Suzanne Nienaber — Partnerships Director

Suzanne Nienaber, AICP

I'm an urban planner and facilitator striving to shape healthier, more engaged communities. As the partnerships director at the Center for Active Design (CfAD) I help people collaborate across sectors to elevate physical, mental, social, and civic well-being in their projects, and inspire transformative community change.

Our work draws upon scholarly research and bridges a wide range of disciplines — embracing everything from urban planning and architecture to public health, political science, real estate development, facilities management, and more.

I lead a range of initiatives at CfAD, including Assembly, our pioneering effort to understand how place-based design informs civic engagement objectives such as trust, participation in public life, and stewardship. Through this initiative we’re convening expert advisors, undertaking original research, and synthesizing findings on the relationship between place-based design and civic life. I’m currently working on a publication to distill these findings into a set of practical, evidence-based design guidelines, scheduled for publication later this year.

Career Path

How about your experience as a planner? Include a bit about your path to the current role.

I’ve had a long-standing interest in the connection between place and wellbeing. In fact, I grew up in a car-dependent, working-class suburb, and felt profoundly limited by my own lack of car ownership. I sensed from a very young age that “there must be a better way” to design communities.

When I moved to New York City from Ohio in 2000, I began working at a public health organization called Helen Keller International, where I supported nutrition and training initiatives.

I was immediately impressed by some of the core tenets of the public health model — particularly, the recognition that people living in a community are the best experts to consult about their own lives.

I learned that a successful vitamin A supplementation campaign was absolutely dependent on local ownership, resonant messaging, and consistent communication from trusted local partners. The qualitative research I analyzed echoed my own instincts around the crucial role of place in shaping people’s lives. I saw data from mothers and grandmothers revealing that their local environments were directly impacting health outcomes, whether their concerns were access to healthy food, fresh water, quality housing, or transportation.

During my Master's in Urban Planning studies at NYU Wagner I attended a workshop on participatory planning practices, hosted by the firm ACP Visioning + Planning. The approaches ACP shared directly resonated with what I appreciated most about the public health lens — that in community-based planning, citizens must be recognized as key decision-makers and empowered as agents of change. After graduating, I went on to work for ACP for several years, where I designed and facilitated public engagement processes, and worked on a wide range of planning initiatives, from regional visions to downtown master plans.

In 2010, NYC’s Bloomberg administration published the Active Design Guidelines (ADGs). This resource became widely acclaimed for successfully translating public health research into practical design solutions, serving as a tool that architects and planners could use to create more opportunities for daily physical activity, and help reverse rising chronic disease rates. I was thrilled to join an incredible cross-agency implementation team, where I was responsible for leading training and outreach initiatives to encourage public and private sector professionals to use Active Design strategies in their day-to-day work. Over my two years working with the city, I had the privilege of reaching thousands of professionals through lunch and learns, guest lectures, hands-on workshops, webinars, and annual conferences like Fit City.

This work would become the underlying DNA for the Center for Active Design. With leadership from the Bloomberg administration — particularly David Burney, who then served as Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, and later became our board chair — CfAD was launched in 2012 and tasked with growing Active Design as a global movement. Over the past five years, that’s exactly what we’ve done.

As an independent nonprofit organization, we’ve been able to keep pace as the movement has evolved beyond its original physical activity focus, to integrate emerging research around the mental, social, and civic impacts of design.

Working with a wide array of partners, we develop publications, original research, and digital tools that empower decision-makers to invest in community wellbeing. Today, CfAD is making its mark globally as the operator of Fitwel, the world’s leading healthy building certification.

Skills

Can you talk about skill sets that you have acquired along your career path? What advice do you have for someone who hopes to find work similar to yours?

Strong communication skills have been essential to my career. Being able to write fluidly and rapidly, share inspiring stories, create compelling visualizations, synthesize emerging priorities, identify facts that resonate with a broad audience — these diverse communication skills are core competencies that benefit nearly every professional. I find them to be particularly important for planners who are helping communities articulate and mobilize around, a collective vision for their future.  

At the same time, as individual planners, we can’t be experts at everything. It’s important to know your own strengths and collaborate with others as needed. Personally, I tend to leave graphic design and social media communications to colleagues who are more adept on those fronts. I also rely upon (and envy!) those who have fluency in more than one language.

When it comes to communicating, you know you’re successful when you hear the messages you’ve been sharing repeated back. When I started working on Active Design outreach in 2010, it took a fair bit of convincing to convey the connection between health and the built environment.

