The Assembly Civic Engagement Survey unveils compelling findings on the relationship between community design and civic life

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.”

About ACES

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.

Research highlights

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:

  • People living near popular parks report greater community connection and greater satisfaction with local government. They are 14% more likely to report satisfaction with police and 13% more likely to report satisfaction with the mayor.
  • Litter is associated with depleted civic trust. People who report litter to be “very common” in their neighborhood exhibit reduced civic trust across a number of measures, including 10% lower community pride and 10% lower likelihood of believing that community members care about one another.
  • Vacant lots present a challenge, and an opportunity. A photo experiment indicates that even moderate clean-up of a vacant lot can significantly enhance measures of civic trust—including a 13% increase in the belief that people care about their community.
  • Respondents reporting adequate public seating in their communities also score 10% higher on a civic trust index and 4% higher on participation in public life.
  • ACES demonstrates that relatively modest design improvements can make a difference in civic perceptions. Photo experiments found that incorporating seating, greenery, lighting, and positive messaging can make civic spaces feel more welcoming and inclusive.

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.

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    People who report that there is adaquete public seating in their community also exhibit higher levels of civic trust across a number of measures.
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    Blue Hole Regional Park, Wimberley, Texas. Photo Credit: D.A. Horchner/Design Workshop, Inc.