Inspirations: Better Block

The inspiration for CultureHouse comes from similar urban design and cultural institutions around the world. In Copenhagen, Studenterhuset, a non-profit student center, serves as a public space where students from all across the city come and mix. Nearby, Copenhagen Street Food, a pop-up food truck market, also achieves a strong cultural identity. Taking from Better Block’s DIY urban design philosophy, CultureHouse will employ tactical urbanism to create a livable space and streetscapes that works for people. Drawing from Design Museum Boston, CultureHouse will use the city as a base to build off of. Like the Olin College Library, the space will facilitate the exchange of ideas through collaborative co-working. This month we are highlighting our inspirations as we reflect on what we can learn from these unique spaces.

Better Block is an urban design non-profit based in Dallas, Texas that seeks to improve public life for all through changes in the urban landscape. Better Block originally started as a guerilla movement to transform an area of Dallas back into the vibrant main street it once was. Through a series of temporary streetscape changes such as seating in the street, Jason Roberts and his teammates created a thriving downtown area in the Bishop Arts District of Dallas. Since that first event, Better Block has been working in cities and towns across the US and even internationally to transform their downtown areas.

Better Block still uses temporary interventions, but they now get permission and cooperation from the city on most projects. Through strong engagement with local groups, Better Block events are highly specific to the city or town in which they take place. By using temporary interventions, Better Block reduces a large barrier to entry and can show a city how their street can transform with some simple urban design.

By creating more vibrant spaces, Better Block hopes to do two things. As their website describes, projects show “community members that they have the power to make changes in their neighborhoods, and they show City Hall how these changes would work”. By starting with small-scale changes influenced by their guerilla past, they create examples of good and just urban design that inspire both civic society and government agencies to strive for better neighborhoods.

One key element to Better Block’s success is their Wikiblock library. Wikiblock is a set of open-source street furniture that anyone can download and cut out of a sheet of plywood. Not only does Better Block use the Wikiblock elements in their projects, but because it is open source, anyone anywhere can download and cut an element off Wikiblock. With a diverse library of street furniture like cafe chairs, bus stops, planters, and bike racks, Wikiblock encourages public life through good design.

One of Better Block’s focuses is activating vacant spaces with pop-up businesses. Examples Better Block have used are a cafe with outdoor seating, a kids art studio, and a flower & gift shop filled with local products. These pop-ups “show the potential for what could be if the street had a more inviting presence.” A pop-up is good for the landlord — they provide a property owner with marketing for their space and increase the likelihood of future leases.

As a design intern at Better Block last summer, CultureHouse’s fearless leader Aaron worked on a variety of projects that taught him about the power of urban design. One such project was a four-day trip to Barberton, Ohio where he supported a two-day temporary transformation of an underused downtown street. Over the course of four days, the street went from an under-used strip of asphalt to a vibrant public space full of people. As Aaron wrote in a blog post about his internship, “I have always been passionate about design and improving lives, but I never really knew that those two things could be one in the same until coming to work at Better Block… After my summer at Better Block, I have seen the positive impact that well-deigned spaces can have”.

The seed of the CultureHouse idea came in part from Aaron’s experience working at Better Block and seeing the incredible change that can come about due to pop-up urban design interventions. That idea has become a reality due to the guidance Better Block has provided. From community engagement to advertising to how to communicate vision, Better Block’s experience and expertise has given CultureHouse a sure footing in the complex world of urbanism.

CultureHouse improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure.