Cities are full of uninviting public spaces. Dallas-based non-profit Better Block came up with WikiBlock, an open source toolkit enabling people to create their own street. We spoke with Jason Roberts, the idea’s initiator.

Boarded-up shops, colorless façades, narrow sidewalks – we’ve all driven through that part of town. When an urban area is deprived of its foot and bicycle traffic, through economic or regulatory circumstances, it quickly becomes uninviting.

Jason Roberts, a Dallas local, saw similar circumstances in his own neighborhood – and decided to change it. In order to provide passers-by opportunities to rest, chat, play, shop, or simply have a cup of coffee, he initiated Better Block, a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing formerly lifeless urban areas.

But how can you transform an empty public space in a few simple steps? According to Roberts, by adding plants, opening pop-up shops – and setting up a few structures: benches, tables, kiosks, bike stands. In order to empower people across the world with the opportunity to create this change themselves, Roberts founded WikiBlock.

Furniture and pop-up stores constructed with WikiBlock
New life where concrete used to reign.

An open-source library

The website of the open-source library WikiBlock therefore offers a wide selection of urban furniture. Benches, chairs, planters, mini stages, beer garden fences, kiosks – only, they’re not for sale. You can make them yourself. Designs, construction plans and files can be downloaded for free.

Taken to a local CNC workshop, the individual parts can be simply whipped out of plywood. Just like an ordinary IKEA product, the components can be easily assembled without the use of glue, nails or complex tools.

The idea is shaking things up. No longer are town hall executives and city planners responsible for creating an environment for us – we can take action ourselves. WikiBlock is an open-source library for urban furniture, giving urbanites the tools to reactivate their own communities and also stimulate friends and neighbors to join in.

The catalogue is welcoming contributions and ideas from everybody. Urban communities worldwide get to share knowledge on how to make urban spots more beautiful, adaptable and user-friendly – one of the most practicable solutions to emerge from the sharing economy.

An IT perspective on urban issues

Former IT consultant Jason Roberts got the idea for WikiBlock while cycling through Vancouver, on a bike path buffered by beautiful planters.

“I really wanted to have them in my street too and thought it would be easy to measure them, get some design details and get them fabricated back home. I call this reverse engineering.”

At that time, Roberts already worked as an IT consultant for the Better Block Foundation, where he tried to design urban solutions that could be easily applied to different neighborhoods and situations.

Inspired by open source initiatives like Wikihouse and Opendesk, that enable people to retrofit their surroundings through the power of modular design, Roberts decided to start WikiBlock. “The idea was to fill public spaces with DIY urban elements.”

The idea was met with a lot of enthusiasm by Brian Peters, a university professor at Kent State University in Ohio. He let his architecture students create a handful of open source ready-made designs for people to hack their own surroundings, and also introduced the CNC cutter as a way to produce the designs.

“In the past, we would use old pallets and milk crates, literally any material we could to retrofit the streets, so the idea behind our collaboration with the university was to understand digital fabrication,” says Roberts.

A Vending booths constructed with Wikiblocks
Vending booths can be used in creative ways.

Speed dating for communities

Plywood as a material is not particularly famous for being very weather-proof. That’s one of the reasons why Roberts sees WikiBlock as a pop-up phenomenon.

“These objects are not there to sustain forever. The real value is in creating of social connections and awareness in a neighborhood. This impact is hard to quantify, but I believe that the way we make people work together on issues in their own direct living environment is really significant.”

WikiBlock is like “speed dating for communities,” jokes Roberts. “The connections that are created while creating together are very sustainable. Entrepreneurs, city officials, and local residents get to know and trust each other in a very short period of time,” he explains.

“We basically facilitate community engagement. We want to create new tools and resources for people to come together in their own towns or neighborhoods, and literally print a new future.”

Pop-up stores in a street
Formerly closed storefronts reopen for pop-up business.

Everyone becomes an urban designer with WikiBlock

“Cities, towns and neighborhoods around the world face the same problems: a lack of interaction, social connection and a sense of community. What our tools can do is remind us of our shared values and things we all agree upon. We all want places where we can feel happy and connect to others”, says Roberts.

Pop-up shops
Wouldn’t you love this on your block?
Akron Coffee Roasters sign
Pop-up bar with a design by Wikiblock

By enabling everyone to become urban designers, WikiBlock democratizes high quality and designs and straight-forward production techniques.

A social intervention for neighborhoods and communities, the idea can not only jump-start urban renewal on the local level, but might lay the foundation for becoming an international movement at the same time.

Visit the WikiBlock website, or follow Better Block on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.