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A Look Back at 2020

Jason Roberts

Founding Director

My favorite project we worked on this year was near and dear personally. I've owned a couple of neighborhood restaurants within my community for several years now, of which we employ over 50 people collectively. When the pandemic hit and the ensuing quarantine orders were put in place, the federal PPP programs only supported service industry (SI) businesses for two months. SIs are the second largest employer in the nation, so we were all thrown into a position of trying to find a way to keep our businesses afloat and provide some form of income to staff, many of which did not have access to unemployment. Once outdoor dining was allowed, cities began rapidly looking at ways to retrofit their parking lots into spaces that SI businesses could utilize to keep their doors open and maintain employment. We had built parklets (basically wood decks that fit into the space of a parking lot) in several cities around the country, but our home base of Dallas had still not approved them. After connecting with our city councilmember, we were given the clearance to prototype a model and set to work building one within 48 hours. It immediately allowed our business to stay online, kept staff employed, and even ended up winning an award for Best Patio by the Dallas Observer. Since that initial model, we are now working with several cities around the country to design, fabricate, and install more, keeping businesses afloat and people employed.

Kristin Leiber

Senior Project Manager

What a year! It's hard to pick just one project, so I'm going to cheat and give a few favorites.

The McKinney container project is a great example of the type of project our team looks forward to the most: a fresh approach, an enthusiastic local partner, and at a site close to home! We find ourselves dabbling more and more in easily transportable, custom containers, and this was our most adventurous one yet! Creating a vivid container with the needs of a pedestrian- and family-friendly downtown in mind was a study in urban design, flexible use, and reminding ourselves of the things we loved playing with most as a kid. Featuring a mural from a local artist and a layout intended for everything from a ticket booth to a beer bar, the container challenged us to design a plan specific enough to be useful for the team but flexible enough to be used for a different purpose every few weeks. The project was a great success, in large part because of the enthusiasm and partnership from Amy and Downtown McKinney. My favorite feature is without a doubt the whimsical ribbon tunnel! If you're curious, go check it out in the downtown McKinney courthouse square and tag us in any photos @betterblock!

My other favorite was our collection of COVID-19 prevention projects. Like many, I felt helpless in the face of the pandemic. I wanted to do more beyond staying home and masking up. With our projects on hold and communities around the nation hunkering down, our fabrication shop went silent in late March. But only for a minute. Over the next few months, we found opportunity and silver linings where we had previously only despaired. We used our CNC machine to begin exploring a wide range of materiality to solve community challenges, like PPE shortages, custom-sized polycarbonate sneeze guards, and community accessibility to sanitizer. For me, it was challenging and soul-satisfying for my personal growth to transition my own definition of "community" through my work as a physical, intimate gathering of people and space to "community" as a group of humans working together toward common goals at a distance. We get to see the power of community again and again in Better Block projects, and perhaps surprisingly, this year was no exception!

Travis Fowler

Digital Fabrication Designer

In the short time since I’ve joined Better Block, I’ve been able to work on many different projects. My favorite project I’ve had the pleasure of working on is creating a large countdown calendar for a local cause. A week after the calendar was picked up, I saw news coverage of it in action. During the following weeks, I saw the calendar and other parts of the project being shared across social media. The calendar was my first project at Better Block (we were approached about it on my second day on the job) and was the perfect example of how there are a variety of ways one can play a role (big and small) in assisting community members meet their goals.

Krista Nightengale

Managing Director

As we all know, this year has been unlike any other. For us, it started by installing downtown Dallas’ first protected bike lane in March, just one week before everything shut down.

Since then, we have adopted the word of the year, “pivot.”

One of my favorite pivots was in working with the public works department in Kansas City, Missouri, and our favorite collaborators, Spin, on KCMO’s Slow Street program. We took our lessons learned from that program and worked to bring it to Dallas. Through this, we worked with more departments at the City of Dallas and even recruited a new board member.

We also had to pivot in our approach to the TBK Bank Plaza. We had planned a dozen large events at the space. Of course, none of that could happen. Instead, the Plaza became a passive space for people to use as they saw fit. We will be sharing much more on the lessons learned at the Plaza early next year, but time and time again, it has proven our motto of building for love, not for fear.

And we competed in the United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator program where we took home the title of “Social Innovator of the Year.” For us, the win was about much more than a title or a check (both of which we appreciate greatly!), because it meant that Dallas sees our work as more than simply beautifying spaces, but as a way to address some of the systemic issues our neighbors face.

All in all, 2020 forced us to do something we hadn’t done in the five years I’ve been with Better Block: we stayed home. And because of this, I was able to reconnect with many of my neighbors and meet some new ones, who challenged, inspired, and motivated me. I am forever grateful to have had the chance to work with JD Moore, blckspces, Chicana in Nature, Junior Players, the DMA, and the International Rescue Committee, among many, many more.

I look forward to continuing these partnerships into 2021, and to making many more.

Lastly, I want to end this newsletter and this year with a sincere thank you from all of us at the Better Block Foundation. Your passions, your stories, your drive to make the world a little better keeps us going. Thank you.


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