Podcast: Community and Public Space Planning Help

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September 23, 2019

Building better, safer, and more sustainable communities one block at a time with Andrew Howard, co-founder and director of Team Better Block

On this episode I’m speaking with Andrew Howard, co-founder and director of Team Better Block.︎ Andrew is one of the original founders of the Build a Better Block project. Alongside his neighbors he built the first two Better Blocks in Dallas, Texas and pioneered the idea of using pop up demonstrations as an urban planning method.

Over the past eight years, Andrew and his team have refined how Better Block fits into community outreach, revitalization, complete streets, and public space planning and design projects. Now having been used in over 150 communities from Sydney, Australia to Bethel, Vermont, Better Block is seen as an alternative to the typical design and defend urban planning method of the past.

Podcast Transcript

Chris Arnold: Welcome back to the Transforming Cities Podcast. Each episode highlights ideas around rethinking the way cities are evolving. We discuss planning, design, technology, development and other fields that contribute to the urban experience.

Andrew Howard: I wrote a letter to then President Ronald Reagan that we should restore this place and my mum still has that letter. She's kept it all these years.

Chris Arnold: Wow, yeah.

Andrew Howard: And it's kind of come full circle and I recently did the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard a couple of years ago and the Loeb fellow director, I told him that story when I was interviewing and he said, “I've got something for you.”

Chris Arnold: On this episode, I'm speaking with Andrew Howard, co founder and director of Team Better Block. Andrew was one of the original founders of the Build A Better Block project. Alongside his neighbors, he built the first two Better Blocks in Dallas Texas and pioneered the idea of using pop up demonstrations as an urban planning method. Over the past eight years, he and his team have refined how Better Block fits into community outreach, revitalization, complete streets and public space planning and design projects.

Chris Arnold: Now having been used in over 150 communities from Sydney, Australia to Bethel, Vermont, Better Block is seen as an alternative to the typical design and defend urban planning method of the past.

Chris Arnold: A few quick notes before today's episode, if you enjoy the podcast, please share this track and others on your social accounts to people you think would be interested. Also, please rate it on iTunes or other platforms where you listen. This is how we grow and it's much appreciated.

Chris Arnold: This podcast is driven by authentic form and function. We're a design and technology studio working on tools and platforms to improve the urban space. You can find out more online at authenticff.com.

Chris Arnold: And finally, we want to hear from you. Email your feedback and ideas of who else we should speak with to podcast@authenticff.com. I'm your host Chris Arnold, let's jump on in.

Chris Arnold: Andrew, thank you so much for joining me.

Andrew Howard: Howdy!

Chris Arnold: So, you are now an accomplished urban planner but you did not necessarily grow up in a big city. So, I'd love to start with you telling the listeners about your roots.

Andrew Howard: Yeah, I'm originally from south western Oklahoma in a tumbleweed country out there; small town, about 25,000 and dad owned his own company so well, that entrepreneurial spirit probably resonating in me. And moved to Texas in the teenage years and that got me a little bit closer to some of my family specifically my grandmother, my dad's mother. And yeah, I think some of the fondest memories that I have and probably the first instance that I kind of had an appreciation of cities was with her. It's kind of a joke around the family that at some point Masita, was what we called her, would show up and tell you to get in the car and you're going to go on a road trip with her and go… Most of the times we'd go visit family, some of them deceased.

Andrew Howard: So, we'd go to some cemeteries and also see some cousins that we'd never get to see out in west Texas and just all the stories that she would tell about family history during those times. And the Greasy Spoon Restaurant, easily came around with that and the rowdy hotel we'd probably stay in.

Andrew Howard: On one of those trips we stopped in Mineral Wells Texas and I think this is the first time that I kind of had an appreciation for historical buildings. And we visited the Baker Hotel, which was kind of a historic health resort that was located there in west Texas. And it was dilapidated and kind of falling down Chris, and my grandmother at that time she's like, “Well, we're going to go in this place.” And she's all about 89 pounds and the door is locked, I'm not sure how well but she kicks the door in or pushes the door in and here I am, eight or nine years old following my grandma into this historic hotel that's just art deco grandeur within it.

