Activation is Key: Measuring the Impact of a Public Plaza Renovation

Does bringing play and whimsy to a public space affect the way citizens think about their local government? Can civic trust be improved with simple design elements, or is more intensive programming and activation required to change perceptions? These are some of the questions the City of Charlotte was considering in the spring of 2017, when it embarked on “GovPorch,” an initiative to “put play back into public spaces.”

The Center for Active Design explored the impact of GovPorch using an intercept survey conducted with individuals in and around the plaza, which asked questions about civic life outcomes such as community pride and trust in government. Surveys were conducted in three waves:

  1. Baseline Survey, conducted before any changes had taken place;
  2. Basic Design Survey, conducted after seating and play materials had been installed; and
  3. Activated Design Survey, conducted during two “First Friday” events when the space was activated with live music, interactive chalkboards, a mini-library, and food trucks.

Surprisingly, researchers found no difference in civic life outcomes between the Baseline Survey and the Basic Design Survey. On their own, the small-scale design interventions did not seem to have an effect on civic trust. However, for the Activated Design Survey conducted on First Fridays, respondents were much more likely to think local government understood their concerns (+23%), was responsive to their needs (+19%), cared about improving resources for kids (+17%), was fair to people like them (+16%), and was full of friendly employees (+13%). Respondents were also 15 percent more likely to say they were proud to live in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area when they visited the GovPorch on an activated First Friday, compared to respondents visiting the plaza during the Baseline Survey (see Figure below).

These results indicate that GovPorch had a significant and positive impact on civic trust in the local community, but only when the site was activated with interactive design and programming interventions. Without activation, the GovPorch installation had no effect.

Given the nature of the site, CfAD researchers hypothesize that the null findings around Basic Design interventions may be due to issues of visibility and familiarity. The plaza where GovPorch was installed is vast (approximately 15,000 square feet), and design interventions were only partially visible from the sidewalk. Most citizens walking by were not frequent visitors to the area, and had minimal awareness of the plaza’s existence. In fact, only 65% of respondents to the Baseline Survey knew they were passing by the plaza.

On the other hand, the First Friday events featured music, food trucks, and crowds that activated the plaza, and encouraged more people to stop by and enjoy it. Respondents attending First Friday events exhibited a notable boost in their perceptions of government responsiveness and trust in local government as a whole. These results point to two key recommendations for undertaking temporary installations—particularly in underutilized public spaces that are not commonly accessed by the community:

  • Increase visibility. Provide an attractive gateway, directional signage, and/or welcoming messages to make the installation more visible and invite passersby into the space. Ensure all community members get the message that “this place is for you.”
  • Activate the space. Schedule and publicize a series of events and programs that appeal to a wide range of community members, creating regular opportunities to attract new visitors and spark new connections at the site.

These lessons are important, considering that even small-scale projects can consume considerable resources, including planning, design, staff time, and budget. As Charlotte’s Planning Coordinator and Urban Designer, Monica Holmes, notes: “The link between programming and capital investment is hugely important. Installations need something that gets people off of the street so they can really reap the full benefits of the project.” The GovPorch findings demonstrate that design that truly invites the community into a space is more likely to spark public use and enjoyment – and successfully inspire greater trust in local government.

Photo Credits: Baseline Photo - Courtesy of the Center for Active Design; Basic Design Survey & Activated + Interactive Design - Courtesy of GovPorch.

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    Charlotte's Government Plaza before GovPorch installation (Photo: Center for Active Design)
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    Visitors using GovPorch after basic design interventions (Photo: GovPorch)
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    On a First Friday at GovPorch, music, food, and activities help boost community pride and civic trust (Photo: GovPorch)