate to break through the conventional planning process to provide innovative and low-cost solutions that lead to long term, positive change.