Chris Arnold: Wow.

Andrew Howard: And she was just so passionate about it and I think she really loved that time period, the 20s and the decadence of that era. And that rubbed off on me and I remember when I got home, I wrote a letter to then President Ronald Reagan that we should restore this place and my mum still has that letter. She's kept it all these years.

Chris Arnold: Wow, yeah.

Andrew Howard: And it's come full circle and I recently did the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard a couple of years ago and the Loeb fellow director, I told him that story when I was interviewing and he said, “I've got something for you.” And over my desk right now is a framed picture of the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells Texas and come to found out, his parents and grandparents had something to do with it as well so…

Chris Arnold: No way, wow. That's very small… Yeah, that's when the life, past collide there. That's a small world situation.

Andrew Howard: Exactly.

Chris Arnold: Where is the hotel now? Is it still in disrepair or what's the status of it now?

Andrew Howard: So the amazing this is, it's gone through multiple hands, people saying they're going to do something with it and most recently a person from Fort Worth has bought it and has committed to restoring it. So, I think what's neat there though is I've chatted with the city a bit there and they've realized that the town can be better right now and so they've actually been going in and fixing up around the hotel before it even has seen any dirt turned.

Chris Arnold: Oh wow, yeah. So, that was you said about seven or eight years old is that right? As a young kid, you were touring around, you were going to these road trips with your grandmother and maybe get these experiences that you weren't necessarily fully aware of how they were impacting you at the time. You go on, you're I'm assuming going to middle school, high school or junior high, high school. What happens then? Do you know where you want to head or what did you study at that point?

Andrew Howard: I didn't have much direction at that time. I wasn't probably the best high school student. I think I was probably a B student. And I ended up going to junior college actually after high school. Then I had some friends going on to Stephen F. Austin, which is a secondary school in Texas. But while I was there, I took a geography class and man, that just really hit me. I felt I understood it well and it wasn't like capitals and that kind of stuff, geography. It was more human geography of people and their place on the earth and how they interact with all the different systems that occur.

Andrew Howard: And so, that was like, all right I want to take more of these classes, well at that school there weren't pretty many so I ended up transferring to Texas A&M and doing their geography and environmental studies program.

Chris Arnold: Oh wow, so that was… Was that would you say, the first spark when it came to the urban world or the urban planning ideas or where did that… Did that evolve at Texas A&M?

Andrew Howard: It did. I still was on that journey. I remember talking to one professor and I was like, “I've got these two classes, I can either go the environmental route if I go this way or I'm going to go more towards cities and urban if I go this way.” And he just laughed at me and was like, “This decision is not being made right now. You have a long way to go before you decide what your career is.”

Andrew Howard: And it wasn't really until my senior year that I… I think I had one more soft credit to take and I ended up just taking an urban planning class in the school of architecture at A&M. And it was just my favorite class and that was about when SimCity was coming out, do you remember?

Chris Arnold: Oh yeah, totally remember SimCity, yeah.

Andrew Howard: Yeah. And so we had to build a city in class and so that was the neatest thing ever.

Chris Arnold: For any of the young listeners, let's just pause there for a second. Can you explain SimCity because the young urban planners out there might not have had the pleasure of tinkering around with SimCity?

Andrew Howard: Oh man, we can even go further back, do you remember the board game, Life?

Chris Arnold: I do. Of course, yeah.

Andrew Howard: Yeah. So, I think these were all the roots of urban planning in modern culture. But, yeah SimCity was, you basically were the mayor of a city from ground up and you digitally created this city and hurricanes would come and a plague would come and blights. And I think if you were really successful in it, maybe the aliens would show up at some point and take your city over.

