The Better Block

Pittsfield's foray into Tactical Urbanism

Tyler Street has long been a focus of commerce and activity in Pittsfield. Over the past several decades, it has been an incubator for economic development and revitalization ideas as well. For me, at least, if North Street is representing Pittsfield's future aspirations, then Tyler Street is manifesting the challenges that Pittsfield is still facing today. It is not a tourist destination or a place of civic significance. Its purpose is to serve the residents that live there, with barber shops, laundromats, car washes and package stores. For those who do not live there, including myself, the street serves its usefulness by being a connector to other places. This has turned Tyler Street into a bypass; a place often passed over. The traffic speeds and noise are high, and crosswalks and green space are few and far between. These factors, among others, are still holding back the Tyler Street and Morningside neighborhoods from true resiliency. A plan called the Tyler Street Transformative Development Initiative (TDI) is already underway to learn more about these factors and to offer guidance in overcoming them. The TDI's website is already a useful resource, so I will not reiterate the information that can already be found there. The focus of this feature will be one of the TDI projects already underway: the Better Block.

The plan

What will the Better Block be doing? And what is it exactly? The Better Block is an initiative to reactivate the public realm of Tyler Street, and make it a place that is inviting to stop and linger. It will be taking place for one day on the block between Smith Street and Courtland Place. This is being done with the help of Team Better Block, a consultant chosen by the TDI leadership that specializes in setting up temporary "transformations" of neighborhood blocks, to fully illustrate their potentials in a way that words, drawings and renderings just cannot. What this translates to is a full physical demonstration of different public amenities for one day, built from scratch and set up for the neighborhood to test. These amenities will include: new crosswalks, curb bulb-outs, transit stops, bike lanes, shops, food, and greenery. The full concept plan for the chosen block of Tyler Street is shown below. (Click or tap the picture to put it in its own window.)

Proposed pop-up improvements for the Tyler Street Better Block.

How does this relate to the term "tactical urbanism" from the title? This term has been coined over the past decade and used by activists, designers and architects in many American cities, and increasingly around the globe. The tactics in question are small, simple projects that will add up over time into an improved urban realm. These tactics can be as simple as placing some chairs on an empty corner to create a "park" or adorning a weathered pole with a knit scarf. These activities may be sanctioned or unsanctioned. It is usually their "pop up" nature and lack of planing that creates the most impact; a sudden change that makes usual passersby stop, or at the very least, smile. Compared to those examples, the Better Block seems like a much larger task. With the help of several months of planning for these particular builds shown in the diagram, and some professional consultants, the transformation of this Tyler Street block should help demonstrate the many different tactics that can be accomplished in one short block.

The goal

The goal of this project may be different depending on whom one asks. Some may point to economic development, or public safety. I agree with both of these, and would add my own goal as being the creation of a stronger neighborhood for the residents who live there. To elaborate, I think that the "activation" of the public realm on Tyler Street, which can be as simple as adding public seating or painting more crosswalks, will foster more connections between neighbors, colleagues and friends. The Tyler Street and Morningside neighborhoods already have the bones of some of the densest parts of the city. Getting neighbors closer together by providing pleasant and safe public space in these blocks is one way to utilize this density for good. Knowing who your neighbors are, even if it is just recognizing their faces or knowing their first names, makes all the difference in a street's perception of public safety and overall fabric.

Neighbors taking initiative

Pittsfielders already know the value of knowing one's neighbors. I met recently with a Morningside resident named Kate who wanted to bring her block closer together. She is a mother of three and an active citizen, involved with the Berkshire Dream Center and a recent volunteer usher at Twelfth Night at the Common. We chatted on a sunny afternoon in Ray Crow Park on Winter Street while her kids enjoyed the playground equipment. She told me about how she decided to take action and organized a block party centered around her street corner. It was a truly organic event, with word spreading only by hanging flyers, sharing at Morningside Initiative meetings, and by word of mouth. Kate recounted how she was pleased to see some of her neighbors current and prospective city council members stop by the party, which had a cookout, and a giant bouncy house. We talked about how there seems to be a lost sense of community in parts of Morningside, whether that is because of safety concerns, or from frequent turnover in the numbers of rental units in the area. "Neighbors don't know anyone," Kate remarked. After holding this inaugural block party, though, her family feels more connected to those who live on her corner. They are more confident that neighbors will be looking out for them, and vice versa.

How to take action

If throwing a block party might not be your thing, why not help the Better Block party? There are many ways to do that. The first is by spreading the word. Visit the Better Block Transformation Day event page on Facebook, and invite your online and real-life friends to attend. Second, you can help by attending yourself! Come find us on Saturday, August 26th starting at noon. Visit the pop-up retail and support local vendors, chefs and artists. The third and most awesome way you can help is by joining us during Build Week, where we will be crafting the pop-up street furniture and other amenities to unveil on Transformation Day.  There are many build workshops to choose from, view them all on Discover Tyler Street and pick a day and time that works for you!

This is only one event in the multi-year course of the entire Transformative Development Initiative. I hope that it will serve as a touching-off point for more pop-up projects around the city. The Pittsfielder will be there to build, volunteer, and observe the results during the event. From there, I hope to continue the tactical urbanism trend through more of my own pop-up projects and trials in the future. Before I close, I also want to thank the Better Block team for offering opportunities for me to volunteer, promote their cause, and learn from their example. I also want to thank the MassDevelopment team behind the TDI who initiated the Better Block project. Lastly, I need to thank everyone who I have met at the public events, who volunteered their time or resources leading up to Build Week and Transformation Day. I hope this network continues to grow even after Better Block officially ends. Now get out there and make it better!