On a single weekend in 2010, a group of neighbors went to a little-used commercial block in Dallas, Texas, and redesigned it. By painting a DIY bike lane and adding temporary cafe seating, trees, lighting, and pop-up shops—and posting signs listing all of the outdated city codes they were violating—they showed how a few simple interventions could draw new life to a car-centric street full of vacant storefronts.
It was the beginning of the Better Block project, and similar interventions have since been repeated in more than 100 cities, often leading to permanent changes. Each project typically requires some design and carpentry skills, as people hack together new benches or bus stops.
But Better Block now has a new set of tools that anyone can use: Wikiblock, a library of downloadable designs that can be automatically printed out on a CNC machine.
"I'd go into these places that were empty or sterile and think, what can you do if you're not an architect or this high-end designer, but you want to transform the place or make it better?" says Jason Roberts, founder of the Better Block project.
"These tools give people an invitation to start doing well-designed street infrastructure improvements rapidly, and they don't necessarily have to wait for the expert to come around."
If someone wants to add new seating to a vacant lot in their neighborhood, they can buy a sheet of plywood, take it to a local makerspace, and print out the Wikiblock design for cafe seating. Most designs don't require any tools or nails to assemble.
"You can download this file, put it on the CNC router, and it will cut it out for you," says Roberts. "Two chairs, and a cafe table. You basically just slot them together like puzzle pieces."
Though Better Block's first projects were temporary interventions, the new plywood designs could last longer (assuming that city officials don't cart them away). The library of designs includes planters that can be used to separate a bike lane from the street, benches, kiosks for pop-up shops and cafes, fences for vacant lot beer gardens, and platforms to build safer pedestrian crossings. New designs will be added every week.
"People can go look at the built environment around them and say, okay, what's wrong? What's missing?" says Roberts. "We're trying to give everybody an easy inroad into transforming their neighborhoods."
Students at the architecture school at Kent State University collaborated on the designs, and the project got financial support from the Knight Foundation. Though the project is new, it's already getting use; one of the first neighborhoods to download the cafe seating design used it to build a space for Election Day parties in Long Beach, California.
[All Photos: Tim Fitzwater]