Apr 10, 2018
THEME: Point of View

Building Better Blocks in Dallas and Beyond

With our new home in Downtown Dallas comes a new speaker series focusing on design performed by those who happen to not be architects and their contributions’ impact upon cities, context, and community. Hosted by our DNA group (“promoting design culture within our Dallas studio and the city at large”), Jason Roberts of not-for-profit Better Block was the first to visit with us in the new space, offering insight on the organization, pop-up Field Days, and successful approaches to community building. Following his presentation, I sat down one-on-one with Jason.

Michael Friebele (MF): One thing you shared during your presentation in our studio was that you did not start with a background in architecture or urban design; rather, you got your bearings in the field of IT. What then drove you toward an interest in engaging communities with design?

Jason Roberts (JR): My early inspirations were a handful of architecture collectives in Europe that were taking gas stations and turning them into movie theatres, or train stations and making them into opera houses. In the US, groups like Rebar in San Francisco were a major influence. Their most notable project was Park(ing) Day, but they had a handful of other impactful design projects that really opened my eyes to the possibilities within my own city. I realized that any change I wanted to have happen required a holistic approach. To get people to be okay with change I’d have to present them with a better alternative. That’s where design was key.

MF: It has been interesting to observe, take part, and volunteer with Better Block, especially given the diversity of backgrounds in the team, much like that of where you came from. Tell us a little bit about the team dynamic at Better Block? What is it like to be part of?

JR: Our team environment is really interesting. Only 3 of our 11 staff has a background in urban planning or architecture, so a lot of our office is filled with people that fell in love with cities through different career tracks like IT, journalism, and community engagement. It brings a well-rounded perspective when we have discussions about projects and where our focus should be. The other interesting part of our office environment is that half of our building is an office space, and the other half is a high-functioning workshop. At any given time in a day, a project manager might be designing a streetscape improvement, finalizing a client report, then hammering together a bus stop. I’ve pretty much built my dream office space.

My background was in IT, but there were always times I just wanted to get out of the sterile computer room environment and just work with my hands. We’re fortunate now to be able to do that on a daily basis now.

MF: The contexts you work in, from the rather young urban landscape of Dallas to former industrial centers in the Rust Belt such as Akron, pose a range of issues. What distinctive challenges does Better Block face, whether that’s from a community or design standpoint?

JR: There are challenges from every community, but one of the most notable is the concern over gentrification, loss of character and identity, and displacement. We try to address this by educating existing communities that reside in a place, and giving them the tools and resources to make change themselves, building the capacity to create local businesses, and ultimately giving citizens ownership of their environment.

MF: Since my time at Perkins+Will we have come to know each other well, and we’ve also run into each other often. There was that one time in Love Field on the way to Charlotte; I was flying there for a project meeting while you were going to work with the community in the Belmont neighborhood. It was interesting to experience the city from those two very different perspectives, from the downtown core to the neighborhoods along the periphery. What is striking with each city is their rapid growth.

Given this, what are some aspects of design’s strengths and where would you like to see improvement? What are considerations you think designers should have?

JR: In cities like Charlotte and Dallas, the majority of their growth took place after the automobile became ubiquitous. The downside of that is we’ve built places for cars over people, while the upside has been that our overbuilt infrastructure provides a lot of opportunities to recapture this space and come up with creative ways to inject a more intimate scale environment and multi-modal enhancements.

Jason (center, pink shirt) in the Belmont neighborhood of Charlotte, site of a Better Block project. (image via Charlotte Observer)

When I’m addressing places in these cities and working with fellow designers, the major focus I ask everyone to address is dramatically transforming the space into one that’s human-scaled. Developing a walkable rhythm, friction, articulation, a mix of materials, permeability, and strong connections to surrounding area amenities.

MF: Which leads us to Field Day 2018 in Dallas, the latest project we will be collaborating on together, now in its second year. Field Day really took on that essence of transformation at the human scale. More impactful for me was the project’s further exploration of the Wikiblock concept, an open platform for communities to invigorate their own city blocks with elements of place-making. As Oak Cliff continues to change, the public spaces created during Field Day collectively reflect something that can be deployed for communities in place seeking environments for those celebrated cultural and economic connections.  What sparked the idea?

JR: Field Day was born out of the idea of bringing designers together to create with a bit of irreverence and playfulness, but putting their efforts toward a real problem we face in Dallas. Creating places that people love to be in.

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