From Suzette Jackson, Innate Ecology
The Geelong Better Block is over, Jason Roberts, cofounder of The Better Block, has returned to the USA, and central Geelong has returned to the quiet area it was?
We have to ask, was it all worth it?
On Saturday June 15th over 80 community volunteers set up a one-day community event in the streets of central Geelong to change the way we use our urban spaces. In two streets where you can count the pedestrians on one hand, there was an estimated 800 visitors in a four-hour period, with music activities, children playing, people meeting, chatting and lingering. There was upcycled street furniture built by high school students, bunting involving children’s ideals of a better city and free activities encouraging gardening, recycling, local foods, musical groups and cycling.
By all measures the Geelong Better Block was a successful event supported by local council, but what now? Was this just a ripple or has the spirit of the Better Block inspired others to reclaim our urban streets on a more regular basis?
Jason Roberts, cofounder The Better Block, a not for profit organisation, in Dallas, Texas and recipient of the Champion of Change Award at the White House 2012, recently participated in two Better Block events in Geelong and Melbourne as well as providing key note speeches at the ‘6th Making Cities Liveable Conference in Melbourne and the NSW Government annual ‘Urban Conversations’ in Sydney. The response from ‘Better Block’ participants and conference attendees were similar – engagement, wonder and joy – at finding a process, albeit temporary, that allowed a community to activate urban street space within their own community.
We are not talking radical ideas here. We are not talking anarchy or riots. We are talking community of families, people old and young from different lives coming together to socialise and help each other. What was similar for both the Geelong Better Block and the Coburg Better Block was that each event was encouraging a safe place for children, sharing of ideas and sustainable ways of life. Interestingly the Australian events were not guerrilla style events, as previously undertaken in the USA, but events coordinated with the support of local council. Was it challenging to organise with council approvals? Yes. Was it based on volunteer hours and resources? Yes. Was it a success? Most definitely.
While the ‘Coburg Better Block’ held Sunday 16th June was a residential street closure which was estimated to have attracted 150 people over three hours; the ‘Geelong Better Block’ held on Saturday 15th June attracted more than 800 people over the four-hour period based on a key theme of promoting a safe and walkable city, for a healthy and sustainable Geelong. The Geelong event activated two inner city streets with high retail vacancies and very low pedestrian traffic.
The event received national media coverage as the first ever Australian Better Block and was highlighted on The Better Block website as well as in Jason’s subsequent conference presentations. With the ‘Clovelly Better Block’ now naming the date for October 27th this year and Jason keen to revisit Australia, one has to ask what next?
How do we now translate the ideas from a temporary ‘Better Block’ into our cities and communities? Where to now?
Initial responses from our community survey indicate that people felt safer in the city, found new shops to visit and eat at, stayed in the area to talk and meet with people rather than just passing through and enjoyed the mix of live entertainment and street theatre provided as well as the free activities educating people on how to live more sustainably. There have also been numerous requests for Better Block events in neighbouring towns and suburbs.
We tend to forget that these streetscapes form part of our urban spaces and can be used for more than vehicle access and parking. Proactive councils Australia wide use street closures to activate urban centres, with community activities and markets, developing stronger local community and economy. Geelong community is speaking up – they want more access to our urban spaces for the community to enjoy for pedestrian, cycling and meeting. The Better Block is here to stay.
Suzette Jackson, Director, Innate Ecology was the Geelong Better Block event manager.