Civic spaces and public buildings should be extensions of the community. They are the “front porches” of our public institutions — our post offices, courthouses, museums, libraries, and seats of government. If they function in their true civic role, they can be the settings where celebrations are held, where exchanges both social and economic take place, and where cultures mix. When they work well, they are valued as places that bring the public together and belong to local residents. Cities and neighborhoods with thriving civic centers benefit from a strong sense of community; conversely, when such places are lacking, people may feel less connected to each other and to the place where they live.

Too often, areas where civic buildings are clustered together appear sterile, cold, and lifeless. In other words, they fail as public spaces, leading to rising maintenance costs, squandered economic opportunities, and public indifference or hostility toward civic institutions. PPS can help turn these crucial public spaces into assets for both the institutions they represent and the communities they serve.

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, they also make surrounding neighborhoods more desirable, attracting investment and spurring revitalization. They endow the civic realm with credibility and prestige — not just visually, but also by providing a sense of character and a forum for public activity. 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.

Why Civic Centers?

Previously, this program was known as “Public Buildings.” PPS has chosen to expand the area of focus to encompass the broader idea of Civic Centers for three reasons.

First, we believe that public buildings are at their best when they not only function as active community places in their own right, but when they also 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 centre 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.

Second, 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.

Third, even in many downtowns that are being redeveloped, 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, contribute to, or act as a catalyst for downtown revitalization. Sometimes this happens because the institutions have been relocated to the outskirts of town. Other times the institutions themselves 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.

PPS’s Approach to Civic Centers was last modified: March 6th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces