Placemaking Made Easy

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In our last piece on placemaking, we discussed what placemaking is, why it’s important to communities, and why it’s such a difficult and cost-prohibitive concept to apply effectively. To put it simply, communities need placemaking, and placemakers, to initiate improvements to public spaces that benefit the public, not corporate or professional interest, but tangible, lasting improvements are expensive and seldom is there the money for it.

Although, a lot of money is not all that necessary, at least in the short run.

One core concept in placemaking is “lighter, quicker, cheaper,” or focusing on cheap, immediate improvements in order to spark interest in expensive, long-term ones. In other words, if you want it done, just do it. It stands to reason that the best and most effective way to initiate public change is to mobilize the public, and what better way to do it than by inviting them to do it themselves.

Better Block, a Dallas-based 501(c)3 non-profit, offers a library of free, open-source public design called Wikiblock. Ranging from benches, chairs and tables to several kiosks, fences and more, the designs are conceived with ease of construction and minimal cost in mind and typically call for nothing more than plywood. All you have to do is buy the wood, cut it, and put them together. Most don’t even require glue or nails.

Jason Roberts, founder of Better Block, describes their mission as “trying to lower the barrier to entry on fabrication. We’re realizing the potential for the every man and every woman. Before, it required an architect, a carpenter, renderings and contractors. At this point, you no longer need all that. You just need your local maker space.”

How Do I Build A Better Block? from Gensler Texas on Vimeo.

Yep, I heard it, too. “Maker space.”

The catch is to build Better Block’s designs, you need a special CNC router (a digitally-aided woodcutting machine) to cut the wood to their precise specs or they wont fit together. Better Block suggests one might find such a cutter at a local “maker place,” or a space the community erects or designates as a sort of arts co-operative and, ideally, already houses the machine, because if it doesn’t CNC routers cost anywhere from $600 for a “hobbyist” router to $150,000 for a high-end professional machine. Not necessarily cost-prohibitive for some communities, but not exactly “lighter, quicker, cheaper” either. So you better hope your area is lucky enough to have one lying around at the ol’ local “maker space,” much less have a local “maker space” to begin with.

All short-sighted, socio-economically-dependent, privileged hipster artist assumptions aside, Better Block, and pop-up urban design in general, is a really, really good idea, and sure to aid in the cost and expediency of the placemaking notion. Just better hope Santa is loaded with CNC routers this year.

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