Between Fifth and Sixth streets, downtown Fort Lauderdale’s Northwest First Avenue is a relatively sidewalk-less hunk of warehouses and skimpy grass, flanked by apartments on one end and train tracks on the other. On Saturday, June 16, it will be abuzz with local businesses’ pop-up spaces, cleaner landscaping, more sidewalks, colorful murals, and cleverly shaded seating constructed from a variety of found and donated materials. There will also be a bike rack by artist Paul Fioretti, who works with reclaimed metal, and a dog park (perhaps the best component of all). This will all be part of Build A Better Block.
Build A Better Block is exactly what its moniker implies: a demonstration of a spatially improved city block, with the hope that such changes can eventually be implemented long-term. It’s a nationwide event, but it’s particularly special that it’s happening in Fort Lauderdale, arguably one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities in the state (or the nation). This runs completely contrary to its warm weather and the frequency with which local mom-and-pop stores are appearing in proximity to new apartments — the kind of spaces you might like to walk in and out of.
Thus the goal of Fort Lauderdale’s Build A Better Block is to foster more foot traffic, slow down cars, and create a more socially interactive, visually pleasing street.
Rebecca Bradley is the co-founder of Cadence, the local landscaping and site-planning company spearheading the event. Of Build A Better Block’s beginnings, Bradley explains, “We put on an event called Park(ing) Day last September — we turned a public parking space into a public park for the day.” Like Build A Better Block, it was intended to show that the street can be used for things other than cars.
“Parking lots take up a lot of space and are often only dedicated to the vehicle — not to the pedestrian, the bike, and outdoor space,” Bradley says.
The ingenuity of Park(ing) Day drew a set of FAU’s Urban Design and Regional Planning students, who spoke with Bradley about the possibility of doing something bigger.
“In the urban-design and architecture communities, these things are starting to take place in cities,” she says. “We thought we would start small with Park(ing) Day and then try something bigger.”
Build A Better Block can only exist with the help of tactical urbanism, a term Bradley explains as the moment “you go out and do something on your own to make the urban environment better.” Although Build A Better Block is partially funded by the Downtown Development Authority of Fort Lauderdale, it is otherwise completely supported by volunteer work and contributions. “It’s people being resourceful and willing to devote their time,” says Bradley.
On a tour of the space that will be used this coming weekend, the most noteworthy detail was that the changes were small (the added landscaping details were minor; the murals accompanied graffiti that was already there) and, as Bradley herself said, resourceful — the shading on the outdoor seating will be made of panels from artists’ warehouses and the dog park is a small, grassy lot.
In short, it seems simple to make foot traffic happen.
But with food trucks, local art, DJs, a TOMS shoes “Design Your Own Sole” party — the feel of an event — can these changes be long-term? More than just a party?
According to the project’s mission statement, long-term planning projects are “often necessary for developments, the cost, scale, and long-range timelines” but can also lead to a “loss in project momentum.”
“Instead, Better Block FTL aims to create quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes that exhibit permanent solutions,” the statement continues.
But can fun, short-term events actually do that?
“They certainly can,” Bradley says. “I think people are more enticed to believe in something when they see it first-hand. These temporary movements allow people to walk through it and see how they work, instead of seeing it on paper. Once they’ve really felt how a space can become better, they’re more persuaded to invest in it or believe that it should be done.
“That’s kind of our goal,” Bradley continues, “we’re demonstrating, in a temporary way, ideas that we hope to become permanent. We want a more organized way for traffic to move. Right now, it’s all asphalt — there is no delineation between cars, people, a bike. We want all of those to work together.
“You have to interact with people on a more personal level, once more foot traffic is enabled. Right now, if the roads are only made for a car, they will never truly connect people.”
Where: The 500 block on Northwest First Avenue, between Fifth and Sixth streets, in Fort Lauderdale’s FAT Village
When: Saturday, June 16, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Contact: Check out BABB here, betterblock.org