Chris Arnold: And this isn't something that happened in real time. There were moments where things would happen and then there was long stretches of time where nothing would happen and I believe as a user you could choose to keep it more so “real time” or you could speed up time and see what happens. Is that right?

Andrew Howard: Yeah. You could hit the go button on it. I think, I always warped maybe a little bit in the schooling that urban planning and design was just this very physical thing. That it was just, you went out and if you designed a good city, everything's going to work and get along and it's going to be beautiful and that it was… I think a lot of the teachings were based on the physical form back then.

Chris Arnold: So, what was your first glimpse of professional work at that point? So, you've moved into Texas A&M, your senior year, the spark hits and then to your point you just made, what was your first dose of reality?

Andrew Howard: Man. I had some bad jobs. I had… I was a tree trimmer in the summer in Texas. It's 110 degrees outside with I think 100% humidity. And so I think I had done the laborer's work for a while and enjoyed it but I was ready to do a little bit of deskwork one semester. And I saw a flyer for transportation planning and that they had an internship available at the local MPO, which is every city over 25,000 people has a kind of a, almost a mini branch of the federal government that does some of the transportation planning.

Andrew Howard: I walked in and I think they gave me the job before I even sat down and they were like, “Yeah, you're a living body. You're here, great. Sit down.” And I ended up… Man, I just had a great boss there and I think I've had that throughout my career. Just these bosses that let me do my thing and make my own mistakes and we had to update the 25 year plan for the region. And he's like, “Here, you can do this.” And so I think I've enjoyed a lot of autonomy even from the beginning but that really, it fit with me. I understood transportation policy and I understood how some of the travel demand models worked maybe from playing SimCity. I just wasn't afraid to get in there and break any of the computer models.

Andrew Howard: And so it stuck with me and I got to do some high level planning early on in my career.

Chris Arnold: And I know that you feel really fortunate to be, to at least in the very beginning of your career even working with great people around you and having that learning experience right out of the gate. But I do know that it was also a time where you felt like it was learned that planning was somewhat disconnected from the real people of the community, can you touch on that?

Andrew Howard: Yeah. I think the process that we relied upon then was very much the experts come up with a plan. They produce it and share it with the public and usually defend it, have to defend it in some way. And then you hear maybe some minor changes happen from the public engagement but in general it was a technical exercise that happened in planning our cities.

Chris Arnold: So, what would you say stood out the most to you at that point in your career? Early career, you're working with great people but you also see this potential issue on how it's approached. Where did that leave you hanging?

Andrew Howard: I think it wasn't until the next chapter when I went into consulting where is started to see that these models that we were using to predict human, the community, we were using those to predict travel and even land uses. It's very technical side of things to doing those and I think what I started to learn was you can manipulate them to say anything you want.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. Well, there's an example of something like that where you're put in this role of getting out this report or opening up this recommendation and you saw maybe this isn't the best way to go about it.

Andrew Howard: Oh man. We had one we were doing and I think the output, it was just not what the client wanted to see. And they were very much, how do you change these numbers to match what policy we're talking about? And so I think that's one example and then a little later I got to work in New Orleans in the post Katrina era. So, that really started forming my ideas of how the planning process may be a little bit broken.

Chris Arnold: Oh, I bet. So, set the stage for us. What did that look like when you walked into it down there?

Andrew Howard: Yeah. It was a huge team of planners and consultants and engineers that were hired to be part of the reconstruction in New Orleans post Katrina. We were doing these public meetings and really doing an envisioning project, which was pretty popular back in the early 2000s was to go 10,000 foot out and know, you've got an ability here to transform the city, how do you do it?

Andrew Howard: And the process that was used, and it still is being used in America in some sense is we lay down this map of your city or your neighborhood and we hand you some pens and we say, “Here, draw your utopia. Mark up this map with what you want to see happen.” It's hard. I think it's hard for folks especially in post disaster places to think about a bright future. Or just, you know I've seen in many communities folks just, they can't see past the issues that are right at hand. I think Henry Ford said, if you ask people what the next technology was they would probably have said a faster horse at some point.

