The rewards of transforming civic centers into great public spaces are numerous. Not only do better public spaces enrich the lives of the people who use them, but they also make surrounding neighborhoods more desirable, attracting investment and spurring revitalization. They endow the civic realm with credibility and prestige by providing a sense of character and a forum for public activity. And they anchor downtowns and communities, acting as sources of shared identity and foundations for healthy growth. All of these benefits add up to greater livability.

PPS believes that public buildings are at their best when they not only function as active community places in their own right, but also when they form part of a larger civic district. When the managers of these institutions partner with nearby buildings to establish themselves as a civic district, they can co-sponsor events, program each other’s facilities, and otherwise share, trade or combine the use of their public spaces and resources. A library and a city hall do not create a civic center on their own. But add an outdoor reading room to the library, start hosting public exhibits at city hall, set up food vendors on the sidewalk or a farmers market in the parking lot and suddenly you begin to generate much greater levels of activity than before.

Likewise, the role of a civic institution should extend beyond the building itself. Part of the problem is that institutions tend to function as silos; rarely are their missions expressed or reflected in surrounding public spaces. When a civic institution stretches the boundaries of its own mission to engage its public space–whether it be a street, plaza, or square–and reaches out to other institutions in the neighborhood, that marks the rebirth of a civic center.

In many redeveloping downtowns, the trend is to leave civic institutions behind. A civic center should function as one of the great places in a city, yet rarely do civic institutions benefit from or contribute to downtown revitalization. This may occur because the institutions have been relocated to the outskirts of town, or because the institutions have turned their backs on a city that for many years was unsafe at night, or dominated by traffic, or lacking in activity. But for cities that are serious about sustaining vitality in the long run, tying facilities with a civic purpose back into burgeoning central districts is essential.

Read more about PPS Services‘ for Civic Centers.