In August 2013, DCI welcomed Americorps VISTA volunteer, Jamie Shapiro, to our organization. AmeriCorps VISTA (volunteers in service to America) members spend one year in full-time service addressing the needs of low-income communities. This is DCI’s second year with a VISTA volunteer. Below Jamie provides a first-person account of his recent volunteer work at the Better Block
As part of my OSM/VISTA year with Downtown Colorado, Inc., I recently spent a Friday and Saturday volunteering at a Better Block event in Denver’s Santa Fe Arts District. The event, put on by NEWSED, a community development corporation for the neighborhood, used plywood streetscape improvement mock-ups and a street fair to showcase badly needed urban design improvements in the neighborhood.
We arrived on a rainy Friday to set up tents and assemble the demonstration plywood sidewalk, including benches, railings, trash cans, potted aspen and fir trees and flowers. Saturday was beautiful and sunny as artists, vendors, dance demonstrations, a bouncy castle and pony rides took over the block. The community rallied around the festival, highlighting the positive impact that urban design and neighborhood revitalization efforts can have on sense of community. One can talk about the benefits of sidewalk improvements, but it doesn’t become truly exciting until it can be seen and walked on, and the difference in the neighborhood can be truly felt by the community members.
Better Block events are held in communities worldwide as a low-cost way to demonstrate the power of urban design for neighborhood improvement. They generally include mock-ups of an improvement—such as the widened sidewalks, benches and trees highlighted in the Santa Fe event. By allowing community members and stakeholders to actually experience the difference a design project can have (complete with a festival and pony rides!), a Better Block can make otherwise abstract concepts feel very real and possible for the community.
Nonprofit organizations, including Downtown Colorado Inc., came out to lend support to the efforts of NEWSED in creating a safer, more attractive and more hospitable Santa Fe district. Local architecture firm Hangar 41 (whose work includes office towers in Shanghai and master planning in Saudi Arabia) was a key partner in the event, and displayed a model of the neighborhood showcasing an increased focus on pedestrians and pedestrian safety, as well as more density in the surrounding built environment. The combination of grassroots volunteerism, non-profits and for-profit firms with a common stake in a neighborhood is a powerful force for improvement that becomes visible in events like the Santa Fe Arts District Better Block.
Are you interested in organizing a Better Block in your area? Check out http://betterblock.org for more information.