Andrew Howard: And so I remember being in one of those post Katrina planning sessions in this big hall in the Convention Center of New Orleans and this lady just stood up when we were giving instructions on how to do this workshop. And she just said, “How can you ask me to do this when I still have neighbors that don't have electricity on?” And I think that's when it really started to hit me that it was like, this planning process is broken. It's too much reliant on bringing people to you and us not going to them as practitioners. So, that's, it was probably the first flicker where it started being like, man this is… I'm not sure I'm designed to be in the convention center doing this kind of work. I might need something that's a little more tactile.

Chris Arnold: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and probably a time where you're asking how are we helping here? Does this even matter? These people don't necessarily need to be drawing out their utopias, they need, like you said, they need to figure out the electricity getting turned back on first.

Andrew Howard: Yeah. And that's just a good example. I think a lot of the cities we go and we ask folks here, design this whole trail system for the whole city and it's like, the folks are like, “I just want to get across the street. I don't have a cross walk.” And so I think that's a lot of where my career was heading. I started out doing this big regional planning working for MPOs, looking big scale and it's slowly been creeping smaller and smaller and more granular.

Chris Arnold: And I think that's a good transition point to this idea of design and defend that you bring up a lot as an urban planner. And it turns out that that strategy isn't one that really fits you or suited you well. Can you tell us that story? And I think that comes closely after the Katrina work.

Andrew Howard: It was, it was leading into that. I think the whole where we did public process is we put things out and have people react to them and gather that information and fine tune it. And I did hundreds of these kind of public meetings. I did some in Austin once and like over a week I think we did eight public meetings during that. And you all have been to these, whistling out there, you've sat in these meetings at a library or a… Oh God, the worst ones were in cafeterias at grade schools because it still smelled like lunch in there and it was just like, and little kids sweat.

Andrew Howard: And you're trying to talk about transit or big zoning changes and there's this, there's crayons smudged everywhere. But you know what happens with those is, you say something like we're going to add bike lanes to this arterial street and the grumpy old guy, or not even old, the grumpy dude gets up and yells Carmageddon. And says it's not going to work and you're trying to take away my cars and gets angry and raises fists and the whole crowd comes, feeds off that anger and gets behind them and you've lost the meeting.

Andrew Howard: And not that that happened every time I went to do one of these but it was prevalent. People get angry when you start talking about change because their worst fears come out. The worst things that can happen are risen because they haven't seen it or felt it or been a part of it. They are just afraid that you're going to take away something from it. And so doing those on normal basis as a consultant, it was starting to wear on me from a physical side. I had been doing that for about 14 years at this point and I started to get really sick Chris, I was getting ulcers and I was breaking down as a person too because I started to not believe very much in the planning process that we were pushing.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. And yet from that dark place, something happened around 2010 that involved a bike lane and some, as I know the story, illegal painting that would eventually become a catalyst for what you're doing today.

Andrew Howard: Yeah. The light was shining through. Yeah, so I had moved into the emerging part of town here in Dallas, Texas and there is this guy down there, Jason Roberts. He was talking about bringing street cars back to the neighborhood and he was leading bike rides wearing funny wigs and hosting Bastille Day celebrations and playing in a band on the weekends. And so kind of a cult figure in our neighborhood and so when Jason calls you, you pick up the phone and you're like, “Hey what's going on man? What do you need?” And he's like, “Hey, I need you to come. You know about bike lanes, you design those, right?” I'm like, “Yeah, I design them.” He's like, “Come down here, we're going to paint one.” I'm like, “Oh, okay.”

Andrew Howard: I've got my safe consulting job working; most of our clients are at the City of Dallas. And so, I'm a little hesitant but this guy, he's kind of an authority figure. I show up down there and he's like, “Yeah, I talked to the City Council member, she's cool with it. Let's paint one right here.” And so I sketched it up and designed it and we went to Home Depot and bought the paint and started painting this bike lane. And I was asking, I was like, “What are we doing here?” And he's like, “We're building the perfect block.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” He's like, “Yeah, it's going to be like Copenhagen for the weekends.” And I was like, “Oh, it sounds cool.”

