Building blocks to a gentrified city

Gentrification in Coburg unwittingly on the front page of the Age today.
Who do projects like Better Block ultimately benefit?

Street party in Coburg.

This is the story of the creation of a streetcar from desire. In the Texas city of Dallas, Jason Roberts was looking at ways to reinvigorate his ailing neighbourhood of Oak Cliff. It was, says Roberts, considered a bad part of town.

Oak Cliff used to have a streetcar service, once running over 32 kilometres of track. In 1956, the trolley bells fell silent, and the tracks were covered with asphalt. That, it seemed, was literally the end of the line.

But Roberts, an IT guy by day, saw the potential of what a streetcar service could mean for Oak Cliff. He created a website for the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, with a mission to fire a debate on the return of the streetcar.

Initially, the authority had a membership of one: Roberts. But that’s all it took. The local paper did a story, generously if inaccurately referring to Roberts and his supporters. The power of one soon became many, as people – including a civil engineer and a streetcar specialist – came forward.

A non-profit organisation was formed, followed by a pitch for a grant for federal government funding. The odds of success were slim. Yet the government was looking for projects that reconnected workforce housing to business areas.

It liked the Oak Cliff streetcar idea to the tune of $US23 million ($24.3 million). Work has started, and streetcars will be back on the rails in Oak Cliff next year, for the first time in almost 60 years.

Roberts wanted to start a conversation: ”Why did we take this out? If it was so important to our development, is there a way for us to bring it back?” The answer was a resounding yes.

The streetcar dream is just part of the story for the 39-year-old Roberts. He has long moved on from his IT career and, with co-founder Andrew Howard, leads the Better Block movement, now spreading across the world, including to the streets of Melbourne and Sydney.

The Better Block movement is part of a whole new approach to transforming unloved areas that have been neglected by the official channels of government and hamstrung by ordinances and planning processes. In essence, it is a grassroots movement, where locals step up and seek to improve the area where they live.

A driving principle is about ordinary people showing the potential of what could be through temporary projects. Last weekend, two streets in Melbourne and Geelong were transformed by locals as Better Block ”pop-up” demonstrations.

In Coburg, an unloved section of High Street was closed off and became a place of trees, astroturf nature strips and street chess. In Geelong, Little Malop Street was filled with vegie boxes, community-built furniture and art installations. A Better Block is planned for Sydney’s Clovelly in October. It’s about showing what could be, and hopefully, bringing about permanent improvements to an area.

The Better Block idea started getting attention in Australia earlier this year, when Andrew Howard was brought out by the Sustainable Living Festival. He drew enthusiastic crowds on a speaking tour of Melbourne, country Victoria and Sydney. ”We knew there was this great concept emerging in America, and it hadn’t really surfaced in Australia,” says Liz Franzmann, who managed the tour.

Franzmann, who works as a community organiser, has been volunteering with the Better Block movement, and was one of a group of friends behind the Coburg Better Block last weekend. ”Better Block for me is essentially using that notion of a street party, but with a change agenda,” she says.

Roberts was the star attraction at both events last weekend, and was enthused by what he saw. A common theme in both projects – and indeed the wider Better Block movement – is getting people connected. ”You can’t get physical change until you have the community really buzzing, talking again,” he says.

The movement is generating interest in Australia among planners who can see the potential. After speaking in Melbourne this week at a conference on liveable cities, several approached Roberts to learn more about the movement. Roberts also spoke to an inner-city arts group about creating their own Better Block project.

It all began for Roberts back in 2005 in the ”blighted” streets of Oak Cliff. His first project was the dilapidated Texas Theatre, a grand picture palace opened in 1931. The theatre, of course, was best known as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested after the 1963 shooting of president John F. Kennedy. Police descended after a report that a man had entered the theatre without a ticket.

The history of the Texas Theatre was chequered from that notorious moment. Locals, explains Roberts, tried to run away from that legacy. A non-profit group was trying to raise funds to restore the building, but they needed millions.

Roberts loved history and old buildings. ”I wanted, for selfish reasons, just to see it, get inside and experience the space,” he says. ”But I also wanted others to, too. I wanted something to happen and I knew that I wasn’t a developer with millions of dollars to fix the problem. But what could I do? Well, I could bring people to the equation.

