Foundations of Civic Health: Neighborhood Order (and Disorder)

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New research shows cities that prioritize the maintenance of public spaces and community assets are more likely to inspire civic trust, stewardship and participation in public life. Here are three key findings — and three ways city leaders can incorporate them in their communities.

This is a guest post by Suzanne Nienaber. This is the second post in a three-part series on civic health.

Last month, the Center for Active Design (CfAD) introduced pioneering research on how community design relates to civic engagement. “Five Ways to Promote Civic Health through Community Design” offered top-line findings from our recently published Assembly Civic Engagement Survey (ACES), which captured input from more than 5,000 respondents across the U.S. The survey inquired about the design qualities of local communities, and also delved into individual perceptions and behaviors regarding civic life.

One crucial theme stood out in our analysis: neighborhood maintenance conditions are inherently linked to measures of civic trust, including community pride, trust in neighbors, and satisfaction with local government institutions.

Our civic engagement survey findings reveal that neighborhood disorder is associated with diminished civic trust and points to key opportunities for elevating local maintenance priorities. While last month’s post touched upon the value of vacant lot improvements, ACES points to three additional areas of consideration impacting neighborhood order and disorder:

  1. Respondents loathe litter. Selecting from a series of seven options, including crime, traffic, and noise, a remarkable 23 percent of survey respondents chose litter as the one thing that they would change about their community. Respondents who reported litter as a “very common” sight in their neighborhood exhibited depleted civic trust across multiple measures. In fact, high levels of litter were associated with depleted community pride (-10 percent), diminished belief that community members care about one another (-10 percent), and less trust in police to do what’s right (-5 percent). Cities can explore strategic opportunities to clean up high-litter neighborhoods by installing visible trash and recycling receptacles, for example, and increasing frequency of garbage collection and street cleaning.
Mounting trash in communities can lead to a decrease in civic trust. (Center for Active Design)
  1. Park maintenance matters — and is particularly important for key amenities. ACES inquired about the specific amenities available in respondents’ local parks, as well as the maintenance conditions of these amenities. Findings indicate that certain park amenities are associated with enhanced civic trust regardless of condition. For example, even if they’re a little rough around the edges, dog parks, community gardens and information boards are associated with higher levels of civic trust. On the other hand, ACES analysis revealed that maintenance is particularly critical for amenities impacting children and families. Playgrounds, sports fields and park bathrooms are connected to greater civic trust when well-maintained — yet, significantly, these same amenities are also linked with diminished levels of civic trust when poorly maintained. Cities can target maintenance and operations budgets to ensure these critical park amenities are kept in good condition.
  1. Greenery in public spaces must be maintained. Trees and plantings are widely recognized as valuable community assets, and are often used to enhance sidewalks and public spaces. ACES found that respondents who report that public greenery on their block is well maintained also exhibit higher levels of civic trust (+8 percent). On the other hand, as the graphic below indicates, people who report poor maintenance of public greenery have low civic trust scores (-11 percent) — significantly lower than people who have no public greenery on their block. Cities should recognize that public greenery may be a boon to civic life when well-maintained, or a potential hazard when neglected.
Poorly maintained greenery is a visible sign of neighborhood disorder, and can be detrimental to a community’s collective civic trust. (Center for Active Design)

Across a range of topics, ACES consistently points to the maintenance of public amenities as a foundational building block for supporting the civic health of local communities. Cities that prioritize the care of existing community assets are more likely to inspire civic trust, stewardship, and participation in public life.

More details can be found in the full ACES report, available for free download from the Center for Active Design.

Featured image: Uniting community members around a beautification project like a mural wall can improve the condition of public space while inspiring stewardship and community trust. (Capital Roots)

About the author: Suzanne Nienaber is the partnerships director at the Center for Active Design. With expertise in urban planning, training, and facilitation, Suzanne frequently orchestrates presentations and participatory workshops that encourage designers, planners, developers and policymakers to transform the built environment to support holistic health and civic engagement.