When I was asked to write an article on the “guerrilla urbanism” movement, I hesitated because I’m neither a writer nor an urban planner. In 2010, we gathered a group of friends and created an art project called Better Block, in which we decided to create our dream neighborhood block in days, using very little money. We never envisioned the project becoming a national movement and being part of a larger trend of citizen-led efforts to rapidly transform blighted communities around the world. Prior to this, I had toured with a rock band, helped revive a historic movie theater, and returned a streetcar system to an underserved community (long story). My partner in crime, Andrew Howard, was a planner, but left the planning world when he realized that little of what he created was being built and much of his energy was being put into drawing pretty pictures of mixed-use developments that were largely a ruse for private developers to get public funds to add value to their land acquisitions. On a European vacation, I fell in love with city blocks filled with old and young people, street music, flower shops, cafés, old buildings, and small marketplaces. When I returned to Dallas, I drove around my neighborhood and saw boarded-up and vacant buildings, wide streets, small sidewalks, and little streetlife. I commented to a friend, “Why can’t we have blocks that look like the ones throughout Europe?” He scoffed, “Let’s be honest, Dallas will never be Paris.”
That night, I began looking into what was holding my neighborhood back. I found a series of ordinances that prohibited or heavily taxed things that foster amazing urban blocks. From restrictive zoning rules, parking minimums, exorbitant fees on café seating, landscaping, and more, I learned that the ability to have a great block like those I had seen abroad was largely forbidden.
The idea to rapidly transform my neighborhood was an outcropping of the street art movement being led by Shepard Fairey and Banksy, rather than a Jane Jacobs–inspired urban planning effort. The ingredients of our project were the opposite of those found in traditional planning: work cheaply and quickly, use temporary products, break rules, and focus on action over dialogue. The goal was simple: build our dream block in 24 hours using anything at our disposal. Artists were key, borrowing was imperative, and the potential of going to jail was likely. A group of friends and I met at night in a theater-prop warehouse and began laying out a vision for the block. Paint and clean buildings; create bike lanes; set up outdoor cafés and fruit stands; string lights across the street; convert vacant buildings to art galleries, flower shops, kids’ art studios, and coffee houses; and, lastly, print out the ordinances we were going to break and hang them in every window. On a Friday night in April, we began transforming the block, and by Saturday morning the street was unveiled.
For years we had been told that Dallas didn’t have the culture to embrace a walkable, urban environment, that it’s too hot, people are too accustomed to driving, and no one would come. What we saw that day challenged everything we’d been told. People walked to the street, sat outside, drank coffee, and read newspapers. Flowers hung from window sills, old men played chess, children made art in former auto shops, teens pedaled in freshly painted bike lanes, residents began volunteering in our pop-up shops, and musicians appeared unexpectedly with open guitar cases and performed on street corners. The street came roaring back to life. In 24 hours and with less than $1,000, we built our dream block and disproved the skeptics. Most notably, we learned that a vision is fruitless without action.
The hands-on movement seen unfolding around the world is a response to the pent-up demand of those who are tired of waiting for governments, consultants, or other so-called experts to create the kind of communities we crave. Better Blocks, PARK(ing) Days, yarnbombings, guerrilla gardening, pop-up businesses, and depaving efforts are byproducts of a more social and connected community that refuses to accept the idea that “We can’t be like Paris.”
Jason Roberts is the co-founder of the Better Block project, taking blighted blocks with vacant properties and rapidly converting them into temporary walkable districts with pop-up businesses, bike lanes, café seating, and landscaping. In 2011, the American Society of Landscape Architects bestowed a National Honor Award to Team Better Block, heralding its project as “a 21st-century version of what the Chicago World’s Fair did in 1893.”