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#CitiesandPeople2017 in Almaty and Astana, Kazakhstan

Team Better Block was invited to Almaty and Astana, Kazakhstan to participate and kick off a lecture series called Cities and People 2017, an educational program by Urban Forum Almaty.  The purpose of the “Cities and People” program continues the cooperation of Urban Forum Almaty with the US Consulate General in Almaty, which was established in 2015.  During 2017, 10 influential American experts in the field of urban policy will arrive in Kazakhstan to conduct lectures, master classes and seminars in Almaty, Astana, Shymkent and Semey.
Architects, sociologists, artists, activists and researchers are invited from different parts of the United States to share their knowledge, experience in solving problems in modern cities and inspiration.  Events will be held at different venues for different audiences. The events will include public lectures, as well as specialized master classes for industry professionals, activists and officials.

We arrived in Almaty first, where we were given some time to adjust to the 35 hour trip!  After meeting with Nastia and Asel, our hosts for the week from UFA, we had the opportunity to meet with local forum members who presented their projects to us in a local park where a stage had been constructed by neighbors wanting to program the park with local events.  We were introduced to three projects by local advocates.  One that was quite inspiring is called Sports Concepts where a father decided that he wanted a place for his son to learn to play ice hockey.  There were no good local ice rinks, so he DIY’d a rink in some public space in the court yard of his apartment complex.  Over the next several years, it became a professionally built rink where teams now practice and compete from different neighborhoods in the city.  Since he’s started, over 20 more rinks have been constructed in Almaty, with over 150 potential spaces identified to continue building.  We hope to try his approach at an upcoming Winter Better Block in a cold climate city soon!  Another project wanted to make sure government websites provided factual and informative information to it’s citizens, so hours of checking links and creating contacts with officials helped to created better, more reliable information for everyone.  Finally, we hear from a group creating an ecological community and rehabilitation of the lake and river in the Karasu micro-district, Alatau district, Almaty, which will restore the Karasu lake and the river flowing into it.

Urban Forum Almaty attendees for our first of two presentations for their Cities and People 2017 lecture series

In the evening, Andrew Howard, Principal of Team Better Block, lead an interactive presentation on the roof top of a local office building where a hostel operated.  The weather was quite nice and the stunning view of the rest of the city and mountains in the background created an optimal stage for the presentation.  Turnout was higher than expected and people came ready to take part in a lively discussion.  “The global trend of cities for people is alive and well in Kazakhstan. People are wanting to be not just users of cities, but creators of them. Projects by citizens to enliven alleys and public spaces in Almaty are inspiring and should be further supported as a tool to retain and attract people”, says Andrew Howard, Principal of Team Better Block.  One particular participant, a young grandmother has been trying to provide physical activities for way-fair teenagers needing some structure.  She’s been met with resistance for some reason!  But was encouraged and will continue to lead her supporters in this endeavor.

We departed for the new capital city of Astana to the north, some 400 miles away and near the Russian border.  Only in the last 30 years or less, Astana has been made the capital of Kazakhstan, and world architects haven been given carte blanc to creating their own wildest building designs.  Somewhere though, someone forgot about the people and the scale has been left to run wild.  We did venture out a bit and walked along a pedestrian mall to an indoor mall.  Recent place making activities for the 2017 Expo still remained and were fun to interact with, however the distance was long and seemed unnecessary.
In the evening, our lecture took place in the central planning building for the entire city where we saw a full scale model and master plan of the city.  We were in the lions den of planning!  The crowd again was lively and were a joy to speak with.  “Participants in our lecture in Astana voiced the need to retrofit the city for people. The scale of the city is not suited for people at the human scale. To fix it hundreds of small interventions from street cafes to climate controlled cycle tracks should be investigated. The budget for retrofit should be in the billions and attacked immediately before the city is left in the auto-oriented past”, says Andrew Howard.
In summary, it was a pleasure and honor to be invited to Kazakhstan and we hope to return to do a project in the near future.  The former Soviet cities did leave the proper scale and public places to retrofit new urban planning and place making designs to fit into the human scale.  We’re inspired by the small, but growing group of Kazakhstanians that are willing to lead and do projects that are meaningful and have purpose.
Related Documents
Almaty, Kazakhstan

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Astana, Kazakhstan

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Pop-Up Project: Bethel Better Block

Re-posted with permission from AARP. See original article here.

THE GOAL

Not all towns have the staffing, experience and resources needed to identify and take action on livability measures. Because of that, AARP Vermont piloted an alternative approach to improving livability by challenging communities to take immediate action using do-it-yourself methods pioneered by the Better Block Project.

BACKSTORY

In March 2016, AARP Vermont put out a request for proposals asking communities to submit an application to participate in a demonstration project in partnership with AARP and Team Better Block. The revitalization-focused project would temporarily transform a single block into a vibrant destination, thereby illustrating the potential for new businesses, safer streets and improved livability.

Bethel was once a bustling industrial town, but over time the large employers dwindled, leaving empty storefronts and limited employment opportunities. Nearly 20 years ago, a downtown revitalization plan for Bethel called for a riverwalk, streetscaping, a renovated Town Hall, parking lot improvements, and more. Some of those elements were built; most were forgotten.

In 2011, Bethel hit a low point when Tropical Storm Irene devastated the downtown and surrounding community. After Irene, there was a sense that Bethel had little to offer. One critical success was an ad hoc community group called Bethel Revitalization Initiative, which describes itself as a “do-ocracy,” meaning “people show up with good ideas and then do them.”

