In Washington DC where I live, civic engagement is part of the DNA of the city. My daughters don’t go to sports games, they go to marches on the National Mall. We talk politics at parties (which can be, believe it or not, pretty friendly) and just about everyone I hang out with is engaged in public service in some way – it’s just part of their job.
But I realize not everyone is so engaged with their community and there are many who feel disenfranchised or excluded from civic life. I’ve seen research on how design can help engage people in their community, but it wasn’t until I read the recently published Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines that I made the connections between the physical environment and civic engagement. Did you know, for example, that the built environment can positively impact civic trust, stewardship of community spaces and local voting? Powerful stuff.
Suzanne Nienaber, Partnerships Director for the Center for Active Design (CfAD), is the main author of the Assembly Guidelines, and has led the development of the guidelines over the past four years. She shares a the backstory of it’s development and some of the impressive research inside with me here.
LS: What exactly are the Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines?
SN: The Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines is the latest publication from the CfAD. We’re incredibly excited to share this groundbreaking resource, which offers a playbook for creating well-designed and well-maintained public spaces as a force for building trust and healing divisions in local communities.
With Assembly, we’re defining a new field of study on how to leverage the design of public spaces to enhance the civic life of communities. This publication captures the culmination of four years of research and collaboration—with input from 200+ studies, 50+ cities, and dozens of expert advisors—not to mention over 130 full-color images submitted from projects across the country.
We’re aiming big with this publication, and look forward to seeing these evidence-based design and maintenance strategies implemented broadly in communities across the country. We want everyone to be talking about the essential role design can play in creating cities where people trust each other, have confidence in local institutions, and actively work together to address local priorities.
LS: How did this research come about? Who was involved and what were your objectives?
SN: Four years ago, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation approached CfAD about undertaking this initiative. Knight was greatly impressed by New York City’s Active Design Guidelines, which demonstrates how urban design and architecture is associated with people’s physical activity habits. They were interested in using the same methodology to look at how community design connects to civic life.
We were thrilled with the concept, but saw that there wasn’t an existing scholarly literature base comparable to the Active Design Guidelines’ solid foundation of public health research. As such, we convened an Advisory Committee over the course of three years to reflect on this topic, and worked with scholars from University of California at Berkeley and New York University to craft our own original research approaches. This collaborative effort was extraordinarily multi-disciplinary in nature—bringing in perspectives from the fields of urban design, architecture, political science, behavioral psychology, public space management, real estate development, public policy, community organizing, technology, branding, and more.
As we approached this research, one of the first things we realized was that we needed a uniform understanding of the specific outcomes we wanted to study. We worked with Knight and the Advisory Committee to identify four key civic life outcomes that we used to structure our research, define relevant metrics, and assess the civic value of design interventions. They are: 1) civic trust and appreciation; 2) participation in public life; 3) stewardship of the public realm; and 4) informed local voting.
LS: How long was this research in the making?
Our research efforts spanned a four-year period that started from early discussions with the Advisory Committee and culminated in the publication of the Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines. For our first phase of research, we undertook a comprehensive analysis of existing resources—collecting scholarly literature from across a range of disciplines, analyzing existing data sets (including the extensive Soul of the Community study), and exploring real-world projects that pointed to practices worthy of replication.
At this point, we saw that more research was needed to solidify the connection between public space design and civic life, and embarked on a series of original research initiatives. Most notably, our Assembly Civic Engagement Survey (ACES) captured data from over 6,600 respondents across 26 cities over a two-year period. ACES was the first study of its kind to ask people about the design qualities and maintenance conditions of their neighborhood, AND inquire about their civic perceptions and behaviors. ACES also incorporated innovative photo experiments that began to unpack causal relationships in how design can impact our civic perceptions—showing that minor changes in design can shift things like community pride and trust in local government.
This survey-based research was supplemented by field studies in several communities, including studies exploring the civic impacts of a park redesign in Miami, a government plaza renovation in Charlotte, and community-driven input on the extension of the Riverwalk in Bradenton, Florida. Look for detailed spreads about each of these field studies interspersed throughout the Assembly Guidelines!
Leigh Stringer: What is the overall framework of the guidelines?
Suzanne Nienaber: The Assembly Guidelines are intended to be very practical, easy-to-navigate, and inspiring. They are organized into eight chapters, based upon the dominant themes that emerged from our research efforts.
Within each chapter, you’ll find 3-4 general guidelines. Each guideline provides research findings that demonstrate how it connects civic life, practical strategies to put the guideline into action, and inspiring images that illustrate how strategies have been implemented in diverse communities around the country.