”And that’s where in the end, when cities or developers or anybody is trying to do something, all they are trying to do is to get people to come in. I just leapt past all of the financial concerns and all those other issues. I’ll just create an avenue for people to be involved.”

That avenue was the Art Conspiracy (referencing the ”Who shot JFK?” conspiracies), where 100 artists were brought in and given canvases. The next day, their works were sold at auction for charity.

His aim was to get energy and life into the space, to ”let people see what could be”.

”I think by just doing that act, somebody will shake out from all of this that can help us. That’s really what it was – it was people seeing the potential.”

The idea worked, and almost a decade on, the Texas Theatre is now loved again, a bustling place that shows independent films.

While he was researching the streetcar project, he noticed that cities with streetcars also had a transport system that included many modes, including robust bicycle programs.

Roberts loved the cycling culture – even though he didn’t own a bike.

He organised a bike ride. The theme was less about high-speed recreational cycling, and more about local cycling, riding to your local grocery store. He was expecting 20 people that Sunday morning. As he nervously rode off, he had 150 riders behind him. The man who wasn’t really a cyclist was suddenly their leader.

Roberts says it taught him the need for people to stand up. Those 150 were ”waiting for something like this to occur, and they were waiting for someone to champion these things: we need more of these social bike rides, and we need more of this infrastructure.

”It made me realise that, wow, just by taking a stand, people fell in line behind me and said, ‘All right. We’ve got a leader. Let’s go.’

”You will be surprised at how many times, especially when you’re dealing with these projects like the Better Block, when you bring the community together, and you talk about what’s missing in an area or could be better, we all share a lot of the same ideas.”

Then came the first block project in Oak Cliff, which has become something of a template for the Better Block movement. A vacant, underutilised and unloved block was chosen. Typically, says Roberts, the places around the world he loves are only a block in size.

”It’s kind of like your laneways here,” he says. ”You’ll find this little laneway, and you’re like, this is the perfect little laneway. I don’t need anything more. I’ve got a little cafe, I’ve got a little market. Actually the scale, it doesn’t have to be large. In fact, the smallness always makes it more intimate.”

Roberts and his friends looked at what they needed to create a centre for the community. That included bringing in trees, street side cafes and music. The two-day ”pop-up” block was an outstanding success. The block is now enjoying increased occupancies and new shopfronts. ”Things started happening … it really snowballed.”

Initially, the approach was a form of urban guerilla tactics – go around the planning process and just do it. ”My thing was, how do I bypass that, just to give people the experience of the block I have in my brain, which is that place where people sit down outside, drink a cup of coffee, listen to music, maybe outside,” says Roberts.

These days, cities and planners are hiring Roberts and partner Andrew Howard to work on projects with the community. The old approach involved consulting the public through abstract conversations at town halls, and Photoshop renderings of what is planned.

”Our idea was to take that same energy and time you’re putting into that, and just transfer it onto an area that has a problem,” says Roberts.

Town hall meetings, he says, encourage the emergence of naysayers, who use the platform to say no to anything. ”Often times, it sucks the air out of a room. People are just, well, I guess that’s how the whole community feels because people are saying this.”

What started as an unsanctioned exercise is now getting official backing. Roberts says the role of officials is to ”clear the stage”, cut through the bureaucracy and allow communities to innovate on a temporary basis.

This is what happened in Coburg and Geelong last weekend. Coburg High Street resident Jules Martin, a landscape architect, was one of the instigators. He and his partner moved from a beautiful, nature-stripped Northcote street 3½ years ago to a Coburg street where asphalt covered the strips, and trees struggled to grow through postage-stamp cut-outs.

”I’ve been calling it the poor cousin or the ugly duckling of the neighbourhood,” says Martin. But not last Sunday, when it was a street transformed and brimming with potential. About 300 people came to High Street, some from across town who came to see a Better Block in action.

The top-down element was also there, with Melbourne Water demonstrating and giving away downpipe diverters and the local council invited.

The ultimate aim is bringing about some permanent change. Having shown what’s possible, Martin and his fellow Better Blockers will meet again with council staff. ”It’s not going to happen unless you actually get out there and make it happen,” says Martin, ”and show that we are engaged and interested, and would like to see change.”

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