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Keokuk "Building a Better Block" with Pop-Up Park

Sep 4, 2018

A few Keokuk High School students created a "pop-up" park in the downtown district over the Labor Day weekend. The project is part of a larger concept aimed at re-imagining how the community views itself.

Matt May teaches Industrial Technology at KHS. He was approached about creating the pop-up park on a vacant lot at the intersection of 6th and Main Streets.

May said the students and other KHS teachers were eager to participate, so they came up with a design that featured a giant “K” built from landscaping timbers and concrete blocks in the center of the lot.

“We made this ‘K’ to represent Keokuk and Keokuk High School,” said May. “It took a little while to figure out the exact angles, but the kids marked out the general area and squared it out. It took us about 2 and a half hours to complete.”

May said the students also added some chairs and tables they built along with some flower pots to give the space some color.

“This is the first time doing something like this, planning out, not really having a sound structure built after we are done,” said May. “It’s cool. It’s a lot of fun. Being able to give back and show that the students are learning and doing different types of things is what it is all about.”

"Build A Better Block"

Joyce Glasscock, Executive Director of Main Street Keokuk, said the idea is to offer the community a glimpse of what the block could look like with a little work. It is only a glimpse because the park was torn down Tuesday.

“The purpose of the project is to demonstrate how vacant lots, with the right treatment, can enhance downtown’s economic viability,” said Glasscock.

Keokuk’s project is a take on the “Build a Better Block” concept, which got its start in Dallas, TX in 2010.

Colin Amos, a Project Manager with the Better Block foundation, said a group of Dallas property owners, community leaders, and interested neighbors decided to temporarily transform a stretch of run-down buildings, vacant lots, and city streets.

“We decided to do pop-up installations to show the potential of spaces,” said Amos. “We put in pop-up shops, bike lanes, café seating, street trees, and invited community members and the city council and city staff to say, ‘Look at what this block could look like if these changes were made permanent.’ Everybody came out and realized this was a better way for this block to run, rather than wide streets, empty buildings, parking lots and so in short order, all of these things were eventually made permanent and it’s become one of the most successful blocks in our neighborhood.”

Amos said city leaders in Dallas eventually had to change city codes and reduce permit fees to make that all happen. He said Better Block grew out of that effort, bringing that same approach to communities across the country and around the world, including Keokuk.

Many Communities Dealing With Vacant Lots, Abandoned Buildings

Amos and several representatives of the foundation spent a few days in town last spring. He said Keokuk, like many other cities across the country, is trying to address vacant lots and empty buildings.

“You get these Main Streets that have had their streets overbuilt, buildings falling into disrepair because of a lack of investment,” said Amos. “A lot of times, you see a community that has moved out of the downtown into other areas, but everyone wants the same thing, they want a place to hang out and linger and they want this vibrant, active street life.”

Keokuk is in the early stages of the Build a Better Block concept. It built a pop-up meeting space at the intersection of 7th and Main Streets in April while Amos and others were in town, and followed that with this weekend’s pop-up park.

Local organizers hope to continue to grow the program.

Amos said a potential next step is to showcase pop-up businesses, such as a temporary coffee shop or yoga studio. He said this could help a business owner decide whether to expand to a new location or it could help an entrepreneur decide if their business can work.