Building better cities 24 hours at a time

Wendy Siegle Aug 5, 2011

Building better cities 24 hours at a time

Wendy Siegle Aug 5, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Those of you who live in pedestrian-friendly cities may not believe this, but there are people from more car-centric cultures — Los Angeles, just for instance, or Houston, Texas — where it’s nothing to drive, like, a mile on a quick errand instead of just hoofing it. Part of that’s force of habit. Part of it, though, is a lack of inviting places to walk, or enough safe routes to ride your bike.

In Houston, though, one group is trying to change that — block by block. From KUHF, Wendy Siegle reports.

Wendy Siegle: Zacq Lockrem rolls a small paint-striping machine down Holman Street in Houston.

Zacq Lockrem: There we go. Bike lane. So now we will go down and put the little bike guy in the middle too.

Within hours, that bike lane will be painted blue. It’s all part of a 24-hour stunt to turn a boring urban block into a vibrant one overnight. Lockrem and more than a dozen volunteers will pick up trash, and set up food stalls and cafe seating on the sidewalk.

Jay Crossley is an organizer with Houston’s Better Block Project, a movement that started in Dallas and is now spreading to other parts of the country.

Jay Crossley: We’re trying to show just how we can transform a neighborhood through transforming the street.

They’re also adding some greenery with young trees and purple flowers to spruce up the block. And they’re doing this even though it’ll all be taken down and washed away tomorrow.

Andrew Howard: The Better Block is a temporary art installation.

Andrew Howard is a transportation planner in Dallas. He and a friend came up with the Better Block Project last year. Howard calls them “urban defibrillators,” saying they can bring a flat-lining street back from the dead. He hopes the event will create a sort of virtuous circle: If there’s more foot traffic, more stores will open, and with more stores comes more foot traffic.

Howard: Maybe they come there because of the art gallery, but then they found out ah, there’s a great dress shop, there’s a really nice coffee shop, and between those two there’s a great cafe — then we’ve captured them and got them before they’ve gotten back into their car.

But can changes that are washed away the very next day have any kind of lasting effect? Howard says they already have. Since the very first Better Block a year ago in Dallas, two businesses have taken up leases on that street. And it impressed the Dallas City Council, which has since hired Howard’s urban planning firm to design a walkable public plaza on what used to be traffic lanes. Howard says the car-free space will be dotted with trees and benches to encourage people to hang around.

Volunteer: So theoretically it’s supposed to fit 12 bikes.

Back in Houston, the crew is nailing together pieces of wood to make a temporary bicycle rack. Paul Nicosia, another Better Block organizer, surveys all the work that will be torn down in a few hours. He insists the block’s face-lift will prove to locals that it is possible for Houston to become walkable. But more than that, he hopes to catch the eye of the politicians who can actually make these changes permanent on blocks around the city.

Paul Nicosia: What we show today may not happen just as we show it. But if we can get this to happen in another spot in the city, and then another, and then another. And then all of a sudden it becomes second nature to all the design professionals, all the city officials.

He says pedestrian-friendly streets make for more active communities. Better Blocks are popping up in Tulsa, New York and elsewhere. The challenge, though, is to convince the right people that it also makes economic sense.

In Houston, I’m Wendy Siegle for Marketplace.

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