Improving Civic Engagement

by Zach Lewis


Civic engagement is a constant pain point for government and developers. Normally, people hold public meetings to collect input. This is followed up by some combination of long form surveys and focus groups to round out community feedback. Unfortunately, unless the target population is angered by opposition to a specific idea, the results are generally pretty meager for all the dollars spent trying to engage the public’s opinion. But projects get built regardless, and they typically do so by skirting the margins of whatever screams angry residents throw into the heavens, exclaiming to all what they do not want to see. 

Frustration with this standard and the poor projects that results from it (plus a meteoric increase in the cost of living) has led to the rise of Yimbyism all over California. It is an incredible song and dance to galvanize public opinion in a specific direction, but motivating a proactive response to development (a guiding goal of Yimbyism) in these political times seems as idealistic as world peace. Nonetheless, it is essential that we figure out how to do just that to get better projects and communities that are designed for people and built for the long-term. 

One angle of Public Space Authority’s (PSA) work is this specific issue: how to improve civic engagement to gain the right kind of development. As we PSA delved into the mysteries of creating fun and engaging public spaces, a very important idea germinated early on in the company’s growth. Should we succeed in creating successful and highly frequented destinations, how do we leverage all that incredible energy? How can we generate significant civic engagement in a passive yet inherently engaging neutral environmental that is open and accessible to all? For example, PSA is about to open up Town Fair Plaza (TFP) in downtown Fremont, and we anticipate somewhere in the ballpark of 100,000+ people visiting that site over the course of one year. On the business side this is an exciting prospect, but the urban planning nerds in us see a more valuable application of this human capital. There is knowledge, desires, interests, assets, opinions, fears, ideas, history, and culture seeping in and out of every person that will cross that project’s borders. How do we transform that energy into useful public opinion to influence the right kind of growth for our urban environments?

PSA wants to leverage this all this energy by creating a unique civic engagement method that not only will help PSA constantly refine the user experience of each site we work on, but will also influence the long-term development of each site (in TFP’s instance, it will become Fremont’s Civic Center Plaza) and the neighborhood around it. At scale, this core idea will be woven into all of PSA’s projects, and has inherent value for developers and governments alike. PSA has started work on this concept, and will start trialing out new ideas when Town Fair Plaza opens this spring - it will generally consist of visuals that you can tangibly vote on in a quick and easy way, but PSA will also look at other methods of sparking dialogue around important civic issues. This is just the beginning, and we look forward to bringing more projects online later this year and beyond to continue working on this concept. 


Zach Lewis
Director, Public Space Authority