Andrew Howard: That's how we first got started just doing these demonstrations. And later, one of our friends was like, “You know what; it's not perfect, it's just better.” And so that's where Better Block came from. Jason had also asked a bunch of friends, what was missing from the area and they said, “Oh we'd really like a kids' art studio and a coffee shop and a flower market.” And so he said, “Oh great. I bet you could run one of those.” And so he blackmailed them basically into doing it by putting on Facebook, “Jesse is going to open the best coffee shop ever,”

Andrew Howard: And we didn't even have a coffee… I don't even think that electricity was on in one of the buildings so we brought coffee from down the street there. And over a weekend, it didn't look exactly like Copenhagen but we made it feel good and people understood what we were talking about. And I guess my observation coming from a planner was I heard all these conversations of people talking about place and talking about traffic calming and all these nerdy words that we put out there to call this stuff. They were making up their own dialogue about it and understanding it because they were experiencing it. And I was like, man this is better than any public meeting I've ever done.

Chris Arnold: And that hit home for you right? That was even sort of an emotional response would you say.

Andrew Howard: Yeah. It was a relief. I felt energized to be a planner again. I felt energized that our cities could be fixed. People's better nature would come out if you gave them that experience. They wouldn't have their worst fears come out and yell Carmageddon or you're stealing my cars. They would come out and say, oh I get it. You can cross the street. Your kids can be safe and we can live and work in our neighborhood now.

Chris Arnold: So, tell me what happened then. Did you continue consulting for a while longer or when did the beginnings of the Better Block become what is today Team Better Block?

Andrew Howard: Yeah. Inspiration and the universe, sometimes it taps you on the shoulder and sometimes it smacks you across the face. And I really needed to be smacked across the face. So, we continued, we did another one of these pop ups later that year and all these were getting huge press stories. Locally and nationally it was going viral. We'd put a video out there and people were definitely talking about Better Block within the urban planning circles and within local politics here in Dallas as well. And that wasn't going over quite so well with the company that I was working with at the time. They were pretty traditional in their approach to doing projects. So Chris, I actually got fired.

Chris Arnold: Uh oh.

Andrew Howard: Yeah. You know what, and it affected me but I thought we had something with this. I thought people might pay for it. And so what we charged out to do after that was let's make this into a planning process. Let's take this guerilla activity and how do we transition it into a way that can replace the public meeting design defend process, give people an experience and then build upon that momentum to actually change zoning, to push a transportation agenda forward. And so that's what we set out. We within a few months of being out on my own, we got one of our first clients and started sharing Better Block not just as a pop up but as a process to move communities forward.

Chris Arnold: And around what time was this? What time period?

Andrew Howard: So, around 2011, the first few months of 2011 is when we officially formed Team Better Block and started serving some clients at that point.

Chris Arnold: And I know that you've, I've seen you reference Team better Block as this idea of emotional responsive planning. So, as you got started with that real work with Team Better Block and you started to bring on new clients and new projects, how did you explain the work that you were doing and how if any has that evolved over the years when you're talking about the work that you do?

Andrew Howard: Sure. I think one of the quotes that we knew from the very beginning there was from Warren Buffet when he said there's innovators, there's imitators and then there's idiots. And we were definitely innovators and we started seeing some folks that were imitating our process and I think well, that motivated us to like, all right, we really got to figure out the nuts and bolts of why these temporary demonstration projects are important.

Andrew Howard: Chris, we did a lot of stuff wrong beginning with we, I had some great clients because I've been in the business for a while and they trusted us with projects. And I think we always learned something from them but some of those early ones, we packed up our truck, a big, a U-Haul full of lights and chairs and café tables and we went and we spaceship landed in San Antonio or Wichita, Kansas or one of these places and we set up the Better Block.

