Yesterday the community inception meeting for Sydney’s first ‘Better Block’ happening on the 27th of October 2013 was held at Creativity Unlimited Studios Clovelly Road. Better Block is a neighbourhood demonstration movement which was started in the US by a guy named Jason Roberts. The movement basically advocates grassroots urban design interventions in streets, blocks and neighbourhoods which are installed temporarily over a day or weekend in order to demonstrate how easily the community can engage in the activity of place making– particularly when it is planned from the ground up.
The particular interventions undertaken have varied from site to site as the Better Block movement has gained momentum in the United States. They might comprise of dropping off a load of trees and pot plants to introduce foliage to the streetscape, opening up vacant or neglected buildings to host a temporary art show, painting demonstration pedestrian crossings, placing street furniture and cafe seating in places where the city codes prevent such activities from happening…the possibilities are only limited by the skills and willingness of communities to get behind the initiative and participate. As Jason Roberts explains in his TED talk below, often the planning regulations preventing such things from happening on streets were simply the outdated legacy of laws which had been in place for over fifty years i.e for so long that people were loath to question why things were that way, as they were just the way they’ve always been. Right? Sound familiar?
So, despite over forty Better Block events having occurred already in the US, Clovelly Road Better Block will be the second in Australia and the first in Sydney. Those pesky Victorians beat us to the punch as per usual with a Better Block back in June 2013 in Geelong :D. The man behind Clovelly Road Better Block is Phil Stubbs who is an active Eastern Suburbs sustainability voice who also lectures in Urban Planning at UNSW. His partner Lisa runs kids and adults art classes out of Creativity Unlimited Studios and the space will also double as Better Block HQ in the lead up to the event.
So why Clovelly Road? And why this particular stretch of Clovelly Road? This year, new strategic planning terms handed down by NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure designate the area as a ‘Neighbourhood Centre’- meaning a focal point for the surrounding area, a convergence point for business and social activities and a symbol of neighbourhood pride and identity. This is all very well (on paper) however as Phil points out, this particular strip of Clovelly Road has seen approximately 12 businesses fail in the last couple of years. Increased traffic and congestion on key linking roads such as Arden Street make walking and other alternative modes of transport less then attractive. Clovelly at times seems sandwiched between bigger fish to fry like Coogee Beach and Randwick Junction.
Fundamentally though, I think the area was chosen as perfect for a Better Block event because of its innate potential to be a great street. Clovelly Road East features stunning vistas down to the ocean, wide sunny streets and broad footpaths coupled with a vibrant variety of small local business who have managed to hold on despite the difficulty of competing with nearby mega mall Bondi Junction. These elements make for excellent building blocks, but the true potential of the area is yet to be fully explored and it is being held back by an inactive concrete dominated streetscape that does not respond well to social movement and flow. And at night time well… compared to nearby Bondi or Randwick, there is nothing doing. To me ‘neighbourhood centre’ implies activity throughout the day and into the night, that lingering element that you get in the European squares and public spaces that Jason Roberts eludes to early in his talk.
Yesterdays meeting was about garnering interest, brain storming and gathering ideas for the event. The turnout was great. Over sixty people showed up, some just dropping by for a scone and a cuppa but most stayed for the long haul and all posted ideas and contributions which are going to make this event so interesting and exciting for everyone involved. There were representatives from local business, politics, other sustainability groups, Rotary- even celeb gardener Costa Georgiadis popped by for a chat! Phil’s method is entirely open source, if you have an idea Better Block can help make it happen. Things will happen in groups, with a group for Cycling, Food, Art, Furniture and kids activities. Phil explained that even traffic engineers had responded to the event with positivity- saying that as a one day thing, a lot more becomes doable and permissible.
I’ll be updating about Clovelly Road Better Block event progress in the lead up to the event. If you want to learn more or become involved, like the Facebook Page and get in contact with Phil. It is shaping up to be a fantastic event that will change the way we think about the Clovelly Road.
Thank you to Lisa & Phil for having us (all sixty or so of us)!
Til next time