The Better Block Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that educates, equips, and empowers communities and their leaders to reshape and reactivate built environments to promote the growth of healthy and vibrant neighborhoods.
"We want to be able to create tools and resources for someone who wants to make a change in their community, but doesn't know where to begin. Those tools assembled collectively with other neighbors, would be used to enhance engagement while demonstrating concepts that would improve the built environment. My early frustration as an activist was that I knew there were problems in my neighborhood and ideas that I was seeing around the world being implemented by "experts." I wanted to find ways to reverse engineer the things they were creating so that I could do the same in my own neighborhood. That way, the community could learn and see the potential we had to make our community matter. I think most "placemaking" or similar organizations focus on changing the systems at the top.
I'm really interested in changing them from the bottom and middle. Essentially what the ethos and networks of groups like the Maker societies or Farm to Table movements have done for fabrication and food could be applied to repairing the built environment. Changing from the bottom up; giving everyone the tools to implement change. Short term actions makes everyone stop overthinking."
— Jason Roberts, Founding Director
Better Block Focuses on Six Major Activities:
What We Do
Develop open-source media to help cities, community groups, and emerging leaders create rapid prototyping
Create opportunities for communities and their leaders to gain exposure to and training from urban planning experts, civic innovators, and architects through global symposiums
Facilitate community engagement through input and information, employing charrettes, and neighborhood meetings and workshops about the value of rapid prototyping to enhance public life
Host and organize study tours to benchmark successful examples of sustainable initiatives around the world
Create new and improve existing modeling tools though experimentation with innovative technologies and scientific solutions
Create mentorship programs for emerging leaders and young urbanists
The Better Block began with an idea from a group of neighbors...
...who wondered, “How could we have bike lanes like those found 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.
The drive to make places better was placed in the hands of neighbors, and they ran with it. Over the years, Better Blocks have been implemented from Portland to Detroit and Melbourne to Tahran.
In 2015, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave Jason Roberts a capacity grant to create a nonprofit that could continue the work, and provide resources and tools to community leaders interested in creating their own Better Blocks. Thus the Better Block Foundation was born.
Founder, Jason Roberts
A mix of community engagement, digital fabrication, and immediate implementation
We employ a hands-on approach that sidesteps the lengthy process of city planning and implementation by putting the power back into the communities' hands through rapid and temporary placemaking. We unite artists, government officials, small businessmen, and neighbors in effort to re-envision their public places as a team.
The Better Block process is a 90 and 120-day process, often composed of five to six phases.
We begin by working with community members to select the most impact site within the area that needs reimaging.
Then we begin our engagement process by reaching out to neighbors, councilmen, small business owners and all other stakeholders to form partnerships and committees that deal with outreach, public art, volunteer recruitment, programming, city dealings, and other areas of interest that suit each particular project's needs.
Based on surveys, input from stakeholders, and gathering information from a kick-off event, we draft a design that meets the needs of the space and get to work on permitting and planning implementation.
The actual build process begins a week before the reimagined space's launch, often in the shape of a block party, when our team of designers lead workshops with community members, putting paint roller and the power of making an immediate and needed change in back in the community's hands.
When all is said and done, we pass the responsibility and resources back into the community's hands with a route to permanency mapped out in our report, physical infrastructure, and the newly formed connections of committee leaders.
We are going to work with inner-city auto shop students to give them tools and knowledge that could not only enhance their streets but also their lives. By engaging the passion, capacity, and skills of these students, our project, which is called Wikiblock, will take their current work of repairing cars and apply it to repairing neighborhoods.
We often work in neighborhoods that are suffering from disinvestment. We work to rapidly transform these neighborhoods with residents who live there, who are often marginalized. These residents realize their ability to be assets that can help make their community economical generative. We want people to live, work, and play in their neighborhoods and give them the tools to do so.
In transforming a streetscape, we build bioswales, create rain gardens, reuse reclaimed materials, and create permeable surfaces. Ultimately, we’re making a street more green and sustainable.
We use digital fabrication, CNC routers, 3D printers, and laser cutters to rapidly adapt the built environment.
We rebuild trust and engagement in communities, and we do that through rapid engagement exercises that celebrate the strength of the neighborhood working together.
Arts, Culture, and Humanities
We research and work closely with neighborhoods to identify unique cultural assets and implement these elements into the built environment. We work with the artist community to illustrate these concepts, and build communities that are reflective of the needs of the neighborhood.
We incubate temporary businesses with local residents to test market viability; which, ultimately, creates permanent businesses. We take areas that are blighted or suffer from disinvestment and create a series of temporary built businesses.
By creating rapid-prototyping events and market places, we put more eyes on the street increasing the safety of the area.