Visualise a typical American citystreet, eliminate all of the space that’s intended for cars and you’re not leftwith much. All that remains are narrow sidewalks, occasional crosswalks, the rarepedestrian and cyclists trying to navigate thin strips of inadequate space. Carsdominate cities. “Americans are used to cars the in the way fish are used towater.”1.
Cities are designed toprivilege the needs of machines over humans and as a result the public domainis crumbling; “the city as such is disappearing … that dark downside ofmobility and new technologies … make contrasts between town and country orurban and non-urban increasingly meaningless.”2. Pedestrians reside in thepublic realm, so cities urban frameworks should be directed solely at thehuman, not the car.
Many analysts attribute the decline in the significanceattached to public space to the reduced availability of it, the use of publicspace has been opposed by developments of the automobile and the internet,roads and parking take up the vast majority of American cities. Not only isthis affecting the physical space that the public inhabit, its affecting socialinteractions. Ellin Nan observes “how many of the social and civic functionsthat traditionally occurred in public spaces have been abandoned or usurped bymore private realms. Activities such as leisure, entertainment, gaininginformation and consumption can increasingly be satisfied at home through thetelevision or the internet.”3 The procurement of publicspaces by private establishments results in the decline of meaningful communityspace. A prominent example of this within the urban framework of America is theshopping mall. Deserting the city centre, shops would re-house themselves in outof town, fortress like complexes. Leaving the spaces, they left behind withoutpurpose.
Cities flourishwhen the urban fabric is designed in a way that puts people and public spacefirst. “By shaping the built environment, urban designers influence patterns ofhuman activity, thus, the social life.”4 Spaces and societies areinterwoven.
“It is difficult to conceive of ‘space’ as being without socialcontent and, equally, of society without a spatial component.”5. Larry Ford, a professorin Geography from San Diego State University writes “Good streets, sidewalks,parks and other public places bring out the best in human nature and providethe settings for a civil and courteous society, everything will be fine if wecan just get the design write.”6.
This statement expressesthe importance that designers have on our neighbourhoods. They have thecapability to generate potential environments, however, it’s people who createeffective environments. So, why don’turban planners produce innovative, exciting designs that reinvigorate the oncethriving public spaces in the U.
S? Well, whenever we find large groupsinhabiting a specific location we also tend to find masses of rules governingtheir use of the space.7 In author Andres Duany’sbook, Suburban Nation8 he highlights that many development codes in Americahave a damaging effect on the quality of the built environment, these detailedregulations hinder the designers, instead of building an environment they’dadmire, they are building to fit with convention. The elements of the designprocess are governed by what they can’t do, such as no slow-moving cars, noparking shortages, no overcrowding. He also writes “One cannot simply buildCharleston anymore, because it is against the law. Similarly, Boston’s BeaconHill, Nantucket, Santé Fe, Carmel – all of these well-known places, many moreof which have become tourist destinations, exist in direct violation of currentzoning ordinance.”9All it takes isone visionary, who’s brave enough to fight against convention and bureaucracyto act as a catalyst to reclaim our public spaces.
That visionary is calledJason Roberts. He isn’t conventionally an architect, urban planner or designer,just a computer technician who wanted to see change in his community. Growing up inthe late 1980’s Roberts was trapped in American suburbia. Surrounded by dullstrip malls, managed by lacklustre high school seniors biding their time beforethey could leave for university. Grey parking lots stretched for miles and nobodyhad any pride or any reason to celebrate their community. He would listen tohis parents who would nostalgically tell stories of the communities they usedto live in, talking about quaint main streets with local parades, everybodywould know the local pharmacist, grocer and café owner, people would look outfor one another’s other’s children. He dreamed of living in an area like this.Aftergraduating from the University of North Texas Roberts found a job working for aweb development company amidst the dot com boom.
During his spare time, he readarticles and blogs on urban revitalisation, he also played in a band, this gavehim the opportunity to travel to modest arts communities around the U.S. Thesewell-knit, but, poor communities illustrated how you could do a lot with verylittle.
When visiting these neighbourhoods, he saw small projects that aimed torejuvenate blighted communal areas. One project Roberts talked about in a TEDTalk10 was PARK(ing). PARK(ing)was an idea born out of San Francisco, members of a design collective Rebarpaid a parking meter for two hours, they then used this space to temporarilyplace turf, a small tree, a park bench and a sign inviting passers-by to relax.This project was designed to spark conversation, a political act to highlightthe alternative ways in which we can use space. 11 PARK(ing) project Roberts sawwhat was happening in other communities and wanted to take his inspiration toreinstate the public realm, to support and facilitate public life and socialinteraction in his own neighbourhood of Oak Cliff, Dallas. He petitioned at hiscity hall and proposed that all the main streets in Dallas were halved in sizeand bike lanes are implemented in their place. He was immediately suppressed,the council exclaimed that there would be disastrous traffic issues and businesseswould be adversely affected.
