The Center for Active Design’s Assembly initiative builds upon decades of research, theory, and activism calling attention to the crucial role of community design in shaping the civic life.
Over half a century ago, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed, “the trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.”Since then, architects and planners have continued to reflect on how place-based design shapes civic engagement. In 1971, William L. Yancey published an investigation on the connection between spatial and social relationships in public housing. His work posits that semi-public spaces and community facilities support the development of informal social networks.
In the 1980s, William H. Whyte famously tracked how people move through and interact in public spaces. Meanwhile Jan Gehl explored “soft edges,” such as front yards and porches, which facilitate engagement at the border of public and private. The New Urbanism movement emerged in the 1980s, emphasizing planning and design principles that facilitate walkable access to a range of services, amenities, and public spaces. This “human-scale” approach to design is intended to support an improved sense of community.
Despite widespread recognition that civic engagement is associated with positive social, economic and psychological outcomes, civic life in the U.S. has exhibited a long-running decline. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam used data to illustrate the national decline in civic activities between 1975 and 1995. Putnam posited that one’s sense of community trust and civic identity springs, in part, from the opportunities people have to interact, associate, and network with friends and neighbors—opportunities that "the design of our communities and the availability of public space will encourage."
Researchers today are studying how people conceptualize their communities. Findings indicate that residents may define neighborhood borders in terms of social connections and civic amenities, rather than geographic boundaries.
Assembly embraces and builds upon these key historic precedents, as well as other findings emerging from a range of disciplines—such as political science, environmental psychology, sociology, and more. This breadth of existing knowledge, combined with original research, provides a foundation for crafting evidence-based design solutions to enhance civic life.
To download the Assembly Project Orientation, click here.