In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the British public was found taking to Google searching two crucial questions, “What is Brexit?” and “What is the EU?” The unexpected results of the vote to detach United Kingdom from the European Union brought to question the public’s awareness and concern of politics and local civic activity. Over the years, civic engagement has been interpreted in a variety of ways. However, a common understanding includes being informed about political elections, and recognizing local or national governments and other responsible parties that provide and maintain collective civic assets such as our roads, streets, parks, and libraries. Many cities in the US are beginning to acknowledge this and are taking steps to use creative design strategies to convey important civic information.
Since its opening, Newark’s latest 16-acre riverfront park has been reconnecting the local community to the city’s rich past. Despite owing its early growth and prosperity to the Passaic River, the city and its communities have been increasingly alienated from the waterfront in the past few decades. The park, which now provides locals access to green spaces and community gathering areas, features an integrated wayfinding and historic trail marking system that inform visitors of the neighborhood’s current amenities and its industrial history. The signage not only marks entryways and guides visitors to key park facilities, but also tell colorful stories about the park, local communities, and local environmental issues and mitigation strategies. Indeed a key element of civic knowledge is historical knowledge. Often times past events provide a context and a foundation for present community-based problem solving, so that individuals feel a responsibility toward public assets.
The interpretive signs are placed along the railing of the boardwalk and are water-jet cut with simple drawings, ensuring the information conveyed is accessible to young children and to Newark’s multilingual population. For example, the creative signage explains how the dioxin contamination occurred over the past century, and what kinds of birds and ﬁsh still inhabit the river. The information provided by a wide range of local community stakeholders throughout the park planning process ensures that visitors leave with a deeper understanding of the community context, and hopefully with a deeper appreciation of the public space provided and maintained by local authorities.
In Philadelphia, design is instead being used to inform the voting population of polling station locations in an effort to reduce the reported inconvenience of the voting exercise. Given that most stations are hidden inside municipal buildings with no clear indication on the exterior, it is unsurprising that 7% of millenials don’t vote for their mayors because they are unable to locate polling stations.
Next Stop: Democracy!, a public art project that aims to increase civic engagement and voter satisfaction in Philadelphia elections, uses bright and bold wayfinding signs to call attention and direct voters toward polling stations. Each standard-sized sign is bilingual to appeal to the full spectrum of voters in the city and placed outside buildings and on large, open sidewalks with clear lines of sight. While one side of the sign reads in English, “VOTE HERE”, the other reads in Spanish, “VOTE AQUI”. In a survey of 2,600 voters at 20 voting locations with creative signs and at 20 voting control locations without the voting signs, the voting signs had increased overall voter turnout from 2011 to 2015 to 44% at all locations, whether signs were available or not and about 10% of voters at locations with the signs said it helped them find their polling place or reminded them to vote. This is a strong indication that the wayfinding signs are meeting its goals of lowering barriers to voting and at least nudging voters to polling stations to exercise their voting rights.
Over 60 local artists were engaged to create these unique signs that has also reportedly brought a sense of vibrancy back into the city’s public spaces leading up to election day last November. In doing so, the simple signs not only enticed eligible voters to exercise their civil rights but also to participate in public life.
The creative works that also serve as a citywide art exhibition have the potential to significantly improve social interactions by being points of visual art discussions. Public art, in particular, has long been acknowledged as one of many focal features of the physical environment that has been associated with influencing social interaction both during the creation process and following installation in public spaces. In Philadelphia, the local artists who participated in the project reported feeling a greater sense of connection to their communities and were more likely to discuss the upcoming election with others given their experience.
Public art and signage, wayfinding or historical, are two very simple design strategies that can greatly impact civic engagement in our communities by conveying civic information to increase participation in public life, encourage civic trust and appreciation, and inform local voting. As cities around the country and the world grapple with low voter turnouts, uninformed citizens, and increasing distrust amongst neighbors, it is vital that leaders, designers, and citizens recognize the importance of evidence-based design in supporting civic life.
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