He needed to discover a process where they can fixthings rapidly and independently. In2010 Roberts and a group of like-minded individuals created Better Block. Thisproject aimed to create a dream neighbourhood in little more than a day, with nextto no money. The group followed a plan that was the complete contrary of anytraditional planning methods.
“Work cheaply and quickly, use temporaryproducts, break rules, and focus on action over dialogue. The goal was simple:Build a dream block in 24 hours using anything at their disposal.”12 The project started on ablighted block which had a one-way, high speed, street, thin sidewalks, vacantbuildings and no landscaping. There were masses of laws and ordinancesrestricting the site 13 Street before Better Block intervened frombeing used in any other circumstance other than a lifeless street you seeabove. Fines prevented flowers being placed on the sidewalks, having outdoorseating and erecting marquees. It was also illegal for crowds of people togather in this space, as well as using the sidewalk to sell merchandise. So,the Better Block community embraced a gorilla style tactic and decided to breakevery law they could over a weekend. Using economical methods they fashionedtemporary bike lanes using children finger-paint and white duct tape, acquiredadvertising wraps used to cover the sides of buses and cut out strips to makemore crosswalks, thinned the streets and widened the footpaths, painted muralson buildings, arranged decorative blockades on the road in a serpentine style toslow down traffic, opened businesses that people within the neighbourhood hadalways wanted to run such as bike shops, cafes, art schools, they placedoutdoor café seating and printed off posters detailing all of the laws theywere breaking and placed them in the windows of the new businesses.
Themovement brought people from every corner of the community to the Better Blocksite. 14 15 Better Block after intervention The BetterBlock then invited the Mayor and city officials to come and observe the workthat they created, when they arrived Roberts and the rest of the team all envisagedthey would face fines and even jail time for the multitude of laws they’dbroken. However, the reverse occurred, the officials saw the benefits theproject had given the community.
Amazed at the sense of community that hadseamlessly appeared out of nowhere, the city decided to rewrite certainplanning laws, for example people no longer had to pay $1000 to set up outdoorcafé seating, it was reduced to just $100. Businesses that were only intendedto be temporary ended up staying and thriving within the community, thepercentage of the local population using bikes rose, small, independent,artisan businesses moved to the area. This demonstrates how urban design canfacilitate change within the public realm, this quick, effective venture was “aprocess that allowed the community to take the reins.”16. Roberts described theBetter Block as the neighbourhoods “own personal place to unwind and let go andsee our community. A place where our kids can play, see seniors play chess orbackgammon, have teenagers court, all these things that make up life; we wantedto create a space that invites all that and allows it to thrive.
“17. The concept of betterblock validates the theory that when designers change their street scape toprioritize human beings over cars and zoning laws, you don’t experience anydecline in economic activity, you see the opposite, thriving communities andgrowth in local economies. Illustration showing bike lanes The Better Block movement establisheditself and projects began to arise across the United States. Their swift andaffordable approach to reviving the public realm meant that American towns andcities, once again, had spaces that would inhabit the development of varioussocial practices.
As a forerunner of the movement, the Better Block groupwanted to aid the communities that they were inspiring and make the process ofpublic transformation straightforward and far more accessible. In 2016Wikiblock was created. An online, opensource toolkit providing instructions thatempower people to build components for richer communities. The site holds allthe information needed to fabricate benches, chairs, kiosks, planters, stages,fences and much more.
The Wikiblock designs can be taken to local workshops/makerspacesand uploaded to CNC machines. The components are cut out of Plywood and can beassembled without the use of adhesives or nails. “Wikiblock offers a fun, fast,effective path to get people involved in shaping their community and createspaces where people can connect with their city and each other”18 19 20 Wikiblock products The decline of the public realmisn’t just an American phenomenon, its occurring globally.
Coin StreetCommunity Builders is a social enterprise based in South Bank, London. Itsorigins begin in the 1960’s, town planners assessed the South Bank area andimplemented new zoning laws that would incentivise the growth of commercial andoffice developments. These new laws saw the decline working families, who’dresided in the area for decades because of the once thriving industrial district.Public facilities, such as schools and shops were likewise diminishing. ThePublic realm within the area was close to dying. One individual site within thecommunity had investors trying to erect a new hotel complex, it would’ve beenone of the tallest in Europe. However, local residents were opposed to the ideaas it would’ve displaced already fragmented families.
