Back in October I had the privilege to be part of Better Block Ottumwa training and implementation. If you are not familiar with Better Block, the team works with city representatives, local developers, and citizens to create quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes, typically on one block, that improve and revitalize underused properties and highlight the potential for creating great “Complete Streets”. The concept focuses on a series of “quick win” projects using the Better Block approach, which can bring greater attention to developments prior to build-out, in turn increasing the potential for long-term success.
I have been familiar with Better Block for almost two years. They came to Tallahassee last year and implemented the Better Block strategy in Frenchtown. I followed the process closely through Facebook and wish I could have been there to experience it! My good friend in Tallahassee was integral to the project’s success and spoke very highly of the Better Block team, so I was very excited when my boss told me that the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) was applying for a grant to bring Better Block to Iowa and wanted the Iowa Arts Council (IAC) to be a partner in the process. Main Street Ottumwa received a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant to increase knowledge across Iowa of creative placemaking and thus kicked off the preparations for Better Block. I worked with IEDA, IDOT, and Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative to invite a well-rounded audience as part of the full day Train-the-trainer program followed by a full day build-out of Better Block projects. While the meeting was primarily aimed at Main Street Iowa communities, there were transportation, health professionals, and artists involved as well to add their expertise to the concepts and designs.
Day one of the program was designed to introduce attendees to the process and provide them with the tools to bring Better Block back to their communities. After short presentations by Better Block, IAC (by yours truly), IDOT, and Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative (not sure if they have an acronym… but they need one!), we did a tour of a block in Ottumwa (different from THE block that would be revolutionized the following day) and observed the level of protection, comfort, and enjoyment we felt along that block. The group identified the weaknesses and opportunities of the block and then proposed “interventions” or short-term improvements that could be made to improve the block. It was a fun small group exercise as we brainstormed about what kinds of places we enjoyed being in and how we could bring that feeling to the block.
Day two of the program is where the magic happened. Guided by the Better Block staff, the group was broken into various teams to take on the “interventions”.
Some of the Interventions included:
- Cafe Seating Along the Street
- Temporary Bike Racks
- Wayfinding Signs
- String Lights Above the Vacant Lot
- Bike Lanes
- Pop-Up Block Party in the Vacant Lot, including a temporary stage, tables, food trucks, and yard games
- Temporary Playground
- Pop-Up Brewery in the Capitol Theater
- Photography Murals on Blank Walls & Empty Windows
- Pop-Up Bagel Shop
- Pop-Up Boutique
For more information on the interventions, necessary materials, and volunteer instructions, see the PDF online.
The images in this post only capture part of the energy and enthusiasm of everyone involved. It was a long day but the volunteers worked hard until the start of the community block party. When I left the playground was under heavy use by multiple small children, the live music was going strong, and the bagels were nearly sold out!
Many people ask about the ultimate result of these temporary strategies, myself included. The Better Block staff made it clear that there is far from a 100% permanency rate, but even if only 2-3 of the strategies become permanent, there has been a positive impact on the community. Sometimes the permanent change comes from businesses deciding to lease a vacant space that they saw activated during Better Block, other times it is the City Officials seeing a need for policy changes in public space permits. Providing the paradigm shift for communities to see their block in a different and more vibrant way has a powerful impact. Sometimes the changes still take time, but the seed has been planted.
My hope after taking a part in this process is to continue pushing the idea of “easy wins” and temporary changes to the communities I interact with every day. Sometimes we get so caught up in the overwhelming size of big ideas that we lose the ability to think small. Huge shout out to Jason Roberts, Founder of Better Block, for encouraging us all to think small!