At the time of Bethel’s application to participate in the AARP project, five historic buildings and businesses in the community’s core downtown block were for sale. Some of the buildings were vacant and in need of significant repairs. Investors were interested in the properties but hesitant to commit without a sense of the town’s future possibilities. A Better Block demonstration would help townspeople and investors see and experience Bethel’s potential in real life.

THE PROJECT

From Friday, September 30, to Sunday, October 2, 2016, a downtown block of Bethel’s village was temporarily transformed by the following pop-up demonstration projects (the “recipes” for which can be found here):

The Blue Lane: By removing parking on one side of the street, the project created a dedicated 700-foot lane for people to walk, bicycle, push baby strollers, use a wheelchair or walker, or even ride a horse.

Enhanced Crosswalks and a Pedestrian Island: Painted stripes were added to the existing crosswalks to make them more visible. Curb extensions were created by using landscaping and “bulb-outs” (which were constructed by using straw wattles) reduced the crossing distance from one side of Main Street to the other. The pedestrian island, which was also made of straw waddles and landscaping, narrowed the travel lanes in order to reduce the speed of vehicle traffic through the location.

Parklet: By replacing two parking spaces with café seating and a food stand, the project provided another traffic-calming measure and contributed to the local economy.

Beer Garden: Temporarily transforming a vacant, underutilized parking lot into a beer garden with live music created a place for people to gather and socialize.

Pop-Up Shops: Vacant and underutilized building spaces were temporarily transformed into viable, active retail space.

Beautification: Volunteers used paint, seating and flowers to decorate vacant spaces on Main Street.

Temporary Bus Shelter: Placed in a centralized downtown location, the bus shelter provided adequate sidewalk space, seating and shade. Stagecoach, a transit company, ran a circulator route during the event.

THE LOGISTICS

On-the-ground work between Bethel Revitalization Initiative volunteers, AARP and Team Better Block began with a June 2016 “Walk and Talk” during which residents pointed out favorite places, troubled spots, and areas where the town could use some improvement.

More than 75 people participated in roundtable conversations, brainstorming ideas for what Bethel could look like in the future. Residents mapped the community assets and needs, focusing on preserving town history, providing public spaces and safe pedestrian crossings, and encouraging speed-reductions and less noise. Community members stepped up to lead workshops, take on projects, organize pop-up shops, clean public spaces and lead events.

COSTS and CREW

The Bethel Better Block weekend was executed by a core team of 25 volunteers and three staff members from AARP Vermont and Team Better Block. Materials, permits and insurance for the event cost about $4,000.

OUTCOMES and NEXT STEPS

In one weekend, Bethel’s downtown came alive with hundreds of visitors. People waited excitedly in long lines for food at the pop-up taco stand. Families enjoyed new spaces for kids to play and socialize. Enhanced crosswalks and planters led to safer conditions for pedestrians. Local artists sold their wares in once vacant buildings. Visitors sat around an outdoor table in a new pocket park, formally an overgrown lot.

The pop-up shops demonstrated how retail and service-sector jobs could operate in Bethel. Within a year of the Better Block Bethel weekend:

Rules for the Bethel Better Block Blue Lane

Rules for the Bethel Better Block Blue Lane, a temporary, dedicated, blue-painted bike-walk lane. — Photo courtesy Team Better Block

  • A vacant building on Main Street was purchased and the owner is committed to rehabbing it and has supported continuing the pop-up shops
  • The Bethel Revitalization Initiative secured an animating infrastructure grant that will create a permanent mural on the retaining wall downtown and permanent outdoor seating is in the works
  • The transit provider is adding a deviated fixed route that will service Bethel with local transit options
  • The traffic calming demonstrations throughout the downtown improved walkability and livability and made such a good impression that the city and state are examining ways to calm the traffic permanently

The project was a tipping point for building enthusiasm and commitments to make Main Street Bethel thrive again.

LEARN MORE

Virtually Visit Bethel

Take a tour of the Bethel Better Block project by clicking through a slideshow, watching a video and reading the after-report about the event. (If you select the preview option, you can read the report online without having to make a purchase.)

Kelly Stoddard Poor is the associate state director of outreach for AARP Vermont. Andrew Howard is an urban planner, cofounder of Better Block and a principal at Team Better Block consulting.

Better Block Awarded by the White House

So things have been super busy at Team Better Block as we’ve been launching projects around the world (!) and getting to meet so many incredible communities. Also, some great organizations have taken on the charge to revitalize their own blocks with amazing results that are leading to many rapid and permanent changes.

In our latest big news, Better Block co-founder Jason Roberts received a Champions of Change award in Washington DC for work in Transportation Innovations last week. Secretary of the US Department of Transportation Ray LaHood was on hand at the ceremony while other awardees sat on panels lead by the Secretaries of the FHA, and FAA.

Jason’s work with revitalizing a modern streetcar line in Dallas, and the Better Block projects were both highlighted as major initiatives that are helping re-shape the built environment. Click here to view the full White House blog post written by Jason on these efforts.

Jason Roberts, Andy Clarke (LAB President), and Andrew Howard

Also, while in DC, Jason and Better Block co-founder Andrew Howard met with Andy Clarke of the League of American Bicyclists and later with officials at the US Department of Transportation to discuss the Better Block project in greater detail and outline prospects for stronger data collection and collaboration with municipalities nationwide.

Andrew and Jason also had a chance to get a first-hand look at the two-way cycle tracks that have been popping up throughout the city along with some incredible new shipping container architecture installed beside the ballpark. Expect to see these and more in future Better Blocks!