Better Block Foundation

A weekend-long experiment in Barberton, Ohio, showed residents how they can benefit from human-centered urban design.

On the final weekend of July, Barberton, Ohio’s 2nd Street looked conspicuously like portions of Broadway through midtown Manhattan. At a central intersection, colorful bump-outs extended the pedestrian space on the street, shortening crosswalks and forcing drivers to slow down and pay attention. Up the street, parking lots were transformed into a pop-up coffee shop and a mini dog park. One vacant lot became a beer garden, and another became a farmer’s market.

This new streetscape was the work of the Better Block Foundation, which captured the whole event by drone. Before-and-after shots show a rather dreary street come alive with pedestrians, cyclists, and colorful temporary infrastructure.

Barberton’s event was a major boon to the town, says Krista Nightengale, managing director of the foundation. Local restaurants sold out of food, and the town’s customary Fourth Fridays festival was one of the busiest ever, community leaders told her. Volunteers also collected data on the gender of attendees, finding that the ratio of women on the street jumped from 42 percent to 53 percent. An increase in the proportion of women on the street can indicate that the street seems safer and more hospitable, according to Better Block’s website.

Assembly and dissassembly of the temporary structures was relatively painless, as well. While the beer garden utilized temporary tents like you might see at any other festival, the pop-up cafe was built using Wikiblock, the Foundation’s toolkit of easy to assemble 3-D printed street interventions.

But a successful trial was just the first step. Now town officials and foundation staff will work to bring more permanent changes to Barberton’s streets. Immediately, the bump-outs emerged as a favorite feature, Nightengale says, causing a demonstrable reduction in car traffic speeds, and adding some whimsy to the streetscape.

The Better Block Foundation focuses on enhancing a neighborhood’s existing assets. “We look for good bones, good form in the community. And we’re also looking for strong community engagement and leaders in the area who can take on a project,” Nightengale says.

Volunteers assembling a pop-up coffee shop (Better Block Foundation)

Since its founding in Dallas seven years ago, the foundation has hosted events in cities as varied as West Palm Beach, Tallahassee, Charlotte, and Denver.  

Barberton, a town of about 26,000 people near Akron, is among the smaller towns Better Block Foundation has worked with. But collaborating with towns like Barberton plays right into the organization’s mission. “Part of our work is just educating folks on what good urban design looks like,” Nightengale says. As groups like Better Block Foundation continue to spread the gospel of tactical urbanism, the streets of America’s small towns might become harder to distinguish from those of its big cities.

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