Florida State University

College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Planning Students Work to Build a Better Block

At a special event in Frenchtown, November 18 & 19, students from the Florida State University Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP) unveiled the fruits of their efforts to transform the urban environment of the historic Tallahassee neighborhood.

Focusing on the intersection of Macomb and Brevard streets and Old Bainbridge Road, the Better Block Tallahassee project was designed to demonstrate to the city and local policy makers how economic development and infrastructure improvements can create the foundations of a more pedestrian-friendly, livable, and economically and socially viable area. By making changes in the built environment of a small but key location within the greater neighborhood, the project aims to foster reinvestment and focus more city attention and resources on the once vibrant area.

Students in the department’s award-winning Florida Planning and Development Lab (FPDL) studio spent the fall semester taking the lead on the project, a collaboration with city agencies, urban design students from FSU, architecture students from Florida A&M University, and the FSU Master Craftsman Studio and Facilities Department, with input from the national Better Block Foundation.

Improvements and “interventions,” in FPDL terminology, included bike lanes, miniparks, features to increase pedestrian safety and prevent speeding, market kiosks, a greenhouse, new sidewalks, a mural and outdoor entertainment stage, and the activation of previously shuttered storefronts. All of the changes were based on community input.

“We didn’t come in as experts from the city or the university telling the residents what they needed,” explained FPDL Director Lindsay Stevens, a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. “The students gathered this input in a much more grassroots, boots-on-the-ground way, meeting people where they live and work, having small backyard barbecues and music events to get community feedback on what they’d like to see in the neighborhood.”

The project was initiated when DURP graduate Megan Doherty, then working at the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department, attended a conference and met representatives of the Better Block Foundation, a Dallas-based nonprofit that educates, equips, and empowers communities to reshape and reactivate built environments to promote the growth of healthy and vibrant neighborhoods. Doherty connected the foundation with the city and FPDL, which each semester takes on applied projects for real-world clients in communities throughout Florida and the region.

At a public kick-off event on August 30, DURP alum Devan Leavins, senior planner/urban designer at the city planning department and local organizer of the Frenchtown Better Block, introduced longtime residents who spoke about Frenchtown’s rich and varied history. This gave the FPDL students, all of whom are working toward their master’s degrees in planning, a good basis for determining what the community loved best and missed most.

The students then gathered the input, did site surveys and traffic counts, and designed the environment and its components for the weekend showcase. They also pulled together the collaborators and attracted volunteers from throughout Tallahassee. The project, then, turned out to be not only a good education in urban planning but a valuable experience in community and partnership building.

“I’m really interested in community organizing and social equity, and it’s been great meeting community members and seeing them mobilized to own this project,” said FPDL and urban design student Melanie Marques (seen at right, working on the new bike lanes). “Relationships are how you really find out about the heart of the community and what people really want to see.”

In addition to the applied studio, the DURP urban design class taught by Assistant Professor April Jackson contributed much to the project, analyzing the neighborhood’s current conditions and creating visualizations of several options for the improvements and interventions. These were then presented to city officials who decided which ones to implement. The urban design students are also looking at the next phases to take this work from visualization and public demonstration to a more permanent reality.

“We don’t want this to be just a one-and-done project,” Stevens said. “The design class has come up with various additional phases, and it’s our intent to come up with funding for that. We’re excited for this weekend, but moving forward, we see so much great potential for reinvestment and revitalization in this wonderful neighborhood.”