Neighbors relax in a newly created seating area, with cafe tables, benches and plantings added to the expanded sidewalk area, as two musicians perform.

Building a better block

UD students help make Wilmington neighborhood more pedestrian-friendly

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1:47 p.m., Aug. 14, 2014--Neighbors in the 600 block of North Union Street in Wilmington this week dined at café tables set atop cheerful sidewalk paintings, listened to live outdoor music, escorted their children to a small play area where games were set up, pedaled in a bike lane and watched appreciatively as a mural artist worked his magic on a stucco wall.

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The block on the edge of the city’s Little Italy, with a mix of small businesses and modest homes, is normally dominated by traffic passing by on the three-lane, one-way stretch of Union Street (Route 2). But for three days this week, a community group worked with two University of Delaware students and a faculty member to transform the block with pedestrian-friendly amenities.

“This ‘Better Block’ project is a demonstration of what can be done to create more of a neighborhood feeling in a community,” said Nina David, assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration, whose research interests are in urban planning and sustainable communities. “The changes that were made in this block are temporary, but the hope is that they will be permanent someday.”

The project, based on a national Better Block model, evolved in partnership with the community group West Side Grows Together. That organization has developed a revitalization plan for the overall area, based on input from residents and businesses.

Last fall, David gave a guest lecture in an introductory public policy class at UD, and freshmen Matt Rojas and Aaron King became interested in working with her on an urban planning project. The two later applied to the University’s Office of Service Learning and were accepted as summer scholars to implement the Better Block project.

“I interned at West Side Grows Together in the spring, so we knew that a plan had already been developed that identified this block of Union Street as one that the community thought could be more pedestrian friendly,” King said. 

“We realized that this was a community project, not a UD project, so we spent time talking to residents and attending neighborhood meetings and collecting all the suggestions people had,” Rojas said. “It’s really exciting that people are passionate about the potential they see for their community.”

On Sunday, the UD team and its partners, along with volunteers who donated time and materials and with support from the city, installed the amenities that were in place for the next three days. One lane of the road was closed to traffic so that the sidewalk area could be extended out and a bike lane marked off.

By Monday, neighbors were sitting at the café tables and on benches, admiring the new plantings, watching the muralist from Smashed Label Art Medium at work and enjoying some live guitar music. 

David, Rojas and King surveyed residents and visitors to the block this week to collect their opinions on the project, which will be compared with earlier community surveys. Those results, along with information such as traffic data that recorded the effects of the lane closure, will be evaluated and presented to officials and others.

“We’re optimistic that these kinds of changes can become permanent and maybe expand to other blocks, too,” David said. “Once people see that this can be done, and when the city sees that this is what residents want, I think it will happen.”

Article by Ann Manser

Photos by Evan Krape

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