Andrew Howard: And it still didn't feel the same as that first one that we did together as a community. And we started to slowly realize that it's not just making the place but it's how you make it. And that people want me to be involved in the creation of place. And that's where all the unique identity, that's where all the authenticity comes from, that's where the community ownership or the process comes from, is the physical act of making together. So, we stick with that, now we put more effort and time into the social capital piece of it and always having the best looking piece of, the best photo maybe of a place.

Chris Arnold: And one of the quotes and ideologies you shared with me references an insistence on the virtues of smallness, which I really liked. And it sounds like what you're saying is rather than stamping out “Better Blocks” everywhere that are maybe the same, it's really more of a collaborative process with the community.

Andrew Howard: Yeah. We used to count, we'd have a little hand clicker and we'd count how many people came to the Better Block or after it happened we would want them to find, all right what they made permanent. And those things are important. We want to see change happen but what we started realizing we were doing these away from our own city as consultants, guides for these in Pittsfield, Massachusetts or Seattle, Washington or Fresno or wherever we were that we could be there to push them forward. And so the best act we could do was to empower a local to be an advocate and that little small time that we would spend with them and empowering them to do it would last longer.

Andrew Howard: So, we now count how many advocates do we make afterwards and how many people have stayed engaged and use the Better Block as a point in time to get back to something. And have continually shown up at city council meetings, some of them had become, some past Better Block volunteers had become council members, had become planning commissioners, have started their own nonprofits, have quit their job at Applebee's and started their own restaurant. And so those are the ones that really, I think we judge our success more as, did we change people's lives; are they now a voice for this kind of stuff in their own city?

Chris Arnold: What is a project that you're working on right now or maybe that you're wrapping up right now that you're really proud of that brings together all of those things you just referenced? And then also touches on a lot of the issues and topics that urban planning's facing today around mobility, changes in transportation, changes in the outlook from the public about how these systems are connected. Can you speak to a project that comes to mind that you're excited about?

Andrew Howard: Yeah, we've got a couple. I'm going to share two with you real quick because I think they're polar opposites. One was… This year, we've been working a lot with AARP, the American Association of Real Possibilities now, and so they've rebranded. And they're a great partner with, because I think they come with not a lot of baggage, they're not like, oh it has to be new urbanism or it has to be complete streets. It's, what does this committee need? Let's apply our best practices and let's get a really local solution to it. And this year they're emphasizing a look at rural communities and so we went to Maine with them and it was really neat to work with a real small community and see what they could do there. And worked with Miss Pat Brown in Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

Andrew Howard: And they had an idea of what they wanted to do in the city but they really didn't know where to apply it to and so we helped them find a neighborhood that could use some revitalization and gave them a concept plan to go with and they went for it. And they actually painted most of the changes that we made permanently and they've opened up a bakery and a pop up shop to go along with it.

Andrew Howard: And so I think what we're finding is the talent and resources to do these kind of projects exists everywhere Chris. There's not this limited pool of talented people in America that you have to find and bring to your community. They just need an invitation and they need some of the planning tools to accomplish it. But every city, every town every hamlet, every nook and cranny of America has talented people that if given the opportunity, they will be civic minded and they will come together and make a place better.

Andrew Howard: And how I'm sure of that, we've experienced it in all corners of the United States. And then the next one that we're working on is in Salt Lake City and that's with a scooter company that's actually owned by Ford called Spin. And I think they're a unique company because they're actually wanting to invest in infrastructure and I think that's the trend we're going to see in transportation in the future is a lot of private companies getting involved and delivering infrastructure. And so, we're going to build some of the first micro mobility lanes in Salt Lake City that share space between cyclists, people in scooters, people in mobility assisted vehicles as well.

Chris Arnold: Interesting, yeah.

Andrew Howard: And, yeah. So, I think what we're seeing is that that battle over the right away is now becoming real and we're starting to see the expansion of non motorized into those places and people want them fast. It's changing so quickly. A couple of years ago, scooters we would've never thought of those, that's something a little kid rides or something and now it's a key missing link in the transit system.

