• 06.26.17

Science Is Proving Why Urban Design Matters More Than Ever

Benches and greenery may seem inconsequential, but a new study quantifies how deeply they impact the civic life of a city.

It’s easy to make our cities attractive. Plant a few flowers, pick up litter, put up a sculpture or two. But cosmetic improvements don’t necessarily translate to meaningful change to public spaces. There’s very little research on how urban design affects issues like equitable access, civic responsibility, civic pride, and informed voting–four of the biggest challenges facing cities today, according to the Center for Active Design (CfAD), a nonprofit that explores the intersection of design and public health.


To shed more light on the role of design in civic life, CfAD surveyed over 5,000 people from 26 different communities–and different socioeconomic groups and races–across the United States to quantify how urban design makes them feel. The researchers conducted photo-based experiments, showing respondents images of the same public space with minor changes–like different signs and more greenery–in order to go beyond anecdotal associations and toward causality about the impact of different interventions. It’s a step forward in establishing urban design as essential–and not merely “nice to have.”

The results–published under the title The Assembly Civic Engagement Survey, or ACES–is one of the the first empirical research studies to do so. It found that simple interventions can make a big difference in how people perceive their cities. Here are three takeaways:

[Image: courtesy Center for Active Design]

The Surprising Impact Of Seating

The study found that more public benches make people feel more satisfied with their cities. Communities that think they have adequate public seating were 9% more satisfied with police, and trusted government 7% more than communities that felt their seating was inadequate. Meanwhile, an adequate number benches in public spaces was connected to 10% higher civic trust and 4% higher public participation.

While the survey doesn’t say that more benches somehow equates to more trusting citizens, having more places to sit can make buildings feel more welcoming and open–having a tangible effect on how people perceive their cities and police.

“Strategic enhancements to civic spaces–including amenities to improve public plazas and sidewalks–can positively impact measures of civic trust,” the report recommends. “Consider low-cost improvements such as comfortable seating, plantings, and improved lighting.”

[Image: courtesy Center for Active Design]

Public Buildings Should Have A “Front Porch”

As part of the study, ACES researchers showed respondents photos of a public library and asked them how welcoming the building appeared. Each building in the photos was virtually identical–except one had benches, greenery, and a lamppost Photoshopped in. The second image with the “inviting features” made people 10% more likely to feel “extremely welcome” in the building.


“Modest improvements can make public buildings feel more approachable and welcoming,” the report states. “Seating, plantings, and lighting can also be integrated as ‘front porch’ improvements at the entrance to public buildings such as libraries and community centers.”

These small details, which often get eliminated from projects due to budget restrictions, actually have more value than decision-makers might assume.

[Image: courtesy Center for Active Design]

Messaging Matters

To better understand how signage affects people who use a public space, the researchers conducted another experiment showing the front door to a community center with bilingual signage and a welcome sign–and one without. Respondents were shown either one or the other, and people who saw the image with the additional messaging were 4% more likely to view the center as welcoming.

“The installation of welcoming signs at building entrances is a low-cost strategy to invite community members inside and instill a sense of inclusiveness,” the report explains. One of the biggest takeaways? Sometimes minor urban design features can make a measurable impact to space–it doesn’t necessarily take a mega-project or significant investment to made a difference.

The AECS focuses on park design and maintenance, neighborhood order (and disorder), and welcoming civic spaces and buildings–but these three categories aren’t the only areas of study. The Center for Active Design  also investigated the availability of outdoor space, access to arts and culture, perceived beauty, and the availability of community events. Next, CfAD plans to turn this information into a set of design guidelines to be released in 2018.  Read the full report here.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.