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Better Block: Corktown

Rapid deployment of volunteer-driven placemaking elements & shipping container pavilion, culminating in a week-long community celebration.

Photo of Kristin Leiber
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Our team will create Better Block: Corktown, a semi-permanent placemaking event that will activate local public space through a community-led process. We will accomplish this by blending design-led public furniture builds, community input, and inclusive site design with a flexible shipping container pavilion incorporating the ability to open, close, and store our flat-pack furniture. As with many Better Block projects, we take beloved, but overlooked or blighted parts of town, to partner with locals in activating strategic spaces and bring people together. A key part of placemaking and creating areas for congregation lies in having strong “sight lines” or focal points - Michigan Central Station is a perfect example of an excellent, beautiful focal point behind which we can rally the neighborhood. 

With a core group of locals called “Block Captains” and our team of designers and urban planners, we work with local stakeholders to gather input on the chosen site and what the space should feel like. We then create the interventions in-house, craft volunteer-driven workshops onsite, and bring the community together in a weekend of ribbon-cutting and celebration to bring these ideas to life. As placemaking is an iterative process, the fabrications and space are designed with a flexible layout that can drive further ideas for long-term development. We exist to rapidly deploy a place for the entire spectrum of community to belong. 

Our initial review leads us to consider the front lawn of Michigan Central Station as an ideal site for a Better Block. Just off bustling Michigan Avenue and with the historical station overlooking the event, the location will help anchor the space as a central focal point for the neighborhood as well as invite locals to participate in the design of a space in their own backyard. Through a placemaking event celebrating Corktown, the station, and Detroit's unique history, we can converge volunteers, Ford employees, and residents of Corktown in an immediate, inclusive way. 

How will your solution benefit residents, workers, or visitors in the Michigan Central Station impact area? (1,000 characters)

The act of placemaking, or creating a comfortable, people-centered environment in a public space, benefits all participants in an area. The psychology behind what makes a place feel “good” to humans speaks to all - including residents, workers, and visitors. Creating places where people want to linger, connect, and engage combined with a unique, central art piece or landmark to the area can help foster a sense of identity and community. Ford’s development, the commitment to support a variety of demographics, including seniors, homeowners, and local business, and the input received from the community feedback workshops demonstrate a need for increased focus on public space, inclusivity, and the cooperation of a larger scope of people. All of these are at the heart of what a Better Block is. No two user journeys look the same. Take a look at the attached images for some examples of how friends, visitors, and coworkers can move through the spaces we create alongside neighbors.

Describe your solution's stage of development

  • Ready to Scale - you have completed and expanded your pilot and are seeing adoption of your solution by your intended user
  • Fully Scaled - you have already scaled your solution and are exploring new use cases

Insights from previous testing (500 characters)

Our experiences have given us two of our favorite sayings: “Parking is hard to find in great places” and "Build for love, not fear." We often come into a space and find we do as much human therapy as we do on the place itself. Blighted neighborhoods can be fixed with trust and some counter-intuitive design processes. From our projects over the last 3 years, 47% said new businesses resulted from a Better Block and 77% said they had seen an increase in community engagement.

Tell us about your team or organization (500 characters)

The dream for a Better Block began in 2010 when founder Jason Roberts began organizing a volunteer-led conversion of blighted blocks with vacant properties into temporary, walkable districts with pop-up businesses, bike lanes, cafe seating, and landscaping. Since then, we have worked on hundreds of placemaking projects which have a two-fold purpose: They show community members that they have the power to make changes in their neighborhoods, and they show City Hall how these changes would work.

Size of your team or organization

  • 2-10

Team or Organization URL

Are you submitting as a student team?

  • No

Are you submitting as a team from the Impact Area?

