Can we design more trusting public spaces?

Our research found small design changes to public space can have big impacts on social trust.

This plaza at 14th and Main Street is part of the City of Vancouver’s Pavement-to-Plaza Program. (Credit: Alison Boulier)

By Mitchell Reardon

Occupied with her small child, a mother leaves her purse at a public plaza, only to realize it’s missing hours later. The woman is visiting from Australia. The plaza is in Vancouver. Remarkably, someone finds the purse and, through some detective work, reaches out to the woman. Within 24 hours, she has her purse back.

Small acts of kindness, like this one, shouldn’t be surprising: A Toronto experiment found that people are more likely to return strangers’ wallets than most people assume. So it makes sense for us to be more trusting of strangers, but how do we get there? What if the places we move through every day could actually boost our trust in strangers, without the hassle of lost purses and wallets?

In fact, they can. Sometimes all it takes is a few splashes of colourful paint, some movable seating and a bit of lush greenery.

How do we know? While the lost purse — and subsequent return — unfolded by pure chance, the woman’s visit to the plaza did not. She was taking part in the Happy Streets Living Lab, a unique experiment to assess how changes to public realm design influence people’s emotions and happiness. Working with neuroscientists, we led a hundred people on tours of various public spaces in Vancouver and measured their feelings and physiology along the way.

Tour participants told us they believed they were much more likely to get a lost wallet back at the rainbow-painted plaza and crosswalk — the site where the purse was lost — than at the comparison site, a standard intersection one block over. They just trusted strangers more at the rainbow site.

We found the results interesting, but knew the study had been limited in scope: it had involved professional city-makers visiting from around the world. These folks came with trained design eyes. Would people from a diversity of backgrounds, who actually lived in Vancouver, be similarly affected by small design changes?

Our curiosity spurred another project. We knew the City of Vancouver’s Pavement-to-Plaza program employed a formalized tactical urbanism approach to turn slivers of underused road space into public plazas. And we saw an opportunity: this was a perfect chance to conduct a bigger, public study of how small design actions can change perceptions of people and place. We studied three recently-transformed sites, each created using the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” Pavement-to-Plaza approach: the rainbow-painted Jim Deva Plaza, the downtown Bute-Robson Plaza, and the 14th-Main Plaza, nestled in a neighbourhood with fewer public spaces. The plazas cover between 250 and 400 square metres each, a small share of the 29 square kilometres of Vancouver road space.

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Visitors enjoying the shade at Vancouver’s Jim Deva Plaza. (Credit: Alison Boulier)

To measure the wellbeing impacts of the Pavement-to-Plaza interventions, we analyzed how people’s perceptions of sociability, safety, trust and inclusion were influenced by their presence at the three plazas. Responses there were compared to an equal number of responses from three control sites similar sites nearby that had not been transformed into plazas. In total, surveyors interviewed 703 people at the six sites, striving to include a balanced gender representation.

The assessment of city residents and visitors produced results that were even more compelling than our previous study of city-makers. They suggested that the Pavement-to-Plaza program has a significant positive effect on social wellbeing. Nearly 90% of participants at the plazas agreed or strongly agreed that “this is the kind of place I would choose to meet friends,” compared with 60% of participants at the control sites.

Nearly 90% of participants at the plazas agreed or strongly agreed that “this is the kind of place I would choose to meet friends,” compared with 60% of participants at the control sites.

But meeting friends in an Instagrammable setting is not enough to boost sociability and build trust. To strengthen broader social connection, folks need to feel comfortable interacting with strangers. The plazas performed similarly well in facilitating this kind of comfort, with nearly 70% of people at plazas agreeing or strongly agreeing that “this is a place where I would like to meet new people,” compared to only 46% at control sites.

A remarkable 93% of participants at the plaza agreed or strongly agreed that they “feel welcome in this place”compared to 81% at the control sites.

People also viewed the plazas as welcoming and inclusive spaces: 82% felt that “this place reflects my community” at the plazas, compared to just 65% at the control sites. This suggests that the plazas have a positive impact on residents’ sense of belonging. Meanwhile, a remarkable 93% of participants at the plaza agreed or strongly agreed that they “feel welcome in this place”compared to 81% at the control sites. Together, these results suggest that the plaza spaces have a strong effect on welcomeness and social inclusion.

Visitors to the plazas, particularly those who identified as women, were more likely to report feeling a sense of safety. While the vast majority of surveyed women felt safe at both plaza and control sites, 98.3% felt safe at plaza sites, compared to 95% at control sites. A large majority — 96% — of women respondents agreed or strongly agreed that, “this place reflects my community” in plazas compared to just 79% at control sites. Notably, none of the females surveyed responded that they felt “unwelcome” in the plaza sites.

A large majority — 96% — of women respondents agreed or strongly agreed that, “this place reflects my community” in plazas compared to just 79% at control sites.

Of all the spaces in this study, the 14th-Main Plaza stood out. Located in the neighbourhood with the fewest public spaces, it received the strongest and most positive response to nearly every wellbeing measure studied. This suggests that while plazas inject excitement, wellbeing and a sense of community into all kinds of neighbourhoods, these sentiments may be felt more deeply in areas with limited access to public space.

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Of the three spaces we studied, 14th-Main Plaza had the strongest and most positive response to nearly every wellbeing measure studied: 70.2% of respondents surveyed at the plaza said they would like to meet new people at the 14th-Main plaza, compared to 46.3% at the nearby comparison site. (Graphic: Ekaterina Aristova)

Basic elements like paint, plants and moveable seating built trust, feelings of welcomeness and safety in the Pavement-to-Plaza Wellbeing Assessment. Previous Happy City studies have demonstrated the big impacts of small, cost-effective changes to our cities and public spaces on the way people feel about themselves, each other and the spaces they frequent.

Even in a digital age, high quality public space matters: well-designed public space can be welcoming, safe and inclusive.

Many cities seek to create a High Line to call their own, but when it comes to great public space, high quality does not have to mean high cost.

Cities seeking to design for people can find faster, more cost effective strategies. Reclaiming pockets of underused road space with paint, plants and moveable seating can boost social connections, feelings of safety and inclusivity for all who pass through.

Read the full report here.

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