November 11th, 2012 by Margo

The night my husband proposed to me was captivating.  I was in Paris for a German Marshall Fellowship and he flew in to surprise me.   We headed to Luxembourg Gardens for an evening picnic.  Seated around the verdant, shady Medici Fountain, people perused the evening paper.  A myriad of tête-à-têtes were held around small bistro tables at the outdoor café.  Sonorous tunes streamed from a large gazebo, where a Paris orchestra was conducting rehearsal.  I was joyous.

I have always envied the way other countries create lively public spaces. I have seen charming little restaurants wedged onto traffic medians, alleyways lit up by neighborhood art, and secret gardens hidden in public parks.  In this country we often seem mired in a zoning bureaucracy that quells creativity.

The antidote may have been concocted by Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard.  Hailing from the Oak Cliff neighborhood in Dallas, these guys use the power of imagination to motivate change and bring grey public spaces to life through a project called BETTER BLOCK.

BETTER BLOCK works like a pop-up book.  They re-imagine dilapidated commercial strips by putting up temporary shops, outdoor cafes, bike lanes and crosswalks for a weekend. They reduce 4 lane streets to 2 lane streets (for a weekend) and fill the added space with pocket parks, pedestrian walkways and café seating. Lively neighborhood enclaves emerge from the dust.

Imagination is a powerful motivator. Once people experience these dead public spaces in an energized light, they begin to actually create the new reality. In Dallas, they took the drab space in front of the City Hall and transformed it into a “Living Plaza” with food carts, entertainment and trees.

The BETTER BLOCK idea of has quickly spread to cities like Memphis, St. Louis, New York, and Boston.