Andrew Howard is one of the founding members of Team Better Block, a group that works to implement Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper strategies for the temporary revitalization of streets and public spaces in the short-term, to inspire people to think differently about how those places could evolve. Team Better Block recently took recommendations straight from PPS’s report on how to improve the hotly-contested historic plaza at the Alamo in San Antonio, and found LQC ways to do almost everything on the list to get the ball rolling on building a more cohesive constituency permanent change.
Now, we’re working with Team Better Block on plans for the temporary transformation of the Plaza de Armas, a forlorn public space at San Antonio City Hall, and the adjacent arterial, Commerce Street. In anticipation of that event, which will take place this Saturday, December 8th, 2012, we spoke with Andrew about how his team approaches their work, and how LQC strategies are changing the planning profession in Texas and beyond.
What Better Block does, in terms of short-term implementation, is a pretty important part of any implementation strategy, isn’t it? These interventions may only be around for a few hours, but changing peoples’ mindsets is often a major hurdle that needs to be overcome, that you guys have kind of cracked the nut on.
The Midwest and the South have a very auto-centric culture, so that is often the first step. The test for us with a Better Block is: can we get more advocates? That’s what they wanted in San Antonio. They only had this small group of folks coming to the table and talking about the Alamo, but it’s a public space for the whole city. How do we broaden the discussion about it? That’s where we said, let’s take the PPS study and go implement it temporarily and get some data while we’re there.
The first time we got a glimpse of working with PPS, we were still kind of in the guerrilla phase of Better Block. We did the Living Plaza on Dallas City Hall. William Whyte had done a study of that space about 25 years ago, and it was sitting on the shelf. We pulled it off and we built what he’d recommended in a weekend. That was where we started to see there the power of getting out and demonstrating this stuff.
At the Plaza de Armas, they did a study on downtown transportation [note: PPS worked on the Downtown Transportation Study, which can be downloaded here], and they want to test changes to a major arterial, Commerce Street, and take it down to one lane and add pedestrian and transit amenities to it. That’s our main focus with the Better Block coming up this weekend. We’re also going to activate the space with a pop-up coffee shop, a holiday market with vendors, movable seating, a food truck. The whole idea is to try to get folks to a part of downtown San Antonio they don’t often go to, and also to get them to walk a bit further.
In getting in and doing these things so quickly, can you hear minds changing, so to speak? That’s the core of what a lot of this LQC stuff is about: getting people to change their minds, and see spaces differently than they had before, and to see the potential in them. Do you hear people talking about that as they’re walking around?
Definitely. It’s great to eavesdrop and hear people, both the tourists who think a Better Block space is like that all the time, and then the visitors who say “I am so glad that we live in a city that will do stuff like this.” There’s a lot of negative talk around the Alamo. It is like fast-paced learning for folks to get into a Better Block and experience it. It’s also great for engineers and planners who are locked up, working on a desk, maybe reading theory on this stuff, to get out and do it. They learn so much more quickly, and they start getting the eye. They know how to look at a place, and how to make it better afterwards. You don’t get that from theory and drawing pictures.
In San Antonio, we caught this group of young folks that had just formed a downtown leadership group. They had had some meetings, and were trying to figure out what they were going to do. They did the Better Block with us our first time in San Antonio, and it changed the whole focus of their group! They started becoming doers, and having fewer meetings.
There’s clearly an emphasis, in Team Better Block’s work, on social networks, and the idea that what you call “rapid city-revitalization” happens by connecting people. Can you talk more about how that plays into what you do?
As a planner, I always thought that, if I made the best plan, that would attract the right people to come from somewhere else and make that plan happen. What I’ve realized through Better Block is that every community already has everybody they need. They just need to activate the talented people who are already there, and shove them into one place at one time, and that place can become better really quickly.
Better Block is like a big matching service, too, because when we start working together and we’re doing that “barn-building,” folks are talking, and making friendships, and business relationships. It’s very unlike what happens at a public meeting or a charrette, where you have your dinner table manners on and you’re talking formally. Better Block is like speed dating for doers. You start building furniture out of shipping palettes and, at the end of the day, it’s like “Well hey, let’s go build a building!” There’s so much courage, and people just feel empowered, like they could do anything.
Since the network-building that you do creates so many new advocates and doers, do you consider the human capital that’s created one of the biggest legacies of these projects that you work on?
That’s a great way to put it. It’s definitely about the human capital. People focus so much on the monetary and the physical capital of a place; but with human capital, if you concentrate in a place, you can change that place. It used to be that we graded Better Blocks based on how many people came. “Oh, 5,000 people came, we won, we did it!” Now our main question is: how many advocates are still working for it a year later? Did anybody out of the Better Block become a leader? That’s the win. We’ve definitely changed our idea about what the Better Block is supposed to do, and how to move from the temporariness to permanence.
In addition to PPS, who are you working with for this Plaza de Armas project? Who’s part of the network that you’re working on developing right now?
This one is being done a lot with city council members. Every council member is having someone from their district operate a pop-up market stall. VIA is a part of this too, because they’ve got a bus stop on the plaza, so we’re going to jazz up their transit stop. I think a big part of bringing Better Block into a city is the acknowledgement of wanting to be progressive and wanting to be open to new ideas and new ways of the city operating. San Antonio’s City Hall is saying right now that they want to be one of the most progressive cities not just in Texas, but in the States. They’re open to trying new things, and they’re not going to be bound by the norms in Texas. They’re going to try out these crazy things that look like they’re from New York City.
That’s one of the best things about Team Better Block: that it’s not from a coastal city where you might expect to find a bunch of urban guerrillas; it’s from Dallas!
We’ve had to take a lot of these edgy ideas from the coasts and figure out how to recalibrate them for the south! How do we make it work in an auto-centric, hot, boot-scootin’ environment? But people are people. They like each other. They want to rub elbows.