  • No

Funding Request

  • $150,000

Rough Budget (500 characters)

Kickoff Trip, Keynote, and Build: $10,000; Ongoing Consultation: $30,000; Check-in Trip (Travel, Local Meetings): $5,000; Concept Plan, Build List, Cut List: $10,000; Week-of Activation (Travel, Installation, Workshop Management, Materials): $90,000; Final Report: $5,000

Describe how you would pilot your idea (1000 characters)

The pilot phase will begin with a 2-day kickoff event, community survey, and small-scale workshop showing an example of what our larger event will look like. From there, we will work to create concept drawings for the site and the public furniture fabrications, as well as work with our local strike team to help mobilize locals who can participate in shaping the project. Better Block will manage weekly meetings, coordinate materials delivery & workshops, and work with the right players in the local community to ensure that we are prepared to move quickly the week of implementation. We will also take ownership of the build of critical pieces by both our design team and local fabricators or makerspaces brought on board. The week of, we will host and manage volunteer workshops and coordinate the reveal to the public. At this point, we step back and observe as the groundwork we've laid results in the community taking the event and making it their own.

Describe how you would measure the success of your pilot (1000 characters)

After the initial pilot in which we excite, motivate, and unite the community, we analyze the results of the survey, create a core strike team including ourselves, volunteers, and key stakeholders. We then leverage the momentum from the kickoff to dictate our site plan, fabricated elements, programming to activate the space, workshops and volunteer participation, and activation. We measure the success of a pilot by checking ourselves against the stakeholder goals and community survey. Our constant flow of bi-directional feedback with stakeholders keeps us on track on a daily basis throughout the project. We are a nimble, fast-moving team that is used to overcoming obstacles and managing abrupt change on the fly. Our final deliverable to measure the success is the after-action report, which provides key data and feedback for next steps. This report is based on data collected before, during, and after the implementation period as well as visuals and storytelling.

Sustainability Plan (500 characters)

Our public furniture can be built with a rubber mallet and without any glue, screws, or nails. Therefore they can be taken down, stored in the shipping container, and put back together as needed. During the planning process, caretakers step forward to continue the programs or oversight of design elements, so the placemaking process continues even after we leave. Though our builds are meant to be semi-permanent, we leave behind the momentum needed to propel the project into its next iteration.

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Boratha Tan

Thanks for submitting Better Block's Proposal Kristin Leiber ! I am part of the facilitation team. Just a couple of thoughts. It seems to me that there is a desire to place a Better Block close to the MCS. I was wondering if you and your team have explored North Corktown or part of SW Detroit (both are still in the impact zone). Corktown itself has seen the property values rise. And I don't see an estimate of lot purchasing in the budget.

Otherwise, this is a very unconventional idea (to me), but sounds like so many things can come out of it! From other Better Blocks, how have you engaged lower income families, young children (specifically after school and on weekends), aside from businesses?

Photo of Kristin Leiber

Hello and thanks for the questions, Boratha Tan !

The beauty of a Better Block project is that there is no need for a lot purchase or a permanent location. The combination of flat-pack furniture and a shipping container pavilion consolidates all elements into one mobile unit. This enables the community to ship and activate the container in various locations. We have worked with public and private groups to secure space for temporary activations.

Our initial thought was to launch the project in an iconic space (MCS) to capture community attention and rally the neighborhoods around an accessible, central point. However, before we make our final determination, we would work closely with the community to help identify the best location. A great aspect of the container is that it’s mobile so it can easily relocate and activate other parts of town.

A majority of our projects take place in communities that suffer from blight and disinvestment. Throughout the Better Block process, our outreach connects area nonprofits, elected officials, schools, and local police departments with local residents and stakeholders, often opening up channels for communication that didn’t exist before.

In terms of design, many of our recent projects demonstrate examples of engaging lower income families and young children. In West Palm Beach, Florida, we worked with a local YMCA and their after-school program to involve the kids in helping us build our public furniture. After it was built, we invited them and their families to help us paint onsite. In Dallas, we have been working with the Department of Justice in activating an urban plaza in a high-crime neighborhood with no green space, a diverse immigrant population, and a large number of kids living in apartments. Specifically, our design strategies included creating more permeable storefronts, welcoming sidewalks, landscaping, and areas for low-income community members to gather and for the students to safely walk home from school. In West Allis, Wisconsin, we created a natural wooden playscape that served as both a public art piece for the community and a playground for children.

All this to say: we create elements that fulfill specific needs of the communities we work in. We gather this insight through our process, and then build alongside the communities to activate spaces so they can come together.