Civic design organizations

Melissa Julie Saunders, University of Pennsylvania


Civic design organizations demonstrate an independently constituted approach to identifying civic visions. There are several eras in the politics of implementing civic visions. Nineteenth century elites influenced planning and development projects believing that an attractive city offered a competitive advantage. In the mid-twentieth century government agencies took responsibility for civic design projects. At the end of the twentieth century government and business disengaged as firms lost local leadership and governments lost fiscal resources. Civic design organizations—self-governing, interdisciplinary, mission-driven—gathered to create a comprehensive understanding of shared issues previously misunderstood or about which people felt no compelling reason to act. This dissertation examines how exogenous and endogenous forces influence the structure and work of civic design organizations. It examines their operation as instruments of change and their position within broader cultural issues. How do they become compatible with local culture? How do they position themselves within the established landscape of development constituents? A survey maps the movement's terrain. Three case studies explore the hypothesis that such organizations advocate for alternative approaches because the aggrieved citizens disagree with the practices of traditional development coalitions. Believing that the established approach focuses on market demands at the expense of civic character and quality of life, they form to expand the conversation so that a larger constituency might be better served. Scholars have not considered how these organizations, as an activist movement, enlarge the vision of development possibilities. This study reveals that civic visions created through an inclusive process results in a built environment that is sympathetic to the local context. It identifies how groups without legal authority or financial resources foster public discourse. They mobilize civic capital to campaign for alternative development scenarios. Civic coalitions empower decision-makers providing new information and community knowledge. They speak for issues that have no vocal champions in the business-dominated forum thereby informing development with the wisdom of the many rather than the power of the few. They form to mediate solutions. In so doing they have the opportunity to influence long-term development.

Subject Area

Urban planning

Recommended Citation

Saunders, Melissa Julie, "Civic design organizations" (2008). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3309503.