To build a better city, start with building a better block

[highlightrule]“Typically, people look at abstract ideas and overwhelming macro-issues like poverty and homelessness. Often missed is the opportunity to tackle low-hanging fruit like sidewalks or improved lighting.” — Jason Roberts[/highlightrule]

Sometimes, to build a better city – a city built for residents, not for cars or absentee landlords or development financiers – you start with just a city block. That’s the approach tactical urbanist Jason Roberts takes, all over the country. He works with neighborhood residents and together they install something – admittedly temporary – to spark fresh ideas and inspire action.

Roberts comes to Charlotte on Tuesday for a public presentation at Spirit Square, the second in a series of speakers and projects from an initiative called Building Community: People + Places + Partners from Charlotte Center City Partners and the City of Charlotte.

The series is envisioned as a forum to spark innovative ideas and approaches to creative place-making. In addition to public talks, the series will create opportunities for residents, community and government leaders to explore fresh ideas, test potential projects and challenge conventional development approaches.

While in Charlotte, Roberts will meet with residents in the Belmont neighborhood, as well as city officials, and will start planning a Sept. 23-24 Better Block event for the neighborhood.


“Our goal is always to help build a better city,” says Richard Thurmond, senior vice president for community and business development at Charlotte Center City Partners and series co-organizer. “The best way for us to build a better city is for us to all do it together. When you involve everybody, you have a much better chance of getting a city that works for everybody.”

Roberts has built an international reputation as a groundbreaking neighborhood development advocate by organizing a series of “Better Block” projects. His work has been featured in the New York Times, at TEDxOU and TEDxAustin and on NPR.

His teams like to move fast, engage collaborative partnerships and set up temporary, prototype projects. Among his projects are taking blocks with vacant properties and converting them into walkable areas, using pop-up businesses, bike lanes, café seating and landscaping.

“Jason is a particularly important speaker for our community in that his perspective resonates with people that are very action oriented,” says Monica Carney Holmes, an urban designer with the City of Charlotte and series co-organizer. “He doesn’t simply talk about the potential and possibilities for underutilized areas, but shares tools and approaches for people to test and try.”

The programing represents a collaborative partnership between the City of Charlotte’s Urban Design and Community Engagement divisions and Center City Partners, a nonprofit group that promotes economic, cultural and residential development in the city’s core. Funding support is provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute will be assisting the speaker series with research.)


“We’re looking for these programs to inspire change and foster enhanced quality-of-life projects throughout the city,” says Nicole Storey, neighborhood and community partnerships manager with the City of Charlotte. Examples, she said, might be community gardens, public art, bike lane improvements and pop-up markets.

The speaker series kicked off in April with Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation. In addition to a public lecture, while Sadik-Khan was in Charlotte she met with community, business and government leaders and a cross-section of city residents.

Storey noted tangible results from Sadik-Khan’s visit. “We saw things like a temporary bike lane pilot program on the Plaza in Plaza Midwood, street murals and prototyping of improvements that could help lead to changes in the regulatory environment.”

Thurmond likes to describe the programming as a speaker plus action series. “We’ve been very careful in designing this to have speakers that not only challenge our way of thinking and bring new ideas to the table but get involved with the community in active ways.”

[highlight]“This approach is a bottom-up version of city planning, as opposed to a traditional top-down approach.” — Jason Roberts [/highlight]

Roberts’ time in Charlotte will be busy. In addition to his Tuesday evening talk, he’ll talk Tuesday afternoon to an urban design class at UNC Charlotte’s Center City building; conduct training with city engineers, planners and Center City Partners’ development staff; meet with community and government leaders, and walk the Belmont neighborhood with residents to envision and help plan the September Better Block demonstration project there.

“We’re in a critical time in the growth of our city,” says Holmes. “Residents have great interest in how that growth happens and recognize the implications for transportation, housing and quality of life. Sessions like these capitalize on that interest and provide opportunity for conversations about development pressures and create dialog about our city’s future.”

Roberts says one common theme he sees when visiting communities is a lack of engagement, not because of disinterest in improving things but because of frustration in not knowing how or where to begin to address problems.

“Typically, people look at abstract ideas and overwhelming macro-issues like poverty and homelessness,” says Roberts, “Often missed is the opportunity to tackle low-hanging fruit like sidewalks or improved lighting. I see a Iack of education and awareness of what tools and resources are out there to help address these problems.”

Roberts says his talk Tuesday will focus on best practices in urban design and planning and will identify tools and resources and how to use them to start neighborhood improvements. “This approach is a bottom-up version of city planning, as opposed to a traditional top-down approach,” he says.


What: Building Community: People + Places + Partners Speaker & Project Series: Jason Roberts

When: 5:30–7 p.m., Tuesday, July 11

Where: McGlohon Theatre, Spirit Square, 345 N College St.

Admission: Free


More information:

Other public events:

  • Presentation to UNC Charlotte urban design students, open to the public. July 11, 2-3 p.m., UNC Charlotte Center City, 320 E. Ninth St. (Note: parking is not provided.)
  • Belmont Better Block, Sept. 23-24, Harrill Street and Belmont Avenue.

Michael J. Solender is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.

A Better Block event might install protected bike lanes, as shown above. Photo: Tim Fitzwater Photography

Michael J. Solender