The newsletter of the Active Transportation Alliance

ModeShift Vol. Issue 2 - March 2010


Better Blocks builds from the ground up

By Ted Villaire

After a solid launch in 2009, the Better Blocks program is poised to make an important difference in the coming year as it helps residents in underserved neighborhoods make their communities better places for active living.

Through workshops, discussions, visual assessments and technical support, the Better Blocks program guides local residents through the process of making changes to streets and sidewalks so they are safer and more inviting to non-motorized users.

During Better Blocks workshops, residents look at crash data, they fill out surveys, and they discuss barriers that keep people from getting active on their blocks. Common problems may be a lack of lighting, speeding cars, and poor sidewalks. The program helps residents work out solutions to these problems by way of street signs, crosswalks, speed bumps, wider sidewalks and a host of other devices and strategies.

“Our blocks must be safe and accessible so that people have places to walk and kids have places to play,” said Tameeka Christian, a community organizer with LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program. In coming months, she will be helping Active Trans team up with the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation to introduce Better Blocks to representatives from nearly two dozen block clubs in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhoods. “I would love to see the Better Blocks program take off in the Lawndale area,” she said.

An important part of the Better Blocks workshop is when the participants share their own stories about the challenges of getting around their neighborhood. “These personal stories help people see what they would like to change on the block and what they would like to preserve,” said Cynthia Bell, Active Trans community liaison who conducts the Better Blocks program. When participants identify problems such as crime and abandoned buildings, Bell connects them with the local organizations and agencies that can help.

After the workshop and assessments, Active Trans compiles all the information into a final report for the residents, who then begin the process of locating funding sources and key supporters. Active Trans provides necessary support and guidance as residents work with their alderman and others to turn their plan into a reality.

During 2009, Active Trans worked with block clubs on Chicago’s West and South Sides to bring Better Blocks programs to local neighborhoods.

Bell said the program focuses on underserved communities because these are places where improvements in walkablility are often most needed. Also, she said the African-American and Latino children who live in these communities have obesity rates higher that the rest of the population, and need more opportunities for active living.

The program—formerly called Active Living on the Block—is funded by a three-year $300,000 grant, the largest private foundation grant ever received by Active Trans. The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Bank of America, and the Alliance for Biking and Walking provided the funding.

During the coming year, Bell expects to see the program expand its reach by working with local school councils, PTAs, park advisory boards, and other community organizations. “We want to empower residents to make positive changes on their block,” said Bell, “People in the community know how to make it safer and easier to walk in their neighborhood. The residents are the experts.”

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