Community comes out for a Better Block Reply

by Daniel Graham

Better Block, Clovelly Source:  Park to Pacific Facebook page

Better Block, Clovelly
Source: Park to Pacific Facebook page

A pop-up urban renewal project took over a suburban shopping strip in Clovelly one recent Sunday afternoon, turning the main road into a pedestrian-friendly community hub.

The Clovelly Road Better Block demonstration day was organised by the Park To Pacific Association, a residents’ group advocating for more green spaces along the road to better cater for pedestrians. Clovelly Road runs for almost three kilometres from Centennial Park to Clovelly Beach, and is an important access road for over 130 Clovelly and Randwick businesses.

Temporary green spaces were set up along a stretch of the road’s main retail zone, with hundreds of potted plants and additional outdoor seating installed. There were live folk music acts, craft activities for kids, and local businesses were encouraged to set up stalls on the footpath. A group of primary school children held a homemade lemonade stall, raising money for the Sydney Children’s Hospital.

The aim of the Better Block event was to explore how a community might reimagine its central public space as being something more than just a main road with some shops. Initiated by community members and inspired by a similar movement in North America, Better Blocks are events that, as the organisers say, use “short term action for long term change”.

Better Block events are a form of “tactical urbanism”, a neighbourhood-building concept developed by American urban planner Mike Lydon. Mr Lydon is an advocate for the development of compact, walkable neighbourhoods as an antidote to problems caused by urban sprawl. He is currently in Sydney to deliver a keynote address at the Walk 21 International Conference. Together with Melbourne’s CoDesign Studio, Mr Lydon recently published the fourth volume of the Tactical Urbanism handbook, which has a particular focus on Australia and New Zealand.

The handbook details case studies of small scale urban renewal projects and describes the benefits of tactical urbanism projects for communities and governments: “Local governments want better ways to collaborate with their residents, and more effective ways to allocate stretched resources. Tactical urbanism demonstrates how the horizontal, peer-to-peer exchange of knowledge can change and improve cities.”

At a lecture on Tactical Urbanism earlier this year, Mr Lydon spoke encouragingly of citizen-initiated efforts to revitalise community spaces. “When neighbourhoods and people get behind good ideas, it’s incredible how quickly it goes from being this fringe activity or fringe idea to being supported by a city councillor, running its way through the system, becoming policy, creating physical change.”

Better Block, Clovelly Source:  Park to Pacific Facebook page

Better Block, Clovelly
Source: Park to Pacific Facebook page

Near a café and burger shop on Clovelly Road, two parking spaces were filled with a converted shipping container. It had been modified into a portable patio, with plants and seating for a dozen. The “parklet”, as such an installation is called, has been popular in cities that have held Better Block events. San Francisco, where the idea originated, now has about 60such structures permanently installed.

Areas with parklets attract pedestrians and so bring more business to local shops. The one in Clovelly has been installed on a provisional basis, with Randwick Council set to review its popularity and effectiveness after six months.

Further down the street, two murals were spray painted throughout the day on to previously bare brick walls across the road from one other. Representing the park on one side, and the ocean on the other, the three-metre murals are visible to anyone travelling toward the beach.

Sam, who spent the day painting “Sharkboy” (depicting, simply enough, a boy in a shark costume) hopes the street art will prove popular with the community, and might lead to further opportunities to decorate the community.

“It’s a lot nicer having art up, rather than just a bland wall,” he said. “Hopefully people like what we do and the Council lets us do more.”

Improving the attractiveness of public space is a policy that pays dividends, according to Brent Toderian. Speaking at a symposium on walkable cities at Sydney Town Hall, the former chief planner of Vancouver said that for this reason pedestrians, not motorists, are prioritised highest in the city’s multimodal transport plan.

“If you design cities like that, it works for everyone including cars,” he said. “If you design for cars, it works for no one. You have to pick your winners. We didn’t ban the car, we just put it last.”

Mr Toderian cited Vancouver’s experience in hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, when thoroughfares in the city centre were closed to vehicles, in order to stage large street celebrations. “When we closed down the streets and the world didn’t end, we started doing it more regularly.”

Better Block, Clovelly Source:  Park to Pacific Facebook page

Better Block, Clovelly
Source: Park to Pacific Facebook page

“Sticky streets” is a term Mr Toderian coined to describe areas that attract people to spend time in a place, rather than simply pass through. These places have their own unique transportation concerns that are not being addressed by traditional urban planning strategies, he said.

Having public spaces that allow people to move around on foot, not just in the city centre but in the suburbs, is crucial to urban planning, says Mr Toderian. “The success or failure of our city regions depends on how well we design our suburbs, simply because that’s where most of the people live.”

The Clovelly Road lemonade stand raised $850.

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