In order to make his neighborhood more livable, Jason Roberts had to break the law. In fact, he and 1,500 other people didn't stop at just one city ordinance; they violated dozens of them, more than once, without getting caught. But their idea definitely caught on: Since April 2010, when they revolutionized their Oak Cliff block in Dallas, Roberts' Better Block initiative has spread to more than twenty blocks across the country. And now it's coming to Denver.
On June 8 and 9, the Federal Boulevard Partnership -- the neighborhood group watching the construction project on Federal Boulevard -- will apply the concept to the 2900 block of West 25th Avenue between Federal and Elliot. A handful of other community groups are also involved, including WalkDenver, Jefferson Park United Neighbors, Groundwork Denver and Denver City Council's Susan Shepherd. The goal is to spend the entire day landscaping, redrawing the streets, collecting waste, installing pedestrian seating and improving empty storefronts to make the area more walkable and pedestrian-friendly.
Since Roberts turned the concept loose on his own neighborhood, Oak Cliff has garnered $1 million in funds devoted to infrastructure and a land-use survey dedicated to exploring the project's implications. Five city ordinances that place financial penalties on local improvements are facing potential eradication.
"Originally, the statement was, 'Why don't we spend a weekend and break every ordinance and regulation we can to create the block we always dreamed of?'" Roberts says. "But once we had made all the changes we wanted to in that first weekend, we saw no reason to stop there. We were dealing with a lot of assumptions that didn't allow us to have the community we wanted."
Video footage of the first Better Block project:
Although the group's healthy relations with city officials kept its members from being arrested, they assumed they would be. During the first action of what would soon become Better Block, Roberts and 1,500 volunteers created bike lanes, added café seating to the sidewalks, turned a garage into a children's art studio and built an artist market, all the while violating more city ordinances than they're probably still aware of, Roberts says.
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Since then, the movement has legitimized quickly, becoming Roberts's full-time job and spreading across the United States. Better Block's second attempt, in Oak Cliff four months later, doubled in size to 3,000 volunteers, and Roberts and his fellow organizers are currently overseeing projects in San Antonio and Wichita.
In order to turn their neighborhood into a Better Block project, community organizers need only attend one of the organization's webinars or read its how-to guide to local improvement. Last month, three Denver natives joined Roberts for online instruction, and Denver's Better Block group is seeking area volunteers.
"We don't put any kind of rules or regulations on it," Roberts says. "The beauty of the project is that it's not just the paint or the demonstrations or the wider streets; it's the community coming together to brainstorm, 'What can we do to fix our block?' In Dallas, it expedited a discussion that needed to happen fifty years ago. In your city, it does whatever you want it to."
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