Jason Roberts Builds Better Neighborhoods, One Block at a Time

Jason Roberts

Always on the go, Roberts is involved in myriad projects and groups in Oak Cliff and around Dallas. Photo courtesy Jason Roberts

Much has been written about community activist, urban planning enthusiast, and Oak Cliff resident Jason Roberts. His energy is infectious as he spreads the gospel of urban revitalization around the world: building better neighborhoods by transforming vacant and underused properties into vibrant, thriving blocks abuzz with business, activity, and local participation.

His Better Block concept started in spring 2010 in a small part of North Oak Cliff, where Roberts asked the questions, “why are these buildings vacant and what can we do to rapidly transform them in days, not years, into bike- and pedestrian-friendly places that people love?”

The answer was a rapidly planned weekend project that created pop-up shops, filling underused or vacant spaces with the businesses he wished the area had: coffee shops, flower shops, and cafes, among others.

Better Block has since gone from a local experiment to a national and international model for urban redevelopment that showcases the possibilities in a neighborhood, no matter its current state.

The first Better Block happened in spring 2010 in Oak Cliff. Photo courtesy Jason Roberts.

The first Better Block in 2010 drew hundreds of people to North Oak Cliff. Photo courtesy Jason Roberts.

Here’s the concept in a nutshell:

The “Better Block” project is a demonstration tool that rebuilds an area using grassroots efforts to show the potential to create a great walkable, vibrant neighborhood center. The project acts as a living charrette so that communities can actively engage in the “complete streets” build-out process and develop pop-up businesses to show the potential for revitalized economic activity in an area. Better Blocks are now being performed around the world, and have helped cities rapidly implement infrastructure and policy changes.

Roberts is a perfect example of the right idea at the right time: In the four years since the first project, Better Blocks have taken place in New York City, Portland, Fresno, Detroit, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denton, Ft. Lauderdale, Denver, Norfolk, and Baton Rouge, to name a few of the participating American cities. There are also better blocks in Canada, Australia, and Iran.

Roberts biking in Akron, Ohio, one of the many U.S. cities to successfully have Better Block projects. Photo courtesy Jason Roberts.

Roberts biking in Akron, Ohio, one of the many U.S. cities planning a Better Block project. Photo courtesy Jason Roberts.

The idea is open-source, meaning it’s free for anyone to use with or without help from Roberts, but he estimates he’s curated at least 30 projects so far.

“It’s been really surreal to see how this thing has grown,” he said. “Our work got known faster than we ever anticipated.”

For an idea of the scope of the Better Block projects, check out the Better Block project map below, marking locations of past or present projects—and this is just in North America.

Better Block projects

Map courtesy The Better Block/Google Maps

This success allowed Roberts to create a for-profit company that offers consulting and urban quality planning, Team Better Block, along with co-founder Andrew Howard and two others.

Roberts is now a sought-after speaker on urban engagement and revitalization, and how community leaders and activists can encourage dense, pedestrian- and bike-friendly developments that draw businesses and residents. In the next 90 days alone, he is speaking in Mexico City; Nova Scotia, Canada; Melbourne, Australia; Scottsdale; and Tampa Bay.

All this has put his hometown on the map, Roberts said.

“Oak Cliff is mentioned regularly in the worldwide urban planning circles because of its DIY urban creativity,” he said. “When I go to Copenhagen, they say, ‘Tell me about Oak Cliff.’ It’s great to see it getting noticed in a bigger worldwide context.”

He just returned from speaking engagements in Denmark and Germany, where he got the opportunity to meet one of his heroes, Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and urban designer whose career has focused on improving the quality of urban life by focusing on pedestrians and cyclists.

“I’m really excited about that Better Block has become an international movement,” he said. “It gives us a broader platform to meet some amazing people around the world.”

Roberts meeting his hero, Jan Gehl,  a Danish architect and urban designer whose career has focused on improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design towards the pedestrian and cyclist. Photo courtesy Jason Roberts.

Roberts and architect/urban planner Jan Gehl. Photo courtesy Jason Roberts.

Roberts is looking at 2015 as an opportunity to learn from the frenzied activity of the past four years and ask, “What has occurred because of our projects? What’s the next level? Where do we take all this?”

To that end, Team Better Block co-founder Andrew Howard is currently a Loeb Fellow at Harvard. This opportunity is allowing him “to study the projects that have developed around the world and led to real change on the ground and stronger ties between communities.”

Perhaps most important is to ask how they can take the temporary “placemaking” of Better Block projects and translate it into semi permanent or permanent changes for neighborhoods.

“We’re trying to get people to build things that have a legacy, places that can last for hundreds of years, with timeless principals of building,” he said. “How can we empower the communities themselves to be the partners and owners in their communities?”