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Inspired by a Strong Towns presentation in 2016, the town of Thunder Bay, Ontario recently hosted a “Strong Block” event, in which they modeled what a successful, economically prosperous street might look like in their community.

After a Strong Towns visit last year which garnered more than 300 attendees, several individuals expressed interest in continuing the conversation about how to make Thunder Bay a stronger town. They met through a series of “idea cafes” and eventually came up with the idea to showcase what they had learned from the Strong Towns presentation. Rena Viehbeck, who coordinates the City of Thunder Bay’s EarthCare initiative, worked with these community members to develop the event, bringing together dozens of partner organizations in the process.

They decided to focus their efforts on a one-day event in collaboration with an OpenStreets event, who was already planning to close down several blocks of a street for pedestrians and cyclists in September. Viehbeck explains that, ideally, they would have liked to showcase safe streets that involved automobiles too, but that it ended up making sense from an organizational and marketing standpoint to partner with Open Streets.

The planning group chose a street in a low-income neighborhood, adjacent to the most densely populated area of the city, to be the focus of their “Strong Block” event and came up with a vision for what a lively, safe and economically successful block might look like—one that builds community and a healthier environment in the process. For the event, they made several temporary modifications to the street, including adding bike lanes, potted plants and curb extensions. They also invited more than twenty small businesses and organizations to set up pop-up booths along the street featuring everything from baked goods to art projects to live music.

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In order to explain to attendees the purpose of the showcase and to share some of the lessons learned during Strong Towns’ visit in 2016, the event planners also put together a number of wooden signs, interspersed along the block with messages like “A strong block supports local businesses,” and “A strong block support small, incremental projects.” They also installed one larger sign inviting people to write how the block made them feel and what they thought about it.

An estimated 500-1,000 people attended the Strong Block event on September 16, 2017. Impressively, the whole event was put on for around $7,000, with an additional $5,000 worth of in-kind donations like paint, signs, and v-boards used to make temporary curb extensions donated from a local ski center, and more.

Viehbeck was kind enough to share several lessons learned through the process:

1.  Get focused. While Viehbeck initially had dozens of individuals and nearly 50 organizations that expressed interest in helping to plan the event, she pared the planning group down to a handful of committed, experienced community members. This group was able to focus on accomplishing the tasks necessary to throw such a large event, and the other interested partners and organizations were able to participate in the end product.

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2.  Think carefully about how you’ll work with landlords. One semi-frustrating aspect of the event was that landlords along the chosen block weren’t interested in participating. Although many had empty storefronts that would have been ideal for housing pop-up shops and would have helped to more realistically model a strong block, they weren’t willing to offer their spaces—even in exchange for payment. Viehbeck suspects that part of this was due to the short length of the event and that, if it had been a longer exercise (say, a week or a month), landlords might have been more willing to take the time to participate.

3.  Be intentional with your messaging. One side effect of this lack of landlord participation is that the end product appeared a little more like a typical street fair with booths and tents than a demonstration of how a block could look over the long-term. The partnership with Open Streets also created some confusion for attendees about which events were which, and what their purpose was. Viehbeck hopes that the wooden signage and presentations that were part of the day’s activities helped to clarify the goals of the showcase.

We’re excited to see this application of Strong Towns ideas and how that it serves as inspiration for other communities looking to put the Strong Towns mission into action.

Want to help us inspire more communities to take bottom-up, incremental action to grow stronger? Become a member of Strong Towns today

(All photos courtesy of EarthCare)


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