Blending startups and neighborhoods

Nov. 23, 2013 @ 09:40 AM

Nov. 15, I felt the adrenalin rush as I walked into UNC-Chapel Hill’s student union for the annual Triangle Startup Weekend (TWS). Excitement, passion and possibility filled the air as students, professionals, techies and non-techies converged for a 54-hour startup boot camp. Throughout the weekend our team met new partners, investors, educators and professionals with one thing in common: to change the world. Our team challenged participants to start with neighborhoods first, block by block.

Build A Better Block is a project the Durham Urban Innovation Center started with a local food truck owner, Tootie Holloway, in 2012. The idea began as a replicable model of the Texas-based Better Block project. In two years the project has grown in popularity. Build A Better Block, the first in North Carolina, is a 30-day temporary project where residents participate in an extreme makeover of a city block. Since our launch residents worked with the DUIC and created two bus shelters (one made out of bamboo), established an urban garden, painted fences, built a farm stand, planted trees and hosted two pop-up stores.

What sustains these improvements are the residents. Even though the project is temporary, it provides the community a visual, an idea of permanent revitalization. At the end of the 30-day timeframe the neighborhood has a celebration. This past spring we hosted Durham’s longest dinner table event called Thanksgiving In Spring. Over 700 participants attended. It was a huge success and the DUIC is planning the event for 2014. There were many neighborhoods, City Council members, mayors from other cities, families from other states and we tasted awesome food from 12 area restaurants. Build A Better Block created true synergy and trust between various age groups and demographics. It does however take countless hours to find key partners and resident champions.

TWS created the environment necessary for our team to rethink Build A Better Block and create a more effective and efficient implementation and marketing strategy. Welcome Team BCubed! As Team BCubed!, we pitched a mobile app and website that connects residents (members), needs and service providers (partners) for revitalization projects.

First, residents visit a neighborhood kiosk (shipping container) where they find a computer to upload to both the website and app a user profile, pictures of the blighted block and a list of needs. The City who administers the website sends out notices to the surrounding communities in an effort to match those needs to partners. Through GPS technology the block information is uploaded to the app. Local partners (artists, engineers, etc.) can visit the app and if interested submit a user profile highlighting their areas of expertise and interest in revitalizing that block.

The City convenes both the residents and partners, establishes an implementation strategy and calendar with milestones. The idea is to use technology as a tool to make Build A Better Block more efficient and effective with greater impact block by block. It brings technologies to all communities, specifically to low-wealth neighborhoods who otherwise have no access to computers. This proactive approach provides real-time grassroots community development, resident self-efficacy and accountability to create sustainable revitalization.

Wanona Satcher is creator & project director at the  Durham Urban Innovation Center (DUIC). The DUIC is a division within Department of Neighborhood Improvement Services that specializes in resident-driven innovations.