Today, it’s amazing to see so many planners and designers recognizing the crucial role they play in shaping healthy communities. I love hearing colleagues from across the country discussing ways to “make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

This awareness is also evident in the ever-growing number of submissions we receive for CfAD’s annual Excellence Awards. People are taking the principles of Active Design, adapting them to local needs, and innovating in ways that are truly transformational – from a community-driven pop-up bike network in Macon, Georgia, to a public library in Queens, to a longitudinal study on the impacts of neighborhood design in Australia.

What skills and personality traits lend themselves to successful community engagement? Any tips or ideas that you want to share?

While facilitation is an art, rather than a science, a few tips come to mind that can cultivate a more effective community engagement practice. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Ensure shared ownership. Planning efforts benefit from cultivating partnerships and creating a forum where a multiplicity of viewpoints can be heard. Coalitions that connect city agencies and community organizations help bring everyone to the table — supporting better plans, and more effective implementation.
  • Cultivate a spirit of welcome and respect. Recognize that folks who are participating in a community engagement process are giving generously of their time and expertise. Where possible, make the effort to go to them. When community members come to you, make them feel welcome in any way you can — express your thanks, offer snacks, provide childcare, etc.
  • Support co-learning across sectors. I love idea-generating exercises in public meetings. At the same time, people are unlikely to ask for something they’ve never heard of. As planners, it’s important for us to share ideas, data, and inspiring project examples to help cultivate a fertile ground for generating local solutions.
  • Create space for everyone to engage. I love small group, hands-on exercises that give more people a shot at active participation. I’m also a fan of allowing for a minute or two of silent contemplation, which gives people a chance to write down their ideas, clarify their thoughts, and perhaps feel more comfortable speaking up.
  • Set clear expectations – and deliver. Make sure everyone in the room understands the objectives at hand. Strive to map out a long-term vision as well as short-term wins. Empower people (and leverage funds) to make change rapidly, and show that “it’s not all talk.”
  • Be punctual. It may sound relatively simple to start and end on time, but this can be easily neglected. Punctuality is an important part of respecting everyone’s time.

Using Research

Can you talk a bit about the research that you do and how you use it? Tell us about what you measure and how you determine the metrics for success.

I’m proud to work with an excellent team of researchers at CfAD. Our public health experts conduct detailed reviews of scholarly literature and manage to stay abreast of the tremendous amount of research that continues to be published on the relationship between the built environment and health. I also work with political scientists who employ surveys and experimental methodologies to further investigate key research questions, and tailor inquiries to the needs of a particular community. 

Our Assembly initiative is essentially spearheading a new field of study on the relationship between place and civic life. We are collaborating with a multi-disciplinary, insightful advisory group that captures perspectives from urban design, political science, behavioral psychology, public space management, and beyond. At the outset, we realized it would be essential to explicitly define what we’re trying to study, and create a common vocabulary around civic life. The Assembly Project Orientation published in 2016 clarifies our four civic engagement objectives — civic trust and appreciation, participation in public life, stewardship of the public realm, and informed local voting — and gives all project partners a clear picture of what we’re seeking to accomplish.

CfAD’s Assembly Civic Engagement Survey, published in 2017, is the first study of its kind to investigate how specific community design features influence civic engagement outcomes. This large-sample survey of over 5,000 respondents from 26 communities across the U.S. has surfaced a number of exciting findings that will directly inform the forthcoming Assembly design guidelines.

One big takeaway that really made an impression on me: maintenance is absolutely essential. Well-maintained amenities such as street trees, lighting, and playground equipment are associated with higher levels of civic trust.

Conversely, poorly maintained amenities and signs of neighborhood disorder are associated with depleted levels of trust. This is essential knowledge for anyone involved in planning and capital investments, to ensure that long-term maintenance and operations considerations are addressed up-front.

Education and Background

Schools and Education: New York University, Master of Urban Planning; Kenyon College, BA in Sociology

First planning job: Planner at ACP Visioning + Planning

Influences: I consider myself luckier than most to have worked with such an abundance of visionary leaders, creative thinkers, and passionate community members over the course of my career. Rather than singling out any individuals, I’ll highlight a particularly influential place. Brooklyn has been my beloved adopted home for the past 17 years. It’s brimming with diversity, community, complexity, delight, and captures everything I love about cities.

What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful? Meditation and yoga — mindfulness practice is incredibly important to me, especially in this era of media overdrive and sensory overload. I also sing and perform with a couple of bands. Music is a fantastic creative outlet (and helps build confidence behind a microphone!)