COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Stumbling Blocks to Creating Great Civic Centers...and How to Overcome Them

Jan 1, 2009
Dec 14, 2017

By Cynthia Nikitin

Traditionally, the center of most cities has been a "commons," a civic space built according to democratic principles. The commons may be a historic commercial square, as in Madison, Wisconsin, or it may be a mall (in the original sense), like the ones that grace San Francisco's City Hall and the US Capitol. In almost every case, major public and cultural institutions are located around the commons, forming a civic center of enormous practical and symbolic importance.

Libraries are the cornerstones of many civic centers. They may be joined by city halls, museums, government offices, churches, opera houses, courthouses, or any number of other public-minded institutions. With strong partnerships and a clear purpose, the people behind these buildings can breathe life into their shared public space--the commons--and create a vibrant, cohesive district. A fully-realized civic center proclaims the mission and identity of its institutions for all to see, so that the commons becomes a forum for public expression and a source of community pride.

For civic centers to succeed, the institutions and attractions within them must coalesce around the commons.

Pitfalls abound on the path to success, however. One of the biggest problems is that civic centers are not always seen as cohesive districts, and often fail to function as engaging public spaces. There are few things more dispiriting than an empty courthouse square or grand library steps without a soul in sight. The failure of such places raise disturbing questions about the fate of the public realm itself.

Lively civic centers showcase the strength of their community and help kindle a democratic spirit. To help create better civic spaces around the country, PPS looks at the major stumbling blocks we have observed in our work with libraries, museums, courthouses, and other public institutions--and outlines proven strategies to overcome these problems and establish a vital commons at the heart of our cities.

Lesson #1

If you build it, make sure they come

Downtown Tacoma, Washington boasts a resurgent historic core with plenty of potential for a first-class civic center to emerge. That's what city leaders had in mind when they built a new public square called Tollefson Plaza in the center of downtown, less than a block away from three museums, a convention center, a branch of the University of Washington campus, and a historic train station adapted for re-use as a Federal Courthouse. But residents soon discovered that the plaza's fantastic location provided no guarantee that it would automatically "work" from the moment it opened.

Without strong management or programming, Tacoma's Tollefson Plaza did not live up to its promise. Following a PPS workshop in 2006, efforts are now underway to activate this important civic space.

Lacking a clear mission or program, the plaza debuted with many important questions still unanswered. Who would use it? What would people do there? Who would manage it? The cornerstone institutions that surrounded the plaza had no mandate to program it. Nor were they sure how their own patrons might use it, what activities people could do there, or how they might help run the plaza over the long term. On top of that uncertainty, cost concerns prevented amenities like restrooms, concessions, and seating from seeing the light of day. When the plaza opened, few people used it besides skateboarders and the homeless.


  • Create a program of events and activities based on a high level of community involvement. Once a public space has been built, people still need a reason to go there. One of the most compelling attractions is a full calendar of events and activities. Luckily, civic centers make ideal locations for public space programming--for two reasons. First, they are natural places for neighboring institutions to hold events that highlight their missions, like when a museum puts on an art market, or a courthouse organizes a civic forum. When institutions work together on an events calendar for a shared public space, it builds mutual support and leads to more opportunities for partnerships and collaboration.Second, as places that embody democratic values, civic centers should strive to appeal to the communities who work or live nearby. Getting people involved from the ground up is essential. This means engaging a broad range of local groups in programming the space, creating events that will appeal to people of different ages, cultures, and backgrounds. Cultural and arts organizations should be encouraged to use civic center performances as a means of generating new audiences. Ethnic festivals, public markets, music and theater can all reflect the diversity of adjacent neighborhoods and the community as a whole--and make the civic center feel like a place that belongs to everyone.

Lesson #2

Fill in the missing links

All over the world, there is a pattern of situating civic institutions next to each other. Though they may share the same streets, the same audience, and even many of the same goals, they hardly ever communicate with each other. As a result, many opportunities to achieve mutual objectives go unfulfilled. For instance, when the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC found itself in desperate need of a child care center, they struggled mightily to re-design their ground floor to accommodate it. Little did they know that directly across the street, a Presbyterian Church was planning to close its child care facility due to lack of enrollment. Without active relationships between institutions, mutual opportunities go unfulfilled and the district as a whole suffers.

Many civic center districts have multiple improvement efforts--led by different agencies--underway concurrently. A lack of coordination often results in overlap, inconsistencies, or gaps in implementation. For instance, sidewalk improvement projects conducted by two agencies may use completely different materials, or a street may get dug up five separate times (for new sewer lines, fiber-optic wiring, etc.) instead of handling everything in a coordinated manner. The missing link is communication. A great civic center is more than just a group of buildings--it also needs a robust network of partnerships to fully succeed.

Thanks to good communication between different agencies, sidewalks and streets outside the Post Office in Montpelier, Vermont were renovated in coordination with the reconstruction of a nearby water main.


