How Short-Term Activations Can Create Lasting Positive Change

A growing number of destinations seeking to create community experiences since the pandemic are looking at Better Block’s neighborhood pop-up projects.

Author: Michelle Russell       

outdoor party in former parking lot

Better Block volunteers transformed an empty lot (below in story) in Duluth, Minnesota, into a community space (above).

Convene editors reached out to a handful of organizations to see how they are incorporating lessons learned from the ways the pandemic affected their audiences, stakeholders, and members into their go-forward strategies. This is one in a series of stories from the January/February issue of Convene.

Dallas, Texas–based Better Block is an organization that works with one foot planted firmly in urban development and the other more loosely in the events industry. The nonprofit helps local communities on three-to-four-month neighborhood-engagement projects — pop-up activations — that temporarily transform areas that are not currently serving those communities. These reconfigured spaces become a testing ground for permanent places of human activity that have the potential to be socially and economically beneficial.

empty lot in Duluth, Minnesota

Local volunteers are key to Better Block’s neighborhood transformations. This empty lot in Duluth, Minnesota, was transformed into a community space (photo at top of story).

Convene wrote about Better Block back in 2014 and recently reached out to the organization’s executive director, Krista Nightengale, to see how it has evolved in the past nearly nine years. (Read Using Pop-Up Events to Create Better Communities.)

In that time span, she said, Better Block has extended its reach to help destinations in other parts of the country and around the world, including Australia. The nonprofit also launched a product line, an online library of street furniture designs that anyone can download for free. By using a computer-controlled cutting machine called a CNC router — which Nightengale described as a 3D printer on steroids — community volunteers can instantly build digitally fabricated pieces like benches, seats, and stages, “and use them to activate their sidewalks or their streets.”

After finding that resource, the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin asked Better Block to design a barn-like structure that members could build in a very short time on site at SXSW in 2018 to house what they wanted to make into the world’s largest cheeseboard. The barn contributed to creating an immersive experience for participants (who consumed more than a ton of samples) and once SXSW was over, Dairy Farmers representatives took the structure apart and flat-packed it for reuse. As recently as June 2022, the barn was reassembled in Madison, housing a table spanning 35 feet long and 7 feet wide and laden with more than two tons of cheese — setting that record for the world’s largest cheeseboard, according to the World Record Academy.

Krista Nightengale headshot

Krista Nightengale

While that activation was “a weird take on placemaking and what it is that we do,” Nightengale said, “it ended up being really fun to flex our design muscles.” At the same time, Better Block has remained true to its core design mission: developing 120-day community projects. “Our process is still very fast and that’s always something that everyone struggles with a bit, but we do that on purpose because we don’t want people to overmeet, we don’t want them to overthink, and we don’t want them to overanalyze,” she said. “We want to have action happening. What we see with the cities we’re working with is that they like these concepts and they like the idea of being able to try something out and get that true feedback from the community about what these ideas look like. We’re seeing more and more of them incorporate it as part of their master-planning process.”

Better Block first surveys the neighborhoods that community groups have targeted to determine if those streets are serving people or just serving passing-through traffic. The organization then looks at how to attract pedestrian traffic with pop-up retail and food outlets and outdoor seating areas. As a result of this increased human activity, some destinations have experienced significantly reduced crime rates in what had been desolate neighborhoods.

A COVID-induced change Better Block has seen, Nightengale said, is a much greater interest in parklets, a sidewalk extension that provides amenities for people using the street. “They finally became more of a thing,” she said. “We’ve worked with several cities on expanding parklet programs and putting together different parklet designs.” This reflects what Nightengale thinks has become a greater need to be part of a community since the pandemic. “I think people are looking at creative ways to get outside and to be around one another and really just getting back to that and getting back to knowing their neighbors,” she said.

The success of each project relies on the commitment of community volunteers. “We say that our team handles the permitting and the licensing and all that good stuff,” Nightengale said, “but the volunteers are what bring the heart and soul.”

Better Block shipping container

Better Block now uses shipping containers, turning them into, among other things, turned into, among other things, thrift stores, breweries, free libraries, or refreshment stands for pop-up events.

With an increased emphasis on reuse, sustainability, and efficiency, Better Block has taken to using shipping containers, putting “everything you need for a placemaking event inside the containers,” Nightengale said. “You can pull those things out, you set it up, and then you can open up the containers because we’ll cut windows in them, and the container itself can be a kiosk.” Containers have been turned into, among other things, a thrift store, brewery, and free library. “And then, after the event,” she said, “you just take everything apart and put it back in.”

The idea of community-driven spaces “is becoming a bit more known and people are opening up to it a bit more,” Nightengale said, rather than doing nothing or having changes imposed on them by municipal officials. “I had a 15-year-old reach out to me the other day — just a cold email saying, ‘It’s not working in front of my school. We really need to take a look at these streets.’ I think the idea that communities can truly change and impact their spaces is going to lead to better communities. I think that’s very exciting.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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