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Better Block on the Importance of Placemaking

The folks behind Better Block understand the power neighborhood spaces have on communities. Through surveys, collaboration, and design, they guide people in revitalizing entire blocks that were previously underutilized or ignored. By listening to community members and facilitating the training and tools, they put the power of placemaking back into neighbors' hands to create their vision for their streets.

What initially began in Dallas, Texas, grew to touch blocks in Maryland, Ohio, and even neighborhoods in Australia and Iran. After years of building and creating gathering places, Better Block decided to share their knowledge by creating Wikiblock, an open-source catalogue for how to create simple park accessories like benches and lawn games. 

We reached out to Better Block to discuss how this project originated and hear from their Managing Director, Architectural Designer, and Project Manager about why community spaces matter.


Better Block community in Vickery Meadow’s TBK Bank Plaza


Where did the idea of Better Block come from?

“The Better Block began with an idea from a group of neighbors who wondered, “How could we have bike lanes like the ones in Holland? How could we have night food markets like those found in Thailand and beer gardens like those in Munich?” They realized they couldn’t. There were decades-old ordinances on their city books that prohibited them from creating spaces like those they dreamed of.


So they did the only thing they could: they broke some rules.


For one weekend, they took over their block. They painted bike lanes, coordinated pop-up food markets and retailers, and created a beer garden. They called their experiment the Better Block, and through it, the community brainstormed together, learned together, and ultimately shared in the beautiful and vibrant spaces they helped create together.”

- Krista Nightengale, Managing Director


Why did you create an open source catalog for your projects?

“Our mission revolves around giving communities the tools and resources they need to make change. We love beautiful design, but it’s not always easy to create that during a project while we’re on the ground. We needed something that would combine our desire to give neighbors the tools they need to create beautiful designs during a project. Enter Wikiblock, an open-source library of street furniture designs that anyone anywhere can download for free.”

- Krista Nightengale, Managing Director


Various designs created from Better Block’s Wikiblock


What are you doing to help communities in a post-covid world? 

“Our designer, Dylan Adams, found a design from the Good Mod in Portland, tweaked it, and had a prototype for face shields. We open-sourced the idea, which has led to a version of our visors being produced around the world. 

We put out a call for funds so we could get them to people who needed them. In one month, the community had provided enough funds for us to create and donate 10,500 shields to hospitals, senior centers, people providing school lunches, dentists, essential workers of all types, and thousands of loved ones. We now know way more about healthcare equipment distribution than we ever thought possible.

Then we turned our focus to the streets and to our small businesses and how we can make them more accommodating to social distancing by zeroing in on parklets and open streets.

City of Dallas councilman Chad West worked with us on the idea of using temporary parklets for Covid-19 small business relief. By extending the sidewalk with structures, we can create more spread-out room that allows folks to maintain six feet of separation.

We partnered with Kansas City, MO Public Works department and Spin to add to their Open Streets Program, which grants no-cost permits to neighborhoods that want to temporarily close their streets to traffic and create a safe environment for people to get outside. With Spin’s support, we created a guide that outlines design guides and implementation tips to allow neighbors to shut their streets off to thru traffic. We also provided cones, barricades, vests, tape, paint, and even a wayfinding structure so neighbors can take their Open Streets to the next level.”

- Krista Nightengale, Managing Director

 

What is one of your favorite stories of transformation that you’ve seen because of a Better Block project?

“An old favorite of mine was our Akron, Ohio project called The Exchange House. It started as a classic Better Block project, creating a more pedestrian and bike friendly street with giving local businesses a place to open up shop for the weekend. Shortly after that event, we bought a house a block away, then the one next door to that. The house and adjoining backyards became our satellite office, but so much more than that. It is now a cultural hub; a place to gather, take or teach a class, get medical treatment, watch a play, or eat dinner with neighbors. Watching the space grow to where it is now locally operated and a fixture in the community is something we are all proud of.”

- Dylan Adams, Architectural Designer

Images from the Exchange House

“My first project was in Burtonsville, Maryland at a vacant strip center in the middle of town that had been empty for nearly 10 years. This project had a lot of momentum from the beginning, but it wasn't until the volunteer workshops that I realized the absolute resolution from all corners of the community to improve their space.

We had the most volunteers I'd ever seen for every single one of our workshops. We had the full support from the local government, and they went above and beyond to provide so many resources to our event. The moment I realized that the project which I had worried about and worked on for months, had, in a split second grown legs and walked off without me was stunning. We had an unbelievable 3,500 people show up for the event, and nearly every vendor sold out on the first night. It was a wonderful lesson on the power behind determined communities and letting go enough for things to beautifully unfold.”

- Kristin Leiber, Project Manager


The Burtonsville Placemaking Festival

What is your favorite aspect of working at Better Block?

“Generally, we find that all the community needs is a little insight into the ingredients of a great public space, a little guidance on how to take the first steps, and a little affirmation that they are empowered to experiment with the changes they want to see. Working with residents, city leaders, and neighborhood stakeholders is such a rewarding process when I get to watch their trepidation melt away during the planning process and volunteer workshops. It is so meaningful to put a hammer or paintbrush in the hand of a community member and see them transform into advocates and caretakers of their own public spaces.”

- Kristin Leiber, Project Manager


Volunteers creating bike lanes

How has working at Better Block changed your understanding of community?

“I'm not sure if my understanding of community has changed, but I have been a witness to the true power of community and just how much positive change can happen when people from all walks of life come together toward a common goal. It is continually inspiring.”

- Dylan Adams, Architectural Designer

“I’ve always known that communities are complex and beautiful; challenging and engaging; imperfect and perfect. I’ve also always known that there are systemic issues plaguing our neighbors. What I didn’t know was that so many of those issues begin with the way in which communities were designed. By rethinking this design, by working with neighbors to bring to light what they want to see, we’re able to address some of these issues, and take steps toward making the world just a little better, block by block.”

- Krista Nightengale, Managing Director


Want to get involved with Better Block? One easy way is by donating to their current face shield initiative to provide essential workers with proper PPE by clicking here. It’s incredible that they are still finding ways to support communities, even in a pandemic.