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

Patrick Sisson at Curbed: “…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….

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….

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….(More)”