At the end of the book, all of the guidelines and strategies are synthesized into an easy-to-use checklist that can be applied to any project.
LS: One of the more surprising findings to me is the strong connection between good community design/programming and things like public trust, perception of safety, even increased political engagement. Can you briefly summarize this research?
SN: When we talk about civic life, that’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve—leveraging the public realm to foster communities where people feel safe, trust their neighbors and their local government, and feel a sense of agency when it comes to making positive changes in their neighborhood. Through our research, we discovered so many different variables that play a role in influencing these outcomes. Take lighting for example: ACES respondents who report that their local park has well-maintained lighting tend to score significantly higher across all four civic life outcomes—trust, participation, stewardship, and voting. On the flip side, ACES found that broken lights are associated with dramatically lower perceptions of neighborhood safety (-20%).
One of the most surprising and important themes weaving throughout this book is the crucial value of maintenance in supporting civic life. Anyone who uses the Assembly Guidelines will recognize that, on the whole, some of the most important actions to take revolve around maintaining and activating the resources already available—whether that means mitigating litter, cleaning up a vacant lot, repairing a playground, maintaining public greenery, or activating an underutilized public space.
As we developed the Assembly Guidelines, we were especially focused on translating the research to be as accessible as possible. Throughout the book, we inserted compelling infographics that make the research tangible. We believe anyone should be able to use these to spark conversations around public space and civic life, and advocate for change in local communities.
LS: I love some of the strategies that focus on “positive messaging” and the connection to public trust. Could you share some background and good examples?
SN: Our inspiration for this research stemmed from a collaboration with the City of Charlotte. So many signs we see in public spaces are about rules—they tell you what not to do. The City’s idea was to supplement typical signage with positive, whimsical “Can do” signs that offer inspiring suggestions for using public spaces. We tested a prototype of this concept through a photo experiment, and were excited to report that such positive messaging had a major impact on civic perceptions. Compared to those who viewed a tradition rules-based sign, respondents who were randomly assigned a positive, Can do sign were 11% more likely to say they would be really proud in the community, and 9% more likely to believe the city cares for its residents.
We’ve presented this messaging research at several conferences, and we’re already seeing other communities pick up on Charlotte’s lead. I think the appeal is that we’re capturing a simple, low-cost, yet powerful strategy for re-framing how designers and public spaces managers “speak” to the users of public space. Yes, you may need to post some rules, but why not emphasize the positive side of the equation—for example, a park might emphasize its open hours, “Open every day from sunrise to sunset,” rather than “Park closes at dusk.”LS: Who would you say is the audience for these guidelines?
SN: While our primary audience is comprised of public sector leaders (mayors, agency heads, planners, policymakers, etc.), the Assembly Guidelines are meant to be useful to anyone who designs, builds, manages, studies, or advocates for great public spaces.
We’ve already seen close to 2,000 downloads in the first month of its release, as well as a major uptick in conversations across social media channels. In a time of diminishing trust, increasing social isolation, and growing neighborhood inequities, this work has more resonance than ever. I’d like to think the Assembly Guidelines offer an underlying sense of optimism about the future of local democracy, packaged in an an inspiring, practical tool for anyone who cares about improving their local community.
LS: Where can people go to find out more information about the guidelines and the Center for Active Design?
SN: We’re excited to get the Assembly Guidelines out into the hands of as many people as possible, and encourage anyone and everyone to download a copy here! You can also reach out the Center for Active Design for more information, at firstname.lastname@example.org
LS: Anything I missed?
SN: I think it’s important to emphasize the importance of digging into the practicalities of implementation. In the Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines, we do this with a section called Stories from the Field, which offer a detailed glimpse into implementation efforts in five different cities, and show how different elements from the Guidelines come together to support civic life for these specific projects. We look at everything from the design of the Detroit Riverfront, to data-driven city maintenance solutions in San Francisco, to the impact of a library redesign in Queens, and more.
In its essence, Assembly captures a remarkable collaborative effort showcasing a multiplicity of voices. CfAD is proud to be leading this effort, and honored to have the opportunity to recognize so many people working each day to transform public spaces and turn them into powerful civic assets. The full impact of the Assembly Guidelines will rely upon the ongoing commitment of decision-makers and implementers willing to put these ideas into action. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with diverse communities to implement the research methods and strategies featured in the Assembly Guidelines, capture measurable outcomes, and promote civic live in neighborhoods across the country.
Leigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert and researcher. She works for EYP, an architecture and engineering firm and is the author of The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line.
Photos and graphics courtesy of the Center for Active Design