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Shaping space for civic life: Can better design help engage citizens?

A new report looking at design and civic engagement shows the small things really do matter

The new redesign of New York’s Times Square by Snøhetta seeks to create a more engaged, pedestrian-friendly space.
Michael Grimm

Can better spaces create better citizens? It seems like a tenuous connection at first, but when Joanna Frank, executive director of the Center for Active Design, examines the relationship, there’s a definite cause and effect. Safer, healthier, and more accessible neighborhoods breed better attitudes. Positive attitudes foster participation, and empower the public to take part in the electoral process to shape their neighborhood.

“Do you feel the agency to change where you live?” she told Curbed. “It’s hard to impact people’s perceptions, but it isn’t impossible. Attitudinal shifts are shaped by the public environment.”

The Assembly Civic Engagement Survey, a new report released yesterday by the Center for Active Design, seeks to understand the connections between the design of public spaces and buildings on public life, and eventually create a toolbox for planners and politicians to make decisions that can help improve civic pride. There’s perhaps an obvious connection between what one might consider a better-designed neighborhood and public perception of government and community, but how to design that neighborhood to directly improve public engagement—especially during an era of low voter engagement and partisan divide—is an important, and unanswered, question.

To begin to find concrete answers, the Center for Active Design, with support from the John S. and James. L Knight Foundation, conducted the Assembly Civic Engagement Survey last summer. The researchers surveyed more than 5,000 Americans in 26 cities, chronicling their attitudes about neighborhood appearance and its impact on safety, trust, and engagement. The results suggest that effective change doesn’t require massive overhauls, but rather a detailed and dedicated focus on maintenance and small improvements that make people feel safer and more welcome.

Courtesy Center for Active Design. Image 1 © Raimond Spekking; Images 2 & 3 adapted from Google Street View

Big findings about small changes

The study conducted a series of surveys and randomized photo experiments—asking respondents about issues ranging from community meetings to perceptions of litter and neighborhood engagement—to measure how slight changes to public space could make a difference, such as holding a public meeting in a park versus a standard stuffy indoor space. Questioners weren’t presented with two options, which would have led them to pick the more appealing image. Instead, they were shown one or the other and asked if they would be likely to attend a meeting at a particular location. This methodology made it easier to gauge real intent and measure the impact of slight changes.

The study looked at three main issues: park design and maintenance, neighborhood order (and disorder), and welcoming civic spaces and buildings, considering design decisions at every scale. Some of the findings may have seemed intuitive, such as the discovery that respondents living near popular parks expressed a 29 percent greater satisfaction with the local parks and recreation department. The survey’s real strength was its ability to dive into the way small, affordable actions can radically shift attitudes.

Center for Active Design. Images courtesy of City of Charlotte

One of the most striking findings was around park signage. Respondents were shown a series of three signs, ranging from a traditional display of park rules and prohibitions to a more proactive, engaging pictograph that tells parkgoers it’s okay to give high-fives. The survey found the simple switch to more eye-catching, positive, and entertaining signage improved neighborhood pride by 11 percent and boosted the feeling that “the city cares for people in this park” by 9 percent. Similar improvements were found in surveys looking at signage on community centers.

According to Frank, the biggest revelation from the research is how a minimum of effort can make a large impact. On one hand, she says, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that transforming a formerly graffiti-covered vacant lot into a community garden can impact community trust and cohesion.

What sticks out from the study’s findings is how little is really necessary to shift attitudes and improve people’s trust in their neighborhoods and attitudes toward city government and police. Litter turned out to be a huge issue: High levels of trash eroded community pride by 10 percent, trust in police by 5 percent, and trust in local government by 4 percent. When presented with a series of seven things they could improve about their city, including crime, traffic, and noise, 23 percent of respondents chose litter.

Center for Active Design

In short, disorder erodes civic trust. The small things matter, especially when cities are formulating budgets and streetscaping plans and looking at the most effective ways of investing in community improvements

“If you’re working on these issues on a city scale, it’s much more important to indicate and articulate the minimum that needs to be done,” she says. “I hope to overcome the idea that making these changes in community attitude and enjoyment requires extensive investment and political capital. We don’t have to completely rethink everything about the community. Small changes can move the needle and improve people’s opinions of their neighborhoods.”

Frank says that it’s an important message to send through to local politicians: These issues actually have an impact on the public’s perception of the job you’re doing and its views on policing. When citizens can see changes in their community, they’re more likely to vote and support politicians who focus on small but essential community-building.

“To me, that’s not always intuitive,” says Frank. “It’s about the perception of government and people willing to help each other in the community, the idea of social bonds and resilience.”

Center for Active Design

Giving cities direction as well as data

Beyond connecting the dots, Frank wants to give planners rationale for their actions. Telling designers that placing planters in the middle of a street can beautify a neighborhood is one thing; showing that this kind of beautification increases walkability, brings more shoppers to a commercial strip, and ultimately leads to higher sales and tax revenue spurs action and innovation.

Frank gives the example of redesigning the streetscape in front of a police station. The idea of placing planters and benches may seem like a poor use of limited funds, until data and research reveals it’s a cost-effective way to encourage interactions between cops and the community and helps change the image of the department.

Center for Active Design

The release of this report is just the beginning of a larger effort to encourage planners, politicians, and developers to think more about designing for better civic engagement. The Center for Active Design will work with a small group of planners and local officials in cities, including Philadelphia and Detroit, to use these findings to create guidelines and best practices, which will be compiled in another report filled with design guidelines and ideas set for release next May. Frank compares this to New York City’s Active Design Guidelines, first published in 2010, which have become an important catalyst to creating better spaces for public health.

The ultimate goal is to get actionable design strategies into the hands of those involved in shaping our built environment.

“This is about taking data and making it directly applicable to a city,” Frank says. “There’s no point in doing this research if it won’t impact decision-making.”