If the proposal had beenauthorized there would have been no chance to revive the depleted public realm.An action group provided the town planners with an alternative vision for thesite, they wanted to introduce a neighbourhood with affordable, family housingwith open public spaces and realistic employment prospects. The community set up the Coin StreetAction Group, after seven years of tireless work and campaigning the groupmanaged to purchase the contested land. The action group was supported and initiallyfunded by the Greater London Council. They helped them to conduct studies andcrucial development work. This source of assistance “enabled the residents toshape their own vision for the neighbourhood, work with architects and otherbuilding professionals to submit for planning permission, develop viablefinancial and business models, and to participate fully in the public enquiryprocesses.
“21The community worked with local authorities to devise new zoning laws thatwould inhibit the development of commercial properties in the vicinity. This wasalso the juncture when the Coin Street Community Builders was created, anon-profit co-operative established to procure the land that the council hadhelped them to purchase. The co-operative was composed of residents who wantedan active role in the decision-making processes that dictated the fate of thedevelopment and the future of the neighbourhood. To generate funds for thegroup to reinvest into the community, the Coin Street Community builders usedlocal commercial outlets, one of these includes the refurbishment of the OxoTower. These outlets created money that was invested back into communityprojects such as four social housing schemes, expanding a riverside spacemaking accessible to both residents and the public, a large park, a sportscentre and other community facilities. Some of the community ventures were pairedwith privatised developments in order generate finances that could bereinvested.
For example, rentable conference rooms were implemented into thecommunity centre, and car parking beneath one of the social housing projects.22 23 24 Coin Street Community spaces Illustration showing the Coin Street 25 Community garden space being enjoyed by local families Coin street in todays termsis increasingly under threat from rising land values and investors looking todevelop. The Coin Street scheme shows defiance against the pressing politicalagendas and the property market, there is an unwillingness to kow-tow. It showscommunity resilience and how a well-planned, strategic and long-term view hasthe ability to be effectively delivered with the correct guidance. Coin street showsa successful attempt to construct a sustainable community, providing andaccommodating a socially mixed and engaged neighbourhood with local jobprospects.
The scheme sets an innovative and successful precedent for thegovernment to apply to other communities. Iain Tuckett MBE, a regeneration andcommunity housing pioneer and chief executive of the Coin Street CommunityBuilders scheme states “anything that the government or anybody else can do toencourage the setting up of these sort of neighbourhood trusts will beinvaluable, because what we’ve been able to do is bring together the publicsector and private businesses and get everyone working to a common vision.”26. This anti-gentrificationscheme aimed at building a strong, resilient community has had questionsregarding its very concept however. Critics ask if the community has become tootenacious, has it created the grounds for a self-perpetuating, closed group,too conceited to let anyone join the community. One of the main aspects of theproject was that it was run by a co-operative; to play any roll within thescheme you had to be a resident. Since the project gained recognition and fameits said that many of the residents are now sceptical to allow any newinhabitants to join the scheme, especially after the they have control overvital and integral decision-making process. Residents are precious over whatthey have created.
The two projects highlightedshare a common theme, they’re both community lead ventures, with a goal ofreclaiming cherished public space. In the modern world many cities aresuccumbing to the powerful forces of gentrification, neighbourhoods are losingtheir sense of community, “Walls, partitions, barriers are appearing on thelocal scale and in most everyday management of space.”27. Both Better Block andthe Coin Street Community Builders have successfully challenged societalconvention, rebuilding fractured communities. To achieve their missions,they both took alternative methods. Better Block was an incredibly hands on”process of working with people and becoming more socially connected.”28. The whole project had anumbrella of do it yourself, it allowed people with no background in urbandesign to have an integral role in how they wanted their own neighbourhood todevelop.
This process gives the community a far deeper connection with thespaces they share, again reinforcing and instilling the real sense oftogetherness within there communities. Roberts dream of living in a communitysimilar to the ones his parents told stories of had been achieved. The approach adopted by theCoin Street Community Builders had a similar overall goal to Better Block, toretain their family orientated community by providing social family housing,job opportunities and community facilities. However, the area of South Bank hadthe added pressures of the overwhelming city sprawl in London.
Rising landvalues threatened the integrity of the project. However, with tireless workfrom the resilient residential group they managed to rewrite zoning laws andreplace commercial incentives for developers to build in the district.Structuring a strong untouchable housing pocket in central London. These are both pioneeringendeavours that have successfully reclaimed the public realm, governmentsshould use programs such as this to revitalise communities. Not only are theresidents proud of their public spaces but economical activities in localareas, especially in the case of the Better Block, have increased tenfold.1 Vox (2016).
Superblocks: How Barcelonais taking city streets back from cars. video Available at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZORzsubQA_M Accessed 21 Jan. 2018.2 Augé, M., 2008.
