Amid long range planning, visioning sessions
and slow-moving improvement projects, it
can be difficult to keep momentum going in
downtown revitalization efforts. The Better
Block Foundation – an urban design non-profit
based in Dallas, Texas – aims to change that,
working with communities on high impact, shortterm
installations that provide a vision of what
downtown could be. Working with the National
Endowment for the Arts, Main Street Ottumwa
and local sponsors, Main Street Iowa was able to
bring Better Block to Iowa to engage in creative
placemaking efforts with communities across
the state.

The first phase of the project focused on a
full-scale Better Block build in downtown
Ottumwa. After months of pre-planning that
included a community input survey, an onsite
assessment and targeted discussions with
downtown stakeholders, Better Block developed
a concept of temporary interventions focused on
encouraging small business, creating community
gathering space for all ages and showcasing
potential streetscape improvements. Leaders
from Main Street communities across the state
converged in Ottumwa in late October 2017
to bring the Better Block concepts to life and
learn how to implement similar projects in their
own communities. In less than eight hours, a
two-block section of downtown Ottumwa was
completely transformed.

Four pop-up shops activated vacant storefronts,
a large corner lot was transformed into a
gathering space, public art was installed in
empty storefront windows, and the streets and
sidewalks were brought to life with furniture,
plantings and a painted bike lane. In addition
to physical improvements, programming was
developed to bring people downtown. The park
held live music, food trucks, and kid’s activities,
and the long-vacant Ottumwa Theater was
reopened with a “Rock the Block” concert that
had nearly 500 people in attendance. While the
Better Block installations were removed after the
weekend, the impacts of the project continue.
New businesses have located downtown, a bond
was passed to begin streetscape construction
and downtown property development activity
has increased.

Better Block returned to Iowa in April for the
second phase of the project, providing technical
assistance to five additional communities.
Volunteers and local stakeholders were able
to learn about the Better Block approach from
co-founder Jason Roberts, then went to work
implementing those ideas through a mini-build
exercise that was catered to each downtown’s
needs. Not even the below freezing temperatures
and rare mid-April snow storm could deter their
creative energy!

Vacant lots were activated in Keokuk and
Fort Dodge, with the latter creating a pop-up
pallet patio and activating the space with live
music, artwork and refreshments. In Greenfield,
volunteers took to the streets with stencils and
washable paint to highlight different businesses
around the square and identify routes to
underutilized parking lots. Dubuque reclaimed
a wide portion of one of its downtown streets,
adding planters and paint to define a pedestrian
space and bringing neighbors together with a
food truck and live music. And in Cedar Rapids,
volunteers worked to enhance district safety by
creating a pedestrian crosswalk and island on
a busy thoroughfare in the Czech Village/New
Bohemia district.

Even though the mini-builds stayed up for only a
few hours, neighbors and community members
had a chance to envision their downtowns as
vibrant, active gathering spaces. The initial events
were so successful that many are continuing
creative placemaking efforts on their own.
Keokuk and Fort Dodge plan to do additional
mini-build events this summer, while Dubuque is
looking to do a week-long Better Block build in
September.

Better Block encourages other communities to
use the approach in local creative placemaking
efforts. Resources including a how-to-guide
and templates for wikiblock furniture – plywood
pieces cut by CNC router and assembled –
are readily available on the website. And, for
communities burdened by lengthy plans, large
costs or red tape, keep in mind that the beauty
of the Better Block approach is its temporary
nature. Take a chance on trying out something
new – even if it seems crazy or if people think it
could never work long term. It might be the push
needed towards a new downtown vision.