Designing Civic Engagement

Urban designers’ responsibilities reach beyond aesthetics.

Imagine exploring a new park in your neighbourhood. Your senses awaken with the scent of lilacs and music wafting from under a nearby tree. As your mood lifts, the effect of your environment on your attitude becomes quite apparent. 
David Strayer, a researcher from the University of Utah, showed that merely being in a natural environment could significantly impact a person’s creativity. In 2012, he found that people who had just come back from a hike could solve 47% more puzzles requiring creativity when compared to those who had not yet taken the hike.
Other studies support this notion. 
The Center for Active Design, in their Assembly Civic Engagement Survey, asked 5,000 residents from 26 different communities about public spaces to gauge their willingness to become engaged in their community. 
They concluded that civic engagement begins with civic trust: How much do citizens trust their government, trust their police, and trust that the city actually cares about their community? The study looked at park design and maintenance, neighbourhood order and disorder, and welcoming civic spaces and buildings to answer these questions. 

“It’s hard to impact people’s perceptions, but it isn’t impossible. Attitudinal shifts are shaped by the public environment.”  - Joanna Frank, executive director of the Center for Active Design 

They first found that simply living near popular parks yielded higher community connection and civic trust. Respondents were 14% more likely to report satisfaction with police and 13% more likely to report satisfaction with the mayor if they lived near a park.  But let’s dive deeper into the nuances of public spaces that can influence community engagement. 

Park Signage

Many small aspects of a public space were found to radically change citizens’ perceptions of their community – positive park signage was one. Park signs reading “You CAN take a photo!” and “You CAN give a high five!” yielded more civic trust than signs with traditional park rules such as “No loud music,” and “No swimming.” The positive, proactive signage caused significantly more people to say that they are really proud to live in their community, and to believe that the city really cares about people in their parks.

Litter means disorder, and disorder erodes civic trust. High levels of trash have measurable effects:

  • 10% decrease in community pride
  • 5% decrease in trust in police
  • 4% decrease in trust in local government

And 23% of the respondents cited litter as the one thing that needed the most attention in their community. 
Vacant lot improvements

The upkeep of vacant lots also affects citizens’ trust in authority. A well-maintained vacant lot caused trust in the police to increase by 29% when compared with citizens’ responses to an unmaintained lot. They also showed a 20% increase in how much they trust the government to “do what’s right,” when shown a well-maintained vacant lot. 

These are only a few of the aspects of public spaces that improve civic pride and trust, leading to more engaged citizens. But the benefits don’t stop there. Kevin Leyden, a professor at West Virginia University, discussed the effects community engagement has on personal health. In his paper, he claims that:

“A growing number of researchers agree that social networks and community involvement have positive health consequences. Persons who are socially engaged with others and actively involved in their communities tend to live longer and be healthier physically and mentally.”

It’s all in the hands of those who shape our surroundings.

While city planners are creating pleasant public spaces, they should also keep the details in mind. Whether or not we actively notice it, it’s the small things that boost community pride, increase trust in the police and the government, and inspire citizens to get involved.

August 14th, 2017
Updated: September 1st, 2017

Urban designers’ responsibilities reach beyond aesthetics.