Could Pop-Up Social Spaces at Polls Increase Voter Turnout?

Placemaking the Vote, one of the finalists in the Knight Cities Challenge, wants people to hang out at their polling places

A City Fabrick pop-up space. City Fabrick

If you make voting fun, will it encourage people to cast their ballots? And once people are at the polls, can you keep them there, and get them talking about what they want from their local and national politicians? Those were some of the questions that designers at the Long Beach, California-based studio City Fabrick were pondering when they came up with the idea for Placemaking the Vote—their very own “kit for creating temporary pop-up social spaces at voting polls in historically low voter turnout areas.”

While the designers are still figuring out exactly what would go into the kit, they'd likely include lights, shelter, chalk and other supplies for building a gathering place and drawing attention to it. City Fabrick would set up the brightly-colored booths outside of the polling places and provide snacks and comfortable places to sit to encourage voters to stick around and talk.

“There’s a lot of emerging efforts around trying to get residents to vote through digital technologies, like Rock the Vote,” says Brian Ulaszewski, City Fabrik’s executive director. “We thought of this idea of creating place around voting stations and events as a way to draw people in and to also celebrate democracy.” The team wanted to focus on the physical aspect of voting because they were concerned that it was being slighted in the efforts to go digital.

Ulaszewski submitted the project to the Knight Cities Challenge, which awards grants to projects in 26 American cities where the Knight Foundation sees the most need. The funding program focuses on three categories for making cities successful: attracting talented people, expanding economic opportunity and creating a culture of civic engagement. This week, 158 finalists, Placemaking the Vote included, were selected from 4,500 entries. Now, the foundation will go through a second round of evaluation to decide which of the these finalists will get a slice of the $5 million of total grant money at stake this spring. The number of grants awarded annually varies; last year, there were 32 winners.

City Fabrick works on urban planning and public interest design projects that target environmental justice, safe streets and affordable housing. The designers focus on creating a sense of community in areas where the residents are typically not civically engaged. Ulaszewski, whose background is in architecture, says they've built parks across freeways in areas without greenspace, remimagined suburban shopping malls as neighborhood centers and worked with local law makers to try to change zoning code around small, affordable houses. With Placemaking the Vote, Ulaszewski says the goal is two-fold: to make polls places where people want to be and to get neighbors to discuss what they want from their community.

According to a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center, up to 60 percent of voting-aged adults don’t vote in mid-term elections. Non-voters tend to be young, racially diverse and less affluent and educated than voters, and it is these demographics in the neighborhoods of Long Beach that Ulaszewski is targeting. City Fabrick wants to show people in these communities that they can move the levers of government. “Expanding the vote is a way of advocating for resources and having more equity,” Ulaszewski says.

Tactical urbanism, a movement where residents make quick, unsanctioned changes to the built environment, is gaining steam in cities across the country. In this mix of people installing pop-up parks, little libraries and homemade signs, Ulaszewski wants to focus on the social aspect of voting. It's rare to find a non-partisan social event around voting, he says, much less one that happens at the polls.

To test the concept, City Fabrick plans to launch three of the pop-ups at different kinds of polling places—a church, a library and a commercial space in Long Beach—for the presidential election in November.

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