Chris Arnold: Yeah, absolutely. And speaking personally, I'm a cyclist out here in Denver and I'm a big advocate for the protected bike lanes of course and to even hear that that's a project that is now coming to pass with the micro mobility lanes, I love that. Personally I love that it's being pushed that way but clearly a lot of opinions around priorities and as you said right away.

Andrew Howard: It's a battle, every day.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. Andrew, before we wrap up, I don't want to miss the chance to chat about the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard. You have a great story around that and I would love if you would give the listeners a sense of what that's all about.

Andrew Howard: Yeah. So, for those who don't know, the Loeb Fellowship was an endowment made to the graduate school of design at Harvard. And it brings, I don't know what it is now, eight or nine folks out of everyday practice and for two semesters they get to go to Harvard and soak up the scene there and take a little bit of a retreat from their normal practice. So, they pull folks from architecture, planning, engineering, the arts, psychology into that program and give them some time to expand and learn what the next phase of their career is going to be. So, it's a mid career thing. So, anybody out there that's been doing this for 20, 25 years and you think you have something to add to the ongoing discussion of where the professions are leading, I'd look into it. It was a great experience.

Andrew Howard: I did that 2014, 2015 and something, really totally unexpected lesson of that Chris, came out. I expected to go up there and I was going to focus on real estate and I want to understand how developers functioned and I wanted to understand why modernism was still a thing in America after all these years. And I think after about three weeks, I'd had enough of that. It's very pervasive there ... modernism is still very alive in the graduate school of design.

Andrew Howard: But what attracted me was some of the movements that were happening within the student body particularly in the graduate school of design. This was 2014, this was just years or months after the Ferguson riots had occurred and police brutality was coming around and the Black Lives Matter initiative was coming out. And there were some students there that formed something called Black in Design and they began to have conversations about how design influences community as a cover. And my project we had, Better Block has worked in many of those communities and tried to get down to the root of where these were coming from.

Andrew Howard: And even in the house that I was sharing there, as a fellow you live with other folks that are in the program. And it was my first time to live with anybody of a different race really. I think I've been pretty isolated in my experiences of other cultures and so that really moved me. I realized I didn't even have the skills to listen to people of color and it made me think back really to those times in New Orleans when I was doing those plans there and just made me realize that I could never really achieve the understanding of the African American struggle. But I committed to it and I said I was going to try and have some grounding and listen to where communities like that are coming from.

Andrew Howard: And we had the gift of having Phil Freelon who if you're in the architecture community out there, you all know Phil Freelon is the designer of the African American History Museum in DC now. He's a renowned architect and his wonderful wife Nnenna was there. Nnenna is a jazz musician and an astounding person in her own right. And I remember we were sitting at dinner with those folks and he said something I think very poignant and that he said we never give black people the mic in communities. And I'm not sure you literally meant hand them the mic but it just really sat with me and since that time, all the public meetings that I've had, I've taken that to direct heart.

Andrew Howard: When I ask a question, I literally find folks in the audience that may have never had the mic before and I'll give it to them and I'm like, “You're going to tell me about your neighborhood and you're going to tell me a story about what it's like to grow up in that community and where your perspective's coming from.” And so it changed my life and something I didn't think was going to happen but that's what fellowships are supposed to do, they're supposed to surprise you with what you learn from them. And it certainly has helped my career because we are always asked to represent people that we don't look like in planning.

Andrew Howard: And if you only design for what you know, it's going to be a pretty dull world because not everybody has the same taste and comes from the same perspectives as you. So, I think that's where this emotionally responsive planning is coming from now, is that we're able to humble ourselves a bit, see through other people's lenses of how they interact in the community. And then not just hand them the pen to draw it but invite them out to experience it with you and build it with you and seed in that piece of authenticity that makes Nashville, Nashville, that makes New City special, that makes San Francisco different from anywhere else.

