Last summer, the Center for Active Design (CfAD) launched Assembly, an exciting initiative to understand how place-based design impacts civic life. This pioneering effort embraces community design as an essential tool for shaping civic engagement outcomes—including civic trust, participation in public life, stewardship, and informed local voting.
As part of this initiative, CfAD is thrilled to release original research findings from the Assembly Civic Engagement Survey (ACES). This is the first study to examine specific community design features that influence civic life, using large-sample survey methods and visual experiments. According to Joanna Frank, President & CEO at the Center for Active Design, “With the publication of ACES findings, we are making strides to build widespread awareness around this compelling field of study, and offer concrete data that civic leaders can use to shape communities.”
Assembly represents a nascent field with tremendous potential for influencing the civic health of cities. With this in mind, CfAD fielded the ACES study in the summer of 2016, surveying over 5,000 respondents across the U.S. and capturing a diverse cross-section of economic conditions, demographics, and population densities. The survey inquired about respondents’ civic perceptions and behaviors, as well as design elements and maintenance conditions within their communities—generating a trove of data to measure and analyze relationships between characteristics of place and civic life.
The study also incorporated an innovative photo experiment technique to explore the causal impacts of design. For each experiment, CfAD developed two to three images that were similar except for minor variations in a specific design element. Each respondent was randomly assigned just one of the images, and asked to imagine it was in their own community. All respondents were then asked the same questions about their civic engagement perceptions. Because the photo treatments were randomly assigned, any difference in civic engagement measures can be directly attributed to the differences in design.
CfAD’s publication of ACES findings is organized across three main topics: park design and maintenance; neighborhood order and disorder; and welcoming civic spaces and buildings. Highlights include:
Implications and next steps
The ACES publication is available for free download here, and uses infographics, photos, and illustrations to translate findings from sophisticated econometric models into an accessible, easy-to-use resource for local implementers and decision-makers. According to George Abbott, Director of Community and National Initiatives at the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, “The greatest potential for Assembly is to inform the work of practitioners who are shaping our communities on a daily basis. This exciting research offers concrete data demonstrating that the design and maintenance of public spaces can indeed play a role in supporting, or deterring, civic engagement.”
ACES findings will serve as a cornerstone in shaping the overarching Assembly initiative—inspiring research questions for future experiments, and informing the development of the forthcoming Assembly design guidelines, scheduled for publication in 2018. While there is still much more to learn about the relationship between place-based design and civic engagement, ACES provides a roadmap for the future of this essential field of study.
Assembly benefits from the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as well as the guidance of a diverse, multidisciplinary Advisory Committee. More information on Assembly, including a Project Orientation, is available at centerforactivedesign.org/assembly.