Reimagining A Future

By Bridget Marquis

Just two miles south of downtown Akron, Ohio, on the Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail is a 100-acre glacial lake. In the 1920s, it was known as Akron’s “million-dollar playground” and attracted thousands of visitors to the amusement park along its banks to swim, picnic, and boat. But after being used as an industrial-waste site by the rubber industry, Summit Lake fell into disuse and developed a reputation as a place to avoid. The adjacent neighborhood has also suffered from decades of isolation and disinvestment.

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But that’s changing, thanks to Akron Civic Commons, a local collaboration of government, non-profits, community members, and business leaders convened by Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition and supported by Reimagining the Civic Commons, a national initiative that seeks to counter economic and social fragmentation in cities by revitalizing and connecting public places.

Through collaborative design and programming of existing public assets, the ambition of Akron Civic Commons is to connect three economically and socially diverse neighborhoods—downtown, Park East, and Summit Lake—along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. For Summit Lake, that means returning it to a gathering place for all that connects an isolated community back to the lake and to the city.

In just one year this effort is shifting the way in which local leaders approach their parks. For the first time in its history, the county-wide parks agency, Summit Metro Parks, is taking a lead role in transforming an urban park. Nick Moskos, chief of planning and development for Summit Metro Parks, said gaining the trust of local residents was and is the most important part of Akron’s civic commons project.

“Our biggest inner circle of collaborators are the residents,” Moskos says. “Ultimately they are the ones who are going to populate these spaces and have ownership and take care of them.” To do this, Akron Civic Commons began its project by listening to Summit Lake neighbors and understanding their ideas for improving the neighborhood.

“In listening, we heard decades of things being done to communities. Their experience was all talk and no action, big plans and no delivery,” says Knight Foundation’s Akron Program Director Kyle Kutuchief, who is part of the team leading the work. “What we wanted to do was demonstrate how our process was different by pairing small, early action with long-term planning.”

These listening sessions led to relatively inexpensive and early investments in prototype improvements around the lake, including new benches and shade umbrellas, outdoor grills, a nature play area and, a pop-up nature center. Programming has included canoeing and kayaking on the lake and children’s fishing lessons. Kutuchief says they’re already seeing results: “We’re seeing increased use. We’re working on measurement, but anecdotally use of the park has picked up significantly, and also the diversity of users has increased.”

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Long-term investments are shaping up, too. Summit Metro Parks has been the key in executing many of these improvements and is now considering a more permanent home at Summit Lake to expand its nature-focused programming.

Philadelphia: Taking The Civic Commons Citywide
Akron isn’t the only city where parks are reconsidering their role in communities.

Philadelphia, Penn., was the first to try the Reimagining the Civic Commons model as part of a pilot project launched in 2015 with the assistance of the William Penn Foundation. The city had gained national attention in recent years for the renaissance of Center City, due in part to investments in public places and the neighborhoods nearby, but local leaders realized that these investments needed to reach residents in all corners of Philadelphia.

In addition to transforming five public assets in neighborhoods outside of Center City—from a riverfront bicycle and pedestrian trail adjacent to the oldest botanical garden in America to a renovated public library and park space—the pilot project resulted in a new collaboration across organizations to create public places where everyone belongs.

A groundswell of public support for parks, recreation centers, and libraries following the pilot project spurred the city to move forward with a bond measure supported by a soda tax that provides $500 million in funding.

According to Kathryn Ott Lovell, Philadelphia’s current parks and recreation commissioner and the former director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, the citywide effort called Rebuild is scaling the wins of the early civic commons work.

“Our work is asking the question: How can these projects bring people together to connect in meaningful ways,” says Ott Lovell. She believes that when these investments in public places are done right, they improve outcomes for neighborhoods, and most importantly, for the people who live there.

“Rebuild gives us a chance to use what we’ve already learned through Philadelphia’s work as the first city to embark on Reimagining the Civic Commons by expanding it across the entire city,” says Ott Lovell.

Memphis: Coming Together At The Fourth Bluff
In Memphis, Tenn., two underinvested neighborhood parks, a branch library, and a trail are being repositioned as the Fourth Bluff, a place for all Memphians to explore, play, and connect.

Over the past year, programming, like weekly yoga classes, along with temporary installations such as this summer’s pop-up park called RiverPlay, have drawn thousands of Memphians to the Fourth Bluff to play basketball, exercise, skate, or just relax. Memphis has seen quite a change in the use of riverfront parks, which previously drew in only dozens of people daily.

According to Maria Fuhrman, grants coordinator at the City of Memphis, the Fourth Bluff project has already moved beyond just the success of the individual public assets to a more holistic symbol of success for the city.

“Reimagining the Civic Commons is teaching us that we can apply civic commons tools and techniques to neighborhoods across the city,” she says. “Our Mayor definitely understands that these public spaces aren’t just ‘nice to have.’ They are essential services.”

And the cross-asset collaboration is the heart of the transformation.

“Now we’re asking the question: What do we want the riverfront and downtown to be?” says Fuhrmann. “Our team has representation from the mayor’s office, the head of our library system, and representatives from our [Memphis River Parks Partnership], and Downtown Memphis Commission. We used to come together only periodically—during a crisis, or to respond to an opportunity—but now we see each other several times each week on this project. We are building the infrastructure to tackle big issues.”

A Lesson For Cities—Think Bigger
The work in Akron, Philadelphia, and Memphis is just the start. Carol Coletta, senior fellow with The Kresge Foundation, a national funder of Reimagining the Civic Commons, and a longtime Memphis resident, thinks that, ultimately, all cities need to think bigger about how to use existing public assets.

“We have traditionally done a good job thinking about parks as recreation and have accommodated organized sports pretty well,” she says. “Now it’s time to adopt a more expansive view of what parks can be. We have to find beautiful ways to integrate a broader set of uses for a broader set of people. That’s how we’re going to get more political support for parks—and build stronger cities.”

Bridget Marquis is director of the Civic Commons National Learning Network at U3 Advisors.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a national initiative to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability, and economic development in cities. It is supported by The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and local funders. For more information, visit www.civiccommons.us.