  • Work together to create a vision for the civic center as a livelier place. Start by developing a neighborhood plan--documenting and mapping out all the improvements planned and underway in the civic center. This plan is the starting point for a larger "vision statement" for the area. In addition, the boundaries of the district should be determined and mapped. Take the plan to local government agencies (parks, public works, transportation) as a group, and work with the city to get the vision funded and implemented. Meet with the Mayor's Office and City Council members to obtain their support and provide seed money.
  • Publicize local cultural events and businesses. During the day, civic centers are full of office workers, be they government employees, library aides or lawyers. They are a natural audience for nearby cultural institutions. But this audience will not materialize unless a concerted effort is made to encourage them to patronize cultural institutions and local businesses. The managers of a federal courthouse and office building in San Francisco, for instance, are planning a program of outreach and promotion to building tenants around City Hall. The effort will publicize local organizations and events, drawing employees out into the community for dining, shopping, entertainment and volunteer activities.
  • Band together to develop a management strategy for the area.When improvements are underway concurrently, a collective management effort will help coordinate and provide oversight. The new management entity can function as a neutral forum where mutual interests are recognized, relationships built, and viewpoints of all participating stakeholders represented (including neighborhood-based organizations). To start with, the organization could focus on:
  • Maintenance and security (sidewalk repair, neighborhood policing, etc.)
  • Bundling together any small plans and projects to create a larger impact on the area as a whole (façade improvement programs, street tree planting, commercial corridor revitalization, streetscaping, etc.)
  • Developing funding mechanisms that rely on diverse sources, such as Business Improvement District assessments, public sector contributions, and special events.

Lesson #3:

Get feet back on the street

Surprisingly, the layout and atmosphere of many civic centers discourage people from getting around on foot. Even though offices, restaurants, shops, and cultural institutions may be located close together, a poor pedestrian environment makes them feel cut off from one another. In many cases, streets are simply designed to accommodate more and faster traffic than what's needed, which negatively affects perceptions of pedestrian safety.

Republic Square in downtown Austin, Texas, for example, feels like an island unto itself, surrounded by fast-moving traffic on three sides. As a result, tenants and visitors who frequent the neighboring art museum, state office building, and warehouse district rarely take advantage of this welcoming green space. The space is currently being redeveloped as Republic Square Park, which will be the front yard for a new federal courthouse and a revitalized post office complex. Managing traffic in this four-block area--and getting more feet on the street--is imperative for the park to emerge as the heart of a thriving civic center.


  • Create a neighborhood pedestrian and traffic calming plan.A good traffic calming plan encourages people to walk, bike, or take transit to various destinations within the civic center. The first step is to map out and label all the public spaces, cultural destinations, retail areas, workplaces, and transit stops in the district. Then, develop a plan that highlights good pedestrian links between these locations, and identify where new pedestrian paths should be created. The broader transportation vision for the area can then be generated using these locations and connections as the key.More detailed elements of the plan can widening sidewalks for outdoor seating and dining; narrowing travel lanes to allow on-street parking; bumping out sidewalks at intersections to shorten pedestrian crossing distances and reduce the speed of turning cars; and converting one-way streets to two-way wherever possible.
A vision map for Republic Square in Austin, Texas highlights streets, intersections, and sidewalks where pedestrian improvements should be made.

Lesson #4:

What's in a name? Everything!

A great civic center needs a name that will stick, or else most people won't even know it's there. It sounds simple enough, but a surprising number of civic centers have yet to stake a claim to their own identity. They need to be named, marketed, and branded in a way that no one will easily forget.

Until a few years ago, the federal properties in Denver, Colorado suffered from an identity crisis. They were perceived simply as a collection of government buildings, residential developments, and offices without a cohesive character. When plans got underway for a new light rail stop in front of the district's historic federal courthouse building, the Regional Transportation District jumped at the chance to remedy the situation. Working in partnership with the courts, the city and the General Services Administration (which operates the courthouse), the RTD named the area the Denver Federal District. While far from poetic, this name helped transform public perception. Today the Federal District is thriving thanks to management that programs its spaces and plans for improvements.


  • Introduce consistent signage throughout the civic center. This helps brand the area as a district and encourages people to explore it on foot.
  • Market the civic center.The goods, services and programs offered by each institution should be marketed together in a coordinated manner. Different institutions often serve the same people, so developing a shared strategy makes a lot of sense. Steps may include:
  • Developing a resource map listing all the civic services and programs in and around the area.
  • Creating a visitor brochure listing attractions and amenities available in the neighborhood.
  • Distributing a tenant guide to all employees in the area with inserts of volunteer opportunities in the neighborhood.
  • These tools will help get information to visitors and employees about the diverse mix that the area has to offer.

Cynthia Nikitin is Vice President for Civic Centers and Downtowns. Contact her at

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