Non-places. 2nd English language.,London: Verso.3 Heath, T., Oc, T. and Tiesdell, S.
(2010). Public Places – Urban Spaces.2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, p.135.4 Heath, T.
, Oc,T. and Tiesdell, S. (2010). Public Places- Urban Spaces. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, p.134.5 Heath, T.
, Oc, T. and Tiesdell, S.(2010). Public Places – Urban Spaces.2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, p.134.
6 Ford, L.(2000) The Spaces Between Buildings,Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, p.1997 Lawson, B (2001) The Language of Space, Architectural Press, London, p.
2-3.8 Duany, A& Plater-Zyberk, E with Speck, J (2000)Suburban Nation: Theriseof Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream,North PointPress, New York, p. 19.9 Duany, A & Plater-Zyberk, E withSpeck, J (2000) Suburban Nation: Therise of Sprawl and the Declineof the American Dream,North PointPress,New York, p. XI.10 TEDx Talks(2016).
A Better Block | Jason Roberts |TEDxUTA. video Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HTkBTnZ9D4Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.11 https://inhabitat.com/parking-day-is-this-thursday-september-21-2006/(2006).
image from last year’s PARK(ing) project. image Availableat: https://inhabitat.com/parking-day-is-this-thursday-september-21-2006/Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.12 Diodati, M.
(2018). Founder Profile: Jason Roberts. online The Better Block.Available at:http://betterblock.org/blog/2015/08/02/founder-profile-jason-roberts/ Accessed22 Jan. 2018.
13 Benfeild, K. (2010). Tyler Street at 7th in Oak Cliff.image Available at: http://kaidbenfieldarchive.
com/20100831–building-a-better-block-demo-is-changing-a-dallas-neig.htmlAccessed 22 Jan. 2018.
14 Better Block (2016). Better Block Foundation to help people buildmore vibrant, connected communities. image Available at:http://betterblock.
org/blog/2016/01/13/better-block-foundation-to-help-people-build-more-vibrant-connected-communities-with-775000-from-knight-foundation/Accessed 23 Jan. 2018.15 Belmont Community (2017). Belmont Avenue Better Block. imageAvailable at: http://belmontcharlotte.org/news/betterblock/ Accessed 23 Jan.2018.
16 Monocle (2015). DIY Cities. podcast The Urbanist.
Available at: https://soundcloud.com/monocle-24-the-urbanist/diy-citiesAccessed 23 Jan. 2018.
17 Monocle (2015). DIY Cities. podcast The Urbanist. Available at: https://soundcloud.com/monocle-24-the-urbanist/diy-citiesAccessed 23 Jan. 2018.
18 Nightengale, K. (2018). Introducing Wikiblock: a Toolkit forCreating Better Blocks. online The Better Block. Available at:http://betterblock.org/blog/2016/10/09/introducing-wikiblock-a-toolkit-for-creating-better-blocks/Accessed 24 Jan.
2018.19 Better Block(2016). Wikiblock. image Availableat:http://betterblock.org/blog/2016/10/09/introducing-wikiblock-a-toolkit-for-creating-better-blocks/Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.20 Better Block (2016).
Wikiblock. image Available at:http://betterblock.org/blog/2016/10/09/introducing-wikiblock-a-toolkit-for-creating-better-blocks/Accessed 25 Jan.
2018.21 Futurecommunities.net. (2018). CoinStreet, London, 1984 to the present | Future Communities. onlineAvailable at:http://www.
futurecommunities.net/case-studies/coin-street-london-1984-presentAccessed 25 Jan. 2018.22 Spatialagency.net.
(2018). SpatialAgency: Coin Street Community Builders. online Available at:http://www.spatialagency.net/database/why/political/coin.
street.community.builders.cscbAccessed 25 Jan.
2018.23 Coin Street Community Builders(2018). Community Centre. image Available at:https://coinstreet.org/venue-hire/conferences-meetings/ Accessed 25 Jan. 2018.
24 Bernie Spain Gardens. (2018). imageAvailable at:https://coinstreet.org/who-we-are/contact-us/bernie-spain-gardens/ Accessed 25Jan. 2018.
25 HaworthTompkins (2018). Iroko Housing. image Available at:http://www.haworthtompkins.com/built/proj22/index.
html Accessed 25 Jan. 2018.26 MHCLG (2008). Iain Tuckettdiscusses the Communities in Control White Paper. video Available at:https://www.
youtube.com/watch?v=iCjzNoipxeE Accessed 25 Jan. 2018.27 Augé, M., 2008. Non-places.
2nd English language., London: Verso. p XIII28 Monocle (2015). DIY Cities. podcast The Urbanist.
Available at:https://soundcloud.com/monocle-24-the-urbanist/diy-cities Accessed 26 Jan.2018.