Five Ways to Promote Civic Health Through Community Design

Groundbreaking research shows how the design and maintenance of public spaces
can directly impact our civic health.

This is a guest post by Suzanne Nienaber. This is the first post in a three-part series on civic health.

The Assembly Civic Engagement Survey points to many opportunities to enhance civic engagement through affordable design tactics and maintenance of community assets. Above, the Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia orchestrates signature events and innovative programming to build excitement around the city’s parks, which can foster community connections and civic trust. (Fairmount Park Conservancy)

Last week, the Center for Active Design (CfAD) published original research from the Assembly Civic Engagement Survey (ACES), a groundbreaking study to examine specific community design features that influence civic life, using large-sample survey methods and visual experiments.

The study was conducted as part of Assembly, CfAD’s pioneering initiative to explore the role of community design as an essential tool for shaping civic engagement outcomes — including civic trust, participation in public life, stewardship and informed local voting. Assembly is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and represents a nascent field with tremendous potential for influencing the civic health of cities.

In 2016 CfAD fielded the ACES study to more than 5,000 respondents across the U.S., capturing a diverse cross-section of economic conditions, demographics, and population densities. The survey inquired about respondents’ civic perceptions and behaviors, as well as design elements and maintenance conditions within their communities — generating a trove of data to measure and analyze relationships between characteristics of place and civic life. The study also incorporated an innovative photo experiment technique to explore the causal impacts of specific design interventions.

Over the next three months, CfAD will share evidence-backed approaches for how National League of Cities members can leverage design to enhance civic life. As the first article in the series, this post looks at five simple, relatively low-cost design opportunities that have emerged from the ACES research:

  1. Boost local park popularity. ACES finds that living near a well-attended, popular park is associated with higher levels of civic trust, including greater satisfaction with local government. Interestingly, this finding holds true whether or not respondents report visiting the park themselves. Popular parks are associated with 29 percent greater satisfaction with the parks and recreation department; 14 percent greater satisfaction with police; and 13 percent greater satisfaction with the mayor. Cities should explore opportunities to improve park access and increase park popularity. Greater access can be achieved through additional entrances, traffic calming, and pedestrian improvements. Popularity can be increased and sustained through public art, events and programming that reflect the culture and interests of local communities.
Popular parks are associated with greater satisfaction in local government. (Center for Active Design)
  1. Clean up vacant lots. It’s no surprise that signs of neighborhood disorder, such as litter and worn-down structures, can have a negative impact on civic trust. Often, poor conditions coalesce in vacant lots scattered throughout urban areas. ACES finds that vacant lots present a challenge — and an opportunity. A photo experiment demonstrates that even minimal upkeep of a vacant lot can boost trust in the police by as much as 10 percent, and trust in the government to do what’s right by seven percent. Cities can establish and enforce maintenance standards for vacant lots, and work with community groups to facilitate lot maintenance and beautification efforts.
  2. Cultivate community pride through gardens and public art. ACES finds that public art and community gardens are associated with elevated civic engagement. Index measures show that living within a 10-minute walk of a community garden is connected to four percent greater civic trust, seven percent greater participation in public life, five percent greater stewardship, and six percent greater informed local voting. Similar impacts hold true for access to public art. City decision makers can employ the power of community gardens and public art to mitigate negative impacts of vacant lots.
Community gardens and public art have been shown to counter the negative impacts of vacant lots. (Center for Active Design)
  1. Convey welcome through signage. Messaging in public buildings can foster a sense of inclusion. ACES reveals that bilingual and inviting signage has a positive impact on perceptions of inclusion. Similarly, positive signage is just as effective in parks. A photo experiment shows that positive messaging in parks increases community pride by 11 percent, and increases respondents’ belief that “the city really cares about people” by nine percent. Updating signage with positive, welcoming, and inclusive messaging is a low-cost approach to generating community pride and enhancing trust in government.
  2. Provide seating and other amenities in public spaces. Public seating can support civic life. Many public buildings are directly adjacent to sidewalks, plazas and other public spaces that can be modified to create a more welcoming threshold. ACES finds that adequate outdoor seating is linked to higher civic trust — including 10 percent greater satisfaction with the parks and recreation department, nine percent greater satisfaction with police, and five percent greater community pride compared to respondents who report that public seating is inadequate. Offering additional seating options in public spaces, in combination with other simple enhancements such as plantings and improved lighting, can have a positive impact on civic trust and invite greater use of civic spaces.

More details can be found in the full ACES report, available for free download from the Center for Active Design. As the first study of its kind, ACES is only a starting point, a confirmation that the design of our public spaces and buildings can significantly encourage, or deter, our engagement in civic life. How we view our neighbors and government, how we participate in public life, and how we care for our public spaces — in essence, the core measures of our civic health — are all directly influenced by the physical environments we experience on a daily basis.

Featured image: The Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in West Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. (Dheeraj Mallemala)

About the author: Suzanne Nienaber is the partnerships director at the Center for Active Design. With expertise in urban planning, training, and facilitation, Suzanne has orchestrated more than 100 presentations and participatory workshops that encourage designers, planners, developers and policymakers to transform the built environment to support holistic health and civic engagement.