Last week, a group of neighbors snapped slatted benches into place in a vacant lot in St. Paul, Minnesota. In about two hours, 10 volunteers had fully assembled a pop-up outdoor theater. They propped up kiosks for concessions, secured tabletops to bases, and strung up lights.
“When you’re trying to gather the community together, you often hear, ‘We knew there was a problem, but we didn’t know where to start,’” says Jason Roberts, the founder of Better Block, which aims to transform areas one street at a time. That refrain, he says, often speaks to a bigger problem: a dearth of easy ways for people to kick off local changes.
The nonprofit Better Block project, launched in 2010, tackles too-wide roads, disused patches of land, and more. Energizing a space drums up a need for lots of stuff—planters, benches, tables, and the like. Roberts wondered if it might be possible to reverse-engineer those objects, creating a portal through which they’re easy for anyone to download and replicate.
From a collection of 29 objects—including stages, kiosks, planters, benches, and tables—users can download free plans, as well as an assembly manual. Bring the PDF and sheets of plywood to a makerspace, and use a CNC router to cut out the requisite pieces, which usually pop into place with a few smacks from a rubber mallet—no need for screws, glue, or nails.
The trial run in St. Paul took place next door the Victoria Theater, a Beaux Arts structure that’s long been in a slump. The building was once a silent film palace, then a nightclub and a cabaret, and eventually a retail store. Since shuttering more than two decades ago, it’s been derelict; for many years, it stared down the bulldozer. Local coalitions are working to restore the gutted building to its function as an art space—but that takes time. In the interim, Roberts says, they’ll move the pop-up furniture inside and use it for community programming. In total, the installation called for 67 sheets of plywood. The organization sprung for Russian birch, which could withstand reuse; a cheaper version, at around $50/sheet, would ring up at $3,350 for the whole shebang.
Local fixtures add texture and color to a community. But Roberts isn’t worried that the open-source data will result in a flurry of cookie-cutter spaces. Instead, he envisions templates that offer a skeleton with plenty of room for customization. The basic designs, he says, are “a bird’s nest,” built from useful bits and pieces. Developed in collaboration with students at Kent State and architects in Dallas and St. Paul, the plans include a coffee kiosk, containing some of the bare bones elements that most such outposts have in common.
“Every coffee shop needs shelving, storage space, and an area to hold cream and condiments,” Roberts says. “If we can go figure out what those general needs are in all cafes, let’s go ahead and create base models, and people can go in and reclad whatever’s unique to them.”
The printed elements might serve as temporary installations for sites that are in flux, keeping a space vibrant as it undergoes more comprehensive revitalization. They could also help an entrepreneur test out a new venture without committing too much capital up front. And, in tactical urbanist fashion, they could bridge gaps that city planners may have overlooked. Plans for trash cans, kids’ play structures, and wayfinding signs are on the horizon.
Some projects, of course, are best left to the pros—don’t try printing out DIY signs and rerouting a dangerous stretch of road, for example. But as simple first-step engagement, Roberts says the open-source supplies are an accessible way to empower locals to step in and solve problems as they spot them. “People go in and take over the planning realm themselves,” Roberts says.