Becoming the Change
Jason Roberts is being honored as a Champion of Change for his time and effort developing innovative ways to help grow and expand the transportation industry.
Wow. When this all began I never dreamed my work would start a national movement in urban revitalization, or that I would be receiving this incredible Transportation Innovators Champion of Change award from the White House and the Department of Transportation.
My whole life I was waiting for someone to create the kind of community I always dreamed of. The real change in me occurred when I saw many of my friends moving away from our city. I looked at that and thought I could leave as well, or we could all start working to make it the kind of place we always wished we lived in. The change for me personally was to say, “Wait a second, who am I waiting for to fix these problems?”
But, where to begin – I was an IT consultant, I wasn’t an urban planner, an architect or even a leader growing up in school.
So, I began studying maps of my inner city neighborhood and realized that many of the vacant historic buildings in my community were built along street car lines that traversed the city. After WWII the streetcars were removed, and streets grew bigger while sidewalks became smaller. The buildings no longer made sense as these structures were built with pedestrians in mind, not cars. Later we changed to auto prioritized zoning, and families could no longer walk to the end of the street to buy a gallon of milk. By removing the streetcars, widening the streets and changing our zoning to focus on auto centric development, we eliminated the local neighborhood deli, flower shop and tavern. Kids no longer had safe places to walk. Seniors became prisoners in their own homes and relied on family and friends to transport them for basic needs. Beyond this, what we really learned was that these businesses were much more than commercial enterprises – they were the community gathering places where neighbors shared theirs stories, joys, sorrows, hopes, and dreams. Also, shop owners provided extra eyes on the street, and residents had many of their needs within walking distance from their homes.
In 2006 I began studying and meeting with transportation experts throughout the nation. I started the Oak Cliff Transit Authority which brought together civil engineers, residents and property owners to return the streetcar as a means to revitalize our community. Streetcars were already proving themselves to be vital economic catalysts in cities that were bringing back their rails.
While the streetcar effort was in place I began to focus my attention on the buildings and streets themselves. A team of artists, residents, and property owners helped begin our first Better Block project, an effort to temporarily revitalize a single blighted block with any means at our disposal. What we lacked in funds we made up for in community! We were inspired by the work of Jamie Lerner who said, “If you want creativity take a zero away from your budget… If you want ultimate creativity take away two zeroes.” We set forth in building our dream walkable environment. We took our wide streets and thinned them by creating bike lanes and outdoor café seating so children and families could more easily access the area and seniors could have a comfortable place to sit. We brought in historic lighting and shade trees, and began converting the vacant buildings into pop-up business such as local cafes, markets, flower shops and art studios for kids. We filled the sidewalks with fruit stands and life!
Prior to the project we were told Dallas was too hot and lacked the culture to support a pedestrian environment. What we found was that we were no different than any other great city in the world. We just needed the chance to create an irresistible place that embraced people and promoted walking, bicycling and lingering with friends and family.
After the project, some businesses remained because they were embraced by the neighborhood. City officials took notice and are beginning to change zoning rules while promoting multi-modal transportation facilities on the streetscape. Many of the vacant buildings are now leased and we are seeing a strong return of community throughout the area. Now over 30 cities across the country have created their own Better Block projects. And, we’re beginning to see the effort spread internationally. Most importantly, local governments are adopting the movement due to its rapid ability to catalyze change and get the community out onto the street.
To bring this all back home, in 2010 our community was awarded a $23 million TIGER grant to return a modern streetcar to Dallas. Not only will this give us more options for transportation, our buildings will be able to come back to life and make sense at the neighborhood level. The streetcar will also help connect our many affordable work force housing units to a major job center in our city. Allowing people accessible and safe options to walk, bicycle, drive, or take public transit will enhance our community’s economics, health, and vitality.
When I started my work, I was always told the only way to fix a neighborhood was to “Think Big.” What I found was that great places are made up of hundreds of small things that create one extraordinary change. I truly feel that the way that we can tackle our problems is to “Think Small” and make hundreds of little changes that contribute to a greater community.
And it all starts by showing up!
Jason Roberts is the Founder of the Oak Cliff Transit Authority