Written by Grace Szucs- Communication & PR
It’s been nearly two weeks since I sat in the new Halifax Central Library listening to Jason Robert talk about the Better Block Project. Like many East coasters, I have friends who live and work in Texas (where Roberts is from), and I’m familiar with stories of concrete superhighways, gated communities, and urban sprawl.
Texan cities like Houston and Dallas sound like a lost cause to someone who takes a 15 minute stroll to work, passing by parks, merrily bubbling fountains, and meandering along a large lake.
Better Blocks is an organization that takes underused areas of the city and, through volunteer intervention, turns them into places people want to occupy. They take over a single block and set up temporary parks, pop-up shops and cafes, seating areas, and even pools to bring people into the space to mingle. Roberts is inspired by European plazas and streets where the young and old linger and spend time together and businesses bustle, and he isn’t deterred by concrete flyovers or abandoned lots or even outdated city bylaws that seem to stand impede his vision.
Given the enormous success Roberts has enjoyed with Better Blocks, I was surprised to find out that his end goal is not the continued success of his projects. Rather, the main focus of Better Blocks is to raise social capital. That is, to engage the community and have fun. It’s the only assumption he makes before embarking on a project. The ripple effects of starting a conversation in a community and bringing attention to the sense of belonging in a particular space are often unpredictable, he says.
Roberts is full of wisdom and joyful determination. Listening to him talk was like being rained with golden nuggets of insight, so that’s how I’m going to present what I learned from Jason Roberts.
First of all, start small: Roberts seeks to transform a single block in a neglected area of a city.
Permanency: Forget it. Don’t fear it, and don’t strive for it. Creating something temporary takes the pressure off and allows creativity to flow more easily. The more experimental you can be the more likely it is that innovation will strike. Impermanence also engenders less backlash from city officials.
Red tape: One of the huge takeaways I got from Roberts was how these temporary, community-built interventions could serve as research and development for the city. By essentially creating a case study for something the community wants, you do some of the key work and data-gathering that costs the city thousands of dollars and takes sometimes years to organize through traditional means.
Identity: When Roberts approaches an area for improvement, he thinks about the “legacy” of that place. What is unique about the area and how can he highlight it?
Identity is in the details, he says, and we should celebrate what’s already present in a community. What makes the place great? Target those attributes and use them make that spot irresistible, to make it somewhere people want to be.
Rapidity: Roberts talks about getting things done in “rapid order”. Act now. Make your project happen this weekend. Why not? Doing so creates momentum and keeps self-doubt from creeping in.
Resources: Realign the resources you already have in new order so they can work in a new way, says Roberts. Engage the community around you. When it comes to resources, Roberts always tries to borrow first, build second, and finally, if needed, buy. Borrowing is integral to his main focus of raising social capital. It gets neighbours to meet, talk to one another, and it builds trust among the community. When something needs to be built for a project, Roberts harnesses the opportunity for learning and skill-sharing. If it comes down to making a purchase, he uses it as another opportunity to engage people through fundraising education and passing the hat.
One of Roberts’ many philosophies goes like this: An environment based on fear is cold whereas an environment based on love breeds positivity.
Feeling inspired yet?
100in1Day is like a tiny Better Blocks. Individuals create small, positive changes in their community through one-day interventions, and the 100in1Day team is here to help facilitate your ideas. We will be holding workshops throughout the city over the next 3 months. On June 6th everyone’s intervention will launch for the day and transform Halifax as we know it! 100in1Day.ca
Jason Roberts (@mannytmoto) was brought to Halifax by two other lovely organizations: Halifax Cycling Coalition and the Planning and Design Centre.