Research Brief I: Affirming the connection between place and civic life

This article was originally posted by the Knight Foundation blog.

Can park enhancements encourage greater interaction with neighbors? Can community beautification inspire ongoing acts of stewardship? Can arts and cultural resources help stimulate a sense of civic trust?

These are just a few of the questions that the Center for Active Design (CfAD) is exploring through Assembly, a pioneering initiative to leverage place-based design as a pivotal tool for enhancing the civic life of communities. Assembly is using a multipronged approached to investigate the relationship between place and civic engagement—including an in-depth literature review, data analysis, original experiments, project case studies, and input from a diverse panel of expert advisers.

CfAD is pleased to announce the release of Research Brief I, which summarizes our analysis of a rich existing data set known as the Soul of the Community survey. The survey was funded by Knight Foundation and conducted by Gallup from 2008-2010 across the 26 Knight communities. This study is unique in its scope and scale, drawing from a representative sample of more than 15,000 adults. It captures information about local qualities of place, while also eliciting details on respondents’ civic engagement behaviors and perceptions.

CfAD’s research team explored this trove of data by analyzing select survey questions related to Assembly’s four civic engagement objectives: 1) civic trust and appreciation; 2) participation in public life; 3) stewardship of the public realm; and 4) informed local voting. Responses were measured in relation to four key survey variables that illuminate qualities of place:

  • Availability of outdoor recreation space
  • Perceived community beauty
  • Access to arts and culture
  • Availability of community events

The analysis revealed that these four independent variables have a strong and statistically significant association with a range of civic engagement outcomes, even when controlling for individual and city-level characteristics. These findings provide a solid baseline of understanding for pursuing deeper investigations into the impacts of place-based design strategies. For example:

  • When examining measures of civic trust, the research team found that people who report an abundance of outdoor recreation space in their community are 28 percent more likely to think local leaders do a good job representing their interests. They are also 27 percent more likely to have a positive view of local police, compared to people who report little access to outdoor recreation space.
  • Analysis of participation in public life showed that respondents who live in a place they think is beautiful are 14 percent more likely to attend local events, and 9 percent more likely to interact with neighbors compared to those who do not perceive their community as beautiful.
  • An exploration of stewardship measures found that people who have good access to arts and culture in their communities are 14 percent more likely to believe they can have an impact on their community, and 12 percent more likely to donate money to a local organization compared to those who do not have access to the arts.
  • The analysis did not reveal a consistent relationship between qualities of place and local voting. However, CfAD will continue to explore this topic further through original research efforts.

Further details can be found in Assembly Research Brief I, available for free download. These exciting findings establish confidence that there is, indeed, an inherent relationship between qualities of place and civic life. However, more research is needed to understand causation. Do good places help create good citizens? Or do good citizens help create good places? Stay tuned for more details, as the Assembly initiative continues to explore these questions through an upcoming large-scale survey with embedded survey experiments, and local field experiments. The Center for Active Design will ultimately translate the findings into a set of practical, evidence-based design guidelines to support civic life, which is scheduled for publication in 2018.

To receive updates on Assembly, join the Center for Active Design mailing list at centerforactivedesign.org/subscribe

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    Musical Swings Project. Photo: Courtesy of the Knight Foundation
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    The Belmont Revitalization Project has moveable seating and tables to provide opportunities for engagement with neighbors and participation in public life. Photo: Courtesy of Brownsville Community Justice Center