Story by Ashley Baker. Photos by Hunter Lacey + Mary Martin.
Video by Kirsten Chilstrom + Vanessa Phillips.
Amanda Bagwell is a Dallas native with a passion to help empower local communities. Along with her teammates at Better Block, she is providing communities with the tools and design necessary to make their neighborhood better.
While in college at the University of Colorado Boulder, Amanda spent her free time volunteering with a local nonprofit. This nonprofit work provided her with the opportunity to guide participants through the process of learning a new skill, without dictating exactly how the process should go. The organization focused its work on empowering participants to take ownership of their education while allowing them to learn on their own with guided assistance from volunteers. Through her time volunteering, Amanda realized that she really loved facilitating and coming alongside people as they learned. She believes that opportunity played a huge role in shaping her passion for empowering communities and preparing her for her role with the Better Block.
After graduating with a Design Studies degree from the Environmental Design Program, Amanda moved back to Dallas, something she never imagined happening. As she was searching for a job, she found herself more focused on finding a mission she wanted to serve instead of a specific job position. Through happenstance, she stumbled upon an Urban Designer position with the Better Block team. “I was amazed to find this organization that was doing really inventive design concepts I had learned about in college and they were using them to transform neighborhoods for good.”
Better Block is an organization that was founded nine years ago, out of a desire to make spaces better through urban design; by the hands of locals in the community. Fulfilling this mission has required Better Block to take a really unique approach to the projects they attempt. “We believe that everyone should be proud of the place that they call home,” Amanda said. “We desire to facilitate local engagement on every project we take on. Because of this, we start projects with a kick-off in the community and a local survey. This allows us to introduce the project and it gives the local community an opportunity to share their ideas and opinions on the change they would like to see in their neighborhood. After analyzing all of this data, we design the space.”
One of Amanda’s recent projects was a project in Vickery Meadows. This was a CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) project that the Department of Justice and the Dallas Police Department contracted the Better Block team to design. CPTED assesses how the design of a space affects the way people perceive it and ultimately the crime in that area. “This project was completely new for our wheelhouse and for the US Attorney’s office. Partly, because it was a semi-permanent project but also because we had never worked on a CPTEDproject,” Amanda said.
Amanda and the Better Block team started by looking at a small parking lot in Vickery Meadows near a busy intersection. In place of the parking lot, the volunteers and Better Block team added a simple playground, and shipping container popup complete with tables and chairs. They also removed the bars from the windows of several buildings, repainted several businesses, added additional lights and painted the crosswalks with bright colors.
In March, Amanda helped bring together a team of volunteers to work on a Better Block project with the City of Dallas and Downtown Dallas Inc, to create micro-mobility lanes along Harwood Street through Downtown, from Main Street to the Dallas Heritage Village, crossing in front of the Dallas Farmer’s Market. Volunteers grabbed rollers and paint brushes and painted bright green triangles, stenciled bike symbols, and sprinkled “transportation fairy dust,” a reflective powder that helps with nighttime visibility. “Before Bike Harwood, there was no existing bike lane or floating parking in this area,” said Sherman Livingston, the civil engineer who designed the project for City of Dallas Department of Transportation. “We are doing something new and different by making space for something innovative and collaborative.”
For each Better Block project, Amanda looks for unique ways to involve the local community. “We want to give ownership to the community members to make positive change happen in their neighborhood. We never begin designing a project until we meet the community. We want the changes made to be informed so that later changes can be made by the locals in that city. We strive to involve the community in every step of the process so they are fully invested in the work that is taking place,” Amanda said. For the Vickery Meadows project, children were invited from the two nearby schools to assist with painting the crosswalks. Amanda mentioned that “the kids were running around all day, painting the crosswalks and each other.” Volunteer workshops were held during the week of production to hammer things together, to decide exactly how the playground should be designed and to plant flowers in the planters they added at each crosswalk. A local art committee was commissioned to pick the colors for the crosswalks and to design a mural that was added on the side of a building. After the project was complete Amanda had people from the area coming up to her saying, “We never thought something like this could be in our neighborhood.” Children were running up to her and telling her the playground area was “like Disneyland!”
After a project has ended and Amanda has scrubbed all the brightly colored paint off her arms, she passionately continues the work to empower her Dallas neighbors. She really believes that sustainable change is possible in every neighborhood. “It can only begin to happen when people stop wishing their neighborhood was better,” Amanda said. “Instead people should ask themselves ‘how can I make this better?’ Once someone answers that question, bring an idea to our team and with it a passion to see your city or neighborhood changed for the better!”