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Spotlight on: Better Blocks, Chicago
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Spotlight on: Better Blocks, a program of Chicago's Active Transportation Alliance
Cathy Cibor, Alta Planning + Design | Based on an interview with Tony Giron, Community Liaison, Active Transportation Alliance

In short, what is the Better Blocks program?
Better Blocks offers free workshops to residents of specific Chicago neighborhoods on changing the built environment around them. The workshops empower groups of residents to make changes happen by providing support and connecting them with the right tools and resources. Better Blocks serves lower income neighborhoods with predominantly African-American and Latino residents. These neighborhoods tend to be underserved by city services and have less park space, fewer opportunities for being active, and higher rates of motor vehicle crashes.

What is a typical workshop like?
First, the community liaisons talk with residents about their neighborhood and their experiences getting around. How do they get around? Where are they going? What are the challenges they are facing? Then the group goes out together to do a walkability assessment of the neighborhood. Do cars speed? Are the sidewalks in good shape? Is there crime? The community liaisons are there as technical assistants, but the workshop really provides a community-based approach to planning.

What happens next?
Community liaisons take what they heard from the residents back to their staff planners who come up with low-cost, easy solutions based on the neighborhood's specific issues. They then go back to the residents for another workshop, the "call-to-action” step, to present the recommendations and to give the residents tools and resources for getting the improvements made. In one community, five residents met with their local alderman at a neighbor's house to discuss the improvements they wanted to see. The alderman committed to making the changes happen and went directly to CDOT, with funding from the Aldermanic Menu Budget, to request the improvements.

What are the typical problems Better Blocks is helping people solve?
Common problems include damaged or missing sidewalk segments, high vehicle speeds, and crime more than anything. The community liaisons talk with residents about investing in their neighborhoods to reduce crime, how if their neighborhood looks nice and people are out, then crime is less likely. The Better Blocks community liaisons are now looking into more formal training on crime prevention techniques to address this major issue. As an example, the North Lawndale neighborhood on the west side of Chicago had an alleyway that provided an important connection to a train station, but the connection wasn't pleasant for walking. The residents wanted to make it more walk friendly, and now the alleyway has lighting, speed bumps to slow cut-through traffic, and a more attractive, permeable surface.

Tony, any final thoughts or advice?
We consider a successful workshop to be one where residents take what they learn and are able to make a change because of it. We try to address simple, winnable problems, so people can feel empowered by the process. We are just starting to see change from workshops a year ago. It's great to see that change.

Learn more about Better Blocks at