If you build it, will they come? That’s a question that community planners and advocates will be asking this May when they host “Better Block St. Joe” on May 4th and 5th.
For those who haven’t heard of Better Block, it is a grassroots project that originally started in Dallas, Tex. Community members who wanted to make their streets more livable, walkable and enjoyable decided to stage a “temporary block experiment.” Organizers who wanted to improve a busy area of their Dallas suburb joined together and staged a brief, real-life street improvement. Temporary bike lanes were created; sidewalks were extended and beautified with temporary café seating and trees in planters; temporary businesses were created in empty buildings.
The goal? To educate local community members on how different their street could be, if they only changed their perspective and just tried something different—even if for a day.
Head north 500 miles and Community Development Planner Matt Buchanan says he first heard about the Better Block project while listening to NPR last summer. “I thought it was an awesome idea,” he explains, “and something we could do to improve things in St. Joe.”
Currently, Mo-Kan, a regional planning commission and economic development district in St. Joseph, Mo., is coordinating the effort with over 100 individuals and organizations on board. “St. Joe has a lot of history,” Buchanan says, “a lot of gorgeous old buildings in town, and so many of them are underutilized. A lot of the businesses moved to the highway on the outside of town, and we’re trying to go into those buildings and clean them up and make them look more inviting to business owners.”
As part of the plan, Mo-Kan will also have a business financing booth at their two-day event this May. Experts who can provide advice on loans and funding will be on hand to answer questions, including St. Joseph Downtown Partnership r staff. Buchanan says that they are currently looking for business applications, and anyone who has ever wanted to try out a business for the weekend, now has a chance, for free. “We have an application online,” he says, “and people can apply to set up a pop-up temporary business. There’s no cost and some of them might make some money, too.”
While economic development is a goal of Better Block St. Joe, Buchanan also says that livable or complete streets elements are critical to the project. “We’re taking out street parking and putting in more pedestrian space and bike infrastructure,” he explains. “We’re going to build some bike racks that can be left there permanently and paint some better pedestrian crossings.”
Why all the work, though? “It’s important to change some perceptions,” he continues, “especially for our downtown. A lot of people think that downtown is dead and no longer relevant. And some people might think it’s unsafe, even though it’s not. [Better Block] is a good [way] to change that perception; to get more people involved. With a project like this, people can take ownership of it. They can come in and swing a hammer themselves. When it’s the community involved, it’s a lot different than having the city do something on its own. It becomes a public event.”
For more information about how you can get involved in Better Block St. Joe, visit Mo-Kan.