Stacy Aguilar / Staff Writer
A group of Denton city leaders, young professionals and residents gathered at the Center for Visual Arts on Aug. 21 to discuss the possibility of bringing the “Better Block Approach” to the city.
Councilmember Kevin Roden started the session by describing a process in which residents are active in changing the planning approach. Instead of analyzing an issue with a top-down perspective, residents are more involved in changing their neighborhoods.
The Better Block Project, founded by Jason Robert and Andrew Howard, helps communities temporarily transform a single block to demonstrate its potential for improved living, new businesses and safer streets. Examples of these temporary installations include low cost “pop-up” businesses, community gardens and outdoor cafes.
Before Better Block, Robert was an IT consultant in Oak Cliff in Dallas. However, he became a de facto urban planner through his experience while changing his community.
“Ideas came from my trips to Europe,” Robert said. “Looking at the plazas and the fountains, [you can tell] they were spaces made for communities that had lasted for a thousand or more years.”
Robert was struck by the resiliency of the buildings and how adaptable they were because they could be retrofitted and continuously built into new things.
He said in Dallas, the scale and size was often wrong for the buildings that were coming in. Buildings of today were often created for one purpose, but when the business or occupant moves away, the community cannot easily retrofit the space.
Robert also said that while cities were taking action to change transportation, zoning and other policy initiatives to impact the livability of a neighborhood, these plans were usually set to take place in the next 20 years.
“You look at all these things and think, ‘this is going to be a great city – in 2035,’” Robert said. “It was really depressing. I didn’t want to know how great it could be in 20 years, how can we make it a great place in 20 days?”
“It was the cross of these two things: planning and community-based experience, that led me to this idea,” Oppenheim said.
Being an urban planner, Oppenheim had heard about Better Block through organizations, publications and word of mouth.
“By now, the Better Blocks team has experience in selecting the right locations,” Oppenheim said.
She hopes the Better Block team can train the community and inspire future projects throughout the city.
Through her involvement with the Denton Community Market, Oppenheim is aware of the growing creative community and entrepreneurs in Denton. She has also attended the recent creative mixers and has been following the Denton planning community for years.
“We knew people who wanted to bring it here,” she said. “And with all the energy that is emerging through new local businesses, the growing creative class and the growth of the city, I feel it’s the right time and the right place to have one.”
Oppenheim will be a key organizer for the project if approved by the city council in upcoming months. No specific area of town has been chosen yet, but Oppenheim said there are many areas to choose from.
During the session, attendees discussed potential projects. Jaime Blanton, a publications specialist for UNT, suggested the project focus on improving the areas surrounding local train stations.
“We have a train quarter that runs from [the Downtown Denton Transit Center] to the points south, but there’s not a lot of energy around the train quarters themselves,” Blanton said. “In order to really make [the trains] a useable mode of community and transportation, we need things to do.”
Attendees of the Better Blocks meeting were asked to fill out suggestion cards and return them to city council representatives. An online survey for submissions is also available and progress updates will be posted to the Better Block Denton Facebook page.
Once suggestions have been accumulated, city staff will prepare a presentation for the city council’s review in September. If the council decides to move forward, Robert and Howard will be contracted to help choose the right location, recommend projects and suggest affordable ways to get projects completed.
Better Block projects have happened all over the world, including Australia and Iran.