Park benches, well-maintained lots, planters full of bright flowers, lamp posts — these are public space design features that we often think of as perks, and maybe even beneficial to our physical and psychological well-being, but not as essential city services in the vein of safe drinking water or reliable public transportation.
But a new survey from the Center for Active Design (CfAD) indicates that such features can have far-reaching benefits for civic life beyond the often-touted (but deeply generalized) morale boost. Billed as “the first study to examine specific community design features that influence civic life, using large-sample survey methods and visual experiments,” the survey examined things like trust in local government and police, community engagement, and stewardship associated with those seemingly humble design elements. As Fast Company reports, it’s “a step forward in establishing urban design as essential — and not merely ‘nice to have.’”
The Assembly Civic Engagement Survey (ACES), as it’s called, was fielded as an online survey to a “sample of 5,188 respondents from 26 communities across the United States,” in 2016, according to CfAD. Communities surveyed varied in economic conditions, racial composition and density.
The organization wanted to capture associations, but also causation, which tends to be lacking in conversations about civic empowerment and the built environment. For example, the ACES found an association between park access and civic trust and stewardship — but that doesn’t necessarily prove that living close to a park ups your civic trust. There could be other factors at play that would make you more likely to trust your local government.
From the survey:
While associations are very helpful, they cannot be used to infer whether changes in one variable directly cause changes in another variable. To address this gap, ACES incorporated a series of photo experiments … that explore the causal impacts of design. For each photo experiment, CfAD developed two to three images that were identical save for minor differences in a particular design element. Respondents were then randomly assigned just one of these images, and all respondents were asked the same questions about their civic engagement intentions. Because the photo treatments were randomly assigned, any difference in the civic engagement measures can be directly attributed to the differences in design.
One photo experiment showed two flyers for an annual community meeting, for example. The flyers were largely identical, with a call to “come be part of this important meeting and see your Community Board at work!” The only difference: One flyer showed a picture of the meeting inside, the other showed it outside. The ACES question: “How interested would you be in attending this meeting?” The response: Twenty-four percent said “very interested” for the indoor photo, but 45 percent said that for the outdoor image.
Another showed two images of a public library. The building was identical in both, but the second featured subtle landscaping upgrades, like benches, flowery borders, potted plants and a lamp post. For the question “How welcome would you feel attending an event in the library?” respondents were 10 percent more likely to answer “extremely welcome” to the second.
Signage was another area where a few extra features went a long way. Respondents were more likely to see a building as “welcoming” and “inclusive” with touches like a bilingual welcome sign and a message inviting questions.
One of the key takeaways from the survey is that design improvements don’t have to be expensive. Putting some potted plants and a bench in front of the library isn’t going to have the same impact on municipal coffers as drafting the next High Line. And of course those subtle elements aren’t going to make residents trust the police in the same way as comprehensive transparency measures or de-escalation training overseen by an independent third party. But it still seems like those little changes send strong messages of investment and valuation to the surrounding community.
“Communities that incorporate additional public seating, plantings, and signs with positive messaging can help residents and visitors feel more welcome, and enhance civic trust,” the survey concludes.
Several other takeaways:
- People living near popular parks report greater community connection and greater satisfaction with local government. They are 14 percent more likely to report satisfaction with police and 13 percent more likely to report satisfaction with the mayor.
- Litter is associated with depleted civic trust. People who report litter to be “very common” in their neighborhood exhibit reduced civic trust across a number of measures, including 10 percent lower community pride and 10 percent lower likelihood of believing that community members care about one another.
- Vacant lots present a challenge, and an opportunity. A photo experiment indicates that even moderate clean-up of a vacant lot can significantly enhance measures of civic trust — including a 13 percent increase in the belief that people care about their community.