Three Exemplary Design Projects for Civic Health

This is a guest post by Suzanne Nienaber of the Center for Active Design.

Over the summer, the Center for Active Design (CfAD) introduced the Assembly Civic Engagement Survey (ACES), a groundbreaking study examining the relationship between place-based design and civic engagement. Through the CitiesSpeak blog series, we highlighted 5 key design strategies to support civic life, and discussed the critical importance of maintenance in building healthy communities.

To close the series, we’re highlighting some great examples of on-the-ground implementation, drawing from this year’s outstanding pool of submissions for the 2017 Center for Active Design: Excellence Awards.

Each year, CfAD hosts an international competition to recognize built projects and research initiatives that leverage design to advance holistic health outcomes. (A full list of winning projects can be found here.) Civic health is foundational to the judging criteria—submissions are evaluated for how they impact civic trust, stimulate participation in public life, and foster stewardship of the public realm. The following projects stood out for their attention to civic life—applying innovative design strategies to inspire community pride, enhance civic trust, and invite a diverse array of community members to come together.

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Gainesville’s Depot Park transformed a former brownfield site into a hub of community activity. Credit: Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency

Transforming Public Space: Depot Park, Gainesville, FL.

ACES reveals that access to parks and public spaces is critically important to civic life. Living within a 10-minute walk of a park is positively and significantly associated with higher levels of civic trust and stewardship. Popular parks can be even more of a boon to civic trust, and are strongly associated with satisfaction in local government figures, including the mayor and local police.

In Gainesville, Florida, Depot Park transformed a 32-acre former brownfield site—a former rail yard and cement plant—into a beloved hub of community activity. Recognizing the importance of connectivity, Depot Park is well-positioned to serve the whole community: it’s less than a 10-minute walk to Gainesville’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, and is located directly across from the city’s main public transportation hub.

Depot Park was designed with physical and social activity in mind, featuring a large waterfront promenade, biking and walking trails, and play areas accommodating all ages and abilities. The centerpiece of the park is a restored train depot that serves as a community meeting space—rotating from pop up café, to beer garden, to concert hall, and energizing the park into the evening hours.


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Richmond’s first pedestrian-only bridge is spurring excitement and community connections. Credit: Active RV.


Rethinking Aging Infrastructure: T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge, Richmond.

ACES points to the importance of community connectivity as another key ingredient for reinforcing civic trust.  Richmond, VA exhibits an inspiring, innovative re-use of underutilized infrastructure to enhance community connections at the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge (nicknamed “The T-Pott” among locals).

In a visible first phase of the city’s riverfront transformation, the Potterfield Bridge celebrates Richmond’s riverfront heritage by converting the ruins of a dam into the city’s first non-vehicular, fully ADA-accessible bridge across the James River. The pedestrian bridge links existing recreational facilities and incorporates multiple design elements that ACES has found to be connected with civic trust—such as simple wayfinding, ample lighting, greenery and plantings, seating choices, and public art.

The Potterfield Bridge is an innovative public space that’s enhancing civic pride, supporting active transportation, and generating new opportunities to participate in public life. It’s also popular: since the bridge’s completion, foot traffic has increased by nearly 400 percent.


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Elmhurst Library in Queens is a safe, welcoming space for all community members. Credit: Marpillero Pollak Architects

Creating Welcoming Public Buildings: Elmhurst Library, Queens, NY (*2017 Excellence award winner).

ACES findings indicate that design elements such as seating, lighting, greenery, and transparency can play a role in making public buildings feel more welcoming, inspiring greater civic trust and participation. In New York City, the Elmhurst Library provides an excellent example of how this can be achieved. Located in one of the fastest growing and ethnically diverse residential neighborhoods in Queens, the library draws over a million visitors each year.

Elmhurst’s role in the community is multi-pronged—part library, part community center. The library re-design dramatically improves outdoor spaces, with a community park, a learning garden, and 24-hour Wi-Fi access. The library’s reading rooms, also known as “cubes” serve as a signature design element—they glow at night, serving as a beacon for the neighborhood and announcing the library’s presence as a safe and welcoming space for all community members.

Elmhurst demonstrates that signage, outdoor space improvements, enhanced lighting, and transparency can serve as important cues to foster positive civic perceptions and behaviors.

CfAD is continuing to compile additional research and illustrative project examples as we develop a set of design guidelines for enhancing civic life, anticipated for release in mid-2018. CfAD welcomes your suggestions on relevant research initiatives and design projects that may inform this pioneering work. To share your ideas, please write to Finally, if you happen to be in the New York area on September 27, please join us in recognizing our 2017 award winners at Celebrate Active Design! Event information, and tickets, can be found here.

Suzanne_Headshot_reduced.jpgSuzanne Nienaber is the Partnerships Director at the Center for Active Design. With expertise in urban planning, training, and facilitation, Suzanne frequently orchestrates presentations and participatory workshops that encourage designers, planners, developers, and policymakers to transform the built environment to support holistic health and civic engagement.