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A Look Back at 2021

2021 was quite the year.

We started to get back to doing what we love, which is working alongside community members. We began the year with working on several cities’ parklet programs. We’ve been so excited to see the concept of parklets becoming embraced more and more by not only small businesses but also municipalities. We’re seeing several themes emerge with parklets as some of the rules around what could be have been relaxed. More on that soon.

As the year progressed, we started going back to our more traditional work of transforming spaces in 120 days. One project that really struck me this year was possibly our smallest challenge. The principal of St. Cecilia School here in Dallas reached out, and said that they had started using this cut-through area as an outdoor classroom during COVID. But it wasn’t much to look at. And she wondered if there was anything we might be able to do with it. We talked through a few concepts, she liked them, and then we got to work. The actual install was handled by our senior project manager Kristin and landscape architect Torrie while architectural designer Draven and I visited a project site, so we showed up at the tail-end, and even I was astonished at what some paint, furniture, and creativity could do to a space.

So often, in our work, we’re asked to take on massive spaces and transform them. But sometimes, it’s nice to work in a small area and make something go from a pass-through to a third space.

We also got to create magic with community members in Southern Virginia, along the Pike District Connector, in more than 27 cities through a partnership with Spin for Park(ing) Day, and dreamed and brainstormed with folks from all over the U.S. (special hello to our friends who are part of the PlacemakingUS group!), Canada (hi, 880 Cities!), and in Dublin (hello, ChangeX!), London (hi, there, KWMC!), and beyond. In all, we worked in 34 cities with at least 325 volunteers and 136 vendors, artists, and musicians.

While it’s impossible to properly capture all the moments in this one newsletter, our team members, Kristin, Torrie, and Draven, talk about a few of their favorite moments from 2021 below.

MLK Food Park

by Kristin Leiber

From day one, the MLK Food Park was placemaking at its finest (I may be biased). Born of a hare-brained, pandemic-era pivot, the project was a great example of building the plane as it's flying and being responsive to changing circumstances. A crash course into the world of food-centric policy and historical redlining, the park was so much more than a piece of land with some food trucks. It was a month-long celebration of all things South Dallas: culture, cuisine, community, and history delivered with 5,500 slaps in the face to those who claimed that no one would come south of 30 without a bulletproof vest. There were moments of pure perfection and times where my heart bled for the residents, but when all was said and done, it was pure activism by the community members who worked their tails off for four weekends, changing minds, creating joy, staring down crime, and rejecting stereotypes. In my mind, this project solidified that the built-environment can impact a neighborhood fundamentally, providing spaces that can lift spirits, impact safety outcomes, and generate community wealth. Placemaking is not mere window dressing but is a vital, serious component of community building that can impact everything from quality of life to longevity.

Quincy Better Block

by Torrie Peterson

After nearly a week of hard work in the heat of summer, the site was finally ready to present to the community of Quincy. It was surreal to see the transformation of an oversized streetscape into an invigorating space full of life, laughter, and community engagement. Up until this point, I had been looking at the design through a screen; but now I was surrounded by hundreds of people talking, laughing, and enjoying the night with their loved ones. The space was almost as beautiful as it was to see people being proud of their community and working together to better their neighborhood.

The Park at Forest-Audelia

by Draven Pointer

Most of the projects I got to work on in 2021 were out of state, which is fun of course, but when I got to help create an amazing space here in Texas, it really hit home. The Park at Forest-Audelia was as difficult to make as it was rewarding. For a few weeks, I was in our workshop dodging stray plywood pieces and navigating the fog of saw dust, trying to complete all the Wikiblock pieces on time. And let's not get started on the amount of trial and error needed to cut a few simple pieces of polycarbonate. I take pride in my patience, but this project really made me second-guess myself. Luckily, my coworkers weren’t able to hear my frustrated screams over the cacophony produced by the vacuum table and CNC router (at least I hope they weren't).

Despite the universe's best efforts, I managed to complete all the necessary pieces for the install at Forest Audelia.

Once we were onsite and putting all the pieces in place, things started looking up. Folks from the surrounding area came to see what was going on in their neighborhood—some were suspicious and pessimistic about the idea of a park being put in such a place, but so many people were thrilled. As each day of the install week passed, the excitement grew and grew. On opening day, the park was filled and all the kids were having an absolute blast.

Usually after two days, we would be packing up and heading back home, but this project was in Dallas and it was up for a month. I was able to visit the site many times, and still, every day, I got to go back, kids were there making the most of the park. Getting to see my hard work make a child’s day just a bit better cured any trauma that CNC router might have caused.

Your Better Block team members: Krista Nightengale, Jason Roberts, Kristin Leiber, Draven Pointer, Torrie Peterson


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