Andrew Howard: I think if we keep going down that road, that we're going to have a bright future as planners and we're going to have cities that are just more fun.

Chris Arnold: Andrew, I really appreciate you sharing that story. It's an emotional story and a somewhat raw story but I love how it ties back into the work that you're doing with Team Better Block and maybe how the lens of the work you're doing has shifted over the years. And we'll certainly be sharing links to both Team Better Block and the Loeb Fellowship in the show notes.

Chris Arnold: Before you run though, one of the questions I really love asking all of our guests are, given all of your experience, given all the projects you've worked on, who would you tell us to be paying attention to that you feel like is doing groundbreaking or inspiring work out there?

Andrew Howard: Oh sure, God there's so many. I really think this DIY approach has grown over the last eight, nine years. It's brought a lot of people into the planning world that are not planners, are not designers. They are just normal folks getting involved with city building. And so those are some of my favorite folks to watch right now. So, my boy Dan Peterson with Project Backboard, he's doing amazing work with basketball courts around the world. I just bought one of his sponsored basketballs that helped fund a court in Puerto Rico that looks like a tropical playground now.

Andrew Howard: So, he'll take these basketball courts that have had no love and resurface them and ask the community what they identify with as far as color and texture and imagery and do these huge murals on the basketball court. And basically make a place out of something that in a lot of ways the basketball court is sometimes the most city part of the neighborhood. So, I copy catted him on one of those and then I was surprised at how much that color and change just, it brought families out, it brought kids out, it made them feel like this is our court not just people that were maybe using it in a negative fashion.

Andrew Howard: So, Dan's just regular dude, loves basketball, loves art. So, follow him, look at his project, Project Backboard. There's so many past Better Blockers doing good stuff in towns all around; my girl pal, Kate Luzern in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; she was a Better Block volunteer. She's been leading a lot of great projects there, one's called the Tyler Street Lab where she's done an after school program with an urban planning focus on it. And she's bootstrapped the whole thing and I'm just super proud of her. So, look for the Tyler Street Lab.

Andrew Howard: And then my folks in Bethel Vermont with the Blossom Block there. If you look at Blossom Block, Lisa Warhol; tiny little town, 4,000 people. They used Better Block to get it going and now they've attracted all kind of stuff like a brewery, a co-working spot. I'm like how do you do co-working with 4,000 people in your town? But they did it. And so again small is beautiful there so look up Bethel, Vermont and AARP there.

Andrew Howard: I would definitely with the links part, yeah I'm just realizing Chris didn't put this on there but AARP's Livable Communities program is doing great stuff. And if some of you all out there, I know you are looking for funding. Get ready for their call next year. They just released the last one but pushing funds out to folks to do real projects in your cities and they're an amazing partner for you.

Chris Arnold: That's fantastic. Andrew, thank you so much. Let me roll out the red carpet for you. Tell the world what you're up to and where they can find you online.

Andrew Howard: Yeah. So, we are super available for doing new stuff where we always want to get challenged. So, bring your troubles, bring your weary parts of town to us. We love getting into those. We're looking for cities right now and neighborhoods that want to test autonomous vehicles really and their response to autonomous vehicle is not, hey dump this technology on us and we'll react to it but more of this is what we want our cities to look like and how do autonomous vehicles fit into that strategy?

Andrew Howard: We're also again looking for more of those micro mobility type projects as well. If you're having some growing pains with those scooters, with all those little devices that are springing up around your community; let's get smart about it, let's find a way for them to be a profitable piece and also serve people well there. So, if your city has an edge on these emerging technologies, give us a call, shoot us a line at teambetterblock.com and we are very responsive to everybody even if you just need a little bit of a push to get doing to do a project in your own town.

Chris Arnold: This is great stuff Andrew. Thank you so much for your time again today; I really appreciate it.

Andrew Howard: Thanks Chris. Thanks everybody for listening.

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