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20 things every city can do to boost the quality of public life

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Benches, trees, multi-modal transportation, and local food are a few of the suggestions in the Center for Active Design’s new Civic Design Guidelines

Located at 30th Street Station, the second busiest train station in the country, the Porch was installed by University City District and designed by Groundswell Design Group, creating parklets out of parking spaces to enhance pedestrian comfort.
Courtesy of GGLO Design; Courtesy of ArtPlace

Urbanists have a new playbook: The Assembly Civic Design Guidelines, a new set of recommendations for the public realm published by the Center for Active Design (CfAD)—a nonprofit that promotes design solutions for improving public health—and the Knight Foundation.

The CfAD’s recommendations might seem like old hat: plant trees, improve public transit, build more bike lanes. However, the report positions them as means to a specific end: a robust public life, which the organization defines as inspiring greater trust, participation, stewardship, and informed local voting. Plus, it has years of original research to back up the suggestions.

“These days, America feels like an increasingly polarized place,” Suzanne Nienaber, partnerships director at the CfAD, tells Curbed. “People don’t trust the government, corporations, the media, even their neighbors. Assembly provides empirical evidence that the design and maintenance of our neighborhoods impact our feelings of trust. When we focus on the public spaces that we experience everyday, we can start re-building trust at the local level.”

The CfAD and the Knight Foundation took a scientific approach to urban design and conducted surveys, field studies, data analysis, and historic research to learn if interventions like greenery, welcoming signage, and better maintenance could improve someone’s attitude about their local government. It also studied the things that made people have a low opinion about their city. For example, excessive litter diminished community pride by 10 percent, trust in police by five percent, and trust in local government by four percent.

The CfAD reflected the Assembly Civic Engagement Survey (ACES) findings in its Assembly civic design guidelines.

“Our research efforts generated a very exciting finding: that relatively minor design changes can lead to a measurable shift in civic perceptions,” Joanna Frank, president and CEO at the CfAD tells Curbed. “We also found that people have surprisingly similar responses to design changes, regardless of age, demographics, or socioeconomic status.”

By implementing the recommendations in the report, the CfAD believes cities can make residents feel like they’re part of a collective identity; encourage regular use of public space that will lead to more interaction between people from different social and economic backgrounds; lead people to become stewards of and advocates for public community spaces; and encourage more participation in local elections.

Here are 20 things cities can do to improve quality of life and help strengthen the bonds between residents. Read the full report and all of its recommendations on the Center for Active Design’s website.

1. Create a comprehensive pedestrian network that allows residents to walk anywhere in the community

Why: “People living in more walkable neighborhoods tend to report a greater sense of community and stronger social networks. In addition, people who walk frequently tend to report higher levels of civic trust (4%) and participation (6%) compared to those who say they rarely walk.”

2. Provide sidewalk amenities such as benches, trees, and lighting to support pedestrian comfort

Why: “Studies have found that people will typically not perceive a sidewalk on a high-speed, multi-lane road as walkable. On the other hand, a comfortable, tree-lined sidewalk along a bustling main street can entice pedestrian use.” The Porch, a pocket park near Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station transit hub, is an example of this approach in action.

NewTown Macon, in Georgia, led implementation of the largest pop­up bicycle grid in the world, engaging over 1,000 local residents in the process and resulting in permanent bicycle infrastructure investments.
Courtesy of NewTown Macon

3. Develop a network of safe, continuous bicycle lanes and related bicycle infrastructure

Why: “Research suggests that social ties are weaker when public transit is difficult to access or when people commute by car.”

4. Enhance transit systems by increasing frequency of service, improving reliability, and making transit stops more comfortable and accessible

Why: “Lengthy travel distances to polling stations and a lack of transportation options are both associated with lower voter turnout.”

5. Zone for a diverse mix of land uses across neighborhoods and within individual buildings

Why: “Research indicates that people who live within walking distance of parks and retail are more likely to experience chance encounters with their neighbors, which have been shown to increase social connections and reinforce civic trust. Placing residential, commercial, and recreational spaces near each other (even in the same building or on the same parcel of land) can facilitate such encounters.”

6. Encourage economically diverse housing throughout the community

Why: “A mix of market, affordable, and subsidized housing can help stabilize neighborhoods, support demographic and economic integration, and reduce areas of concentrated poverty.”

7. Clean up trash, increase garbage and recycling collection, increase street cleaning, upgrade trash and recycling receptacles

Why: “Litter is associated with depleted civic trust.”

8. Clean up and use vacant lots

Why: “ACES survey respondents who say there’s a community garden or public art in a vacant lot near their home report elevated measures of trust, participation, stewardship, and local voting.”

9. Design for children

Why: “Civic trust tends to be lower when playgrounds, sports fields, bathrooms, and other amenities catering to children and families are in poor condition. On the other hand, improved children’s amenities can boost civic trust among all residents, even those who don’t have kids.” More on that here.

10. Require inclusion of trees and green space in all new developments and major renovations.

Why: “A study in Baltimore found that neighborhoods with a higher density of tree canopy also have higher levels of social capital—meaning neighbors are more close-knit and more likely to trust each other.”

11. Encourage community gardens in existing public space and in larger residential developments

Why: “Compared to non-gardeners, [community gardeners] demonstrate greater attachment to their local community. Gardens also serve as a space for intergenerational and intercultural engagement.”

12. Preserve and repurpose historic assets

Why: “Historic buildings, public spaces, and local landmarks foster a rich sense of connection to place.”

13. Promote local food

Why: “Farmers markets can support local agriculture, while periodic events can feature local community cuisines or restaurants. Many communities celebrate their historic food halls as a destination for locals and tourists.” Plus, food-oriented design can fight inequality.

14. Improve the “front porch” of civic buildings with modest enhancements like seating, lighting, or plants

Why: “Such elements can make a public building feel more approachable and welcoming.”

15. Install positive signs that encourage visitors to enter public spaces and make use of amenities

Why: “Signs in public spaces don’t always have to focus on rules. One ACES photo experiment was inspired by the City of Charlotte, which augmented traditional, rules-based signs in local parks (e.g. “No dogs off-leash”) with positive, ‘Can-do’ signs intended to spark a sense of fun and whimsy. Results indicate that positive signs in parks and outdoor spaces can increase measures of civic trust.”

16. Make navigation intuitive

Why: “Effective wayfinding helps visitors navigate public spaces and buildings, facilitating participation in public life.”

The Chicago Riverwalk’s seating along the water’s edge creates an outdoor auditorium for visitors to take in river and city views.
Ross Barney Architects / Kate Joyce Studios

17. Invest in public seating

Why: “Seating can help make plazas more ‘visitable’ and draw users into the space. Benches are particularly important for supporting the needs of older adults, facilitating mobility throughout the community and creating places to observe and connect with others. Moreover, public seating has a positive impact on the liveliness of commercial streets.”

18. Illuminate buildings and public parks

Why: The ACES survey found that people who use well-lit parks trusted their local government more, participated in local elections more, were more likely to be stewards of their neighborhood, and participated more in public life. Broken lights were associated with a 20% lower perception of neighborhood safety.

19. Hold Election Day festivals outside polling locations

Why: “A study of 14 communities across the United States found that Election Day festivals offering free food and music create a more celebratory and social environment for voting and are associated with higher voter turnout.”

20. Reclaim underutilized infrastructure

Why: “The history of urban development has left many cities with challenging physical barriers—elevated highways, rail lines, large industrial sites, or acres of underutilized parking. Such barriers have often disproportionately burdened low-income residents and communities of color.”