In Akron, Ohio, investment in the civic commons sparks a dialogue about social equity.
By Rachel Dovey
Summit Lake in Akron, Ohio, is a glacial landmark shaped like a lopsided figure eight. It sits along a continental divide, so its waters flow both north toward Lake Erie and south toward the Mississippi River. “Not many cities have this kind of asset,” says Kyle Lukes, ASLA, a senior landscape architect with Environmental Design Group in Akron.
The residents who live next to the lake haven’t always seen it that way, though. In 2016, Akron was one of five cities chosen for Reimagining the Civic Commons, a $40 million effort with backing from the Knight and Kresge Foundations, among others, to counter trends of economic segregation, social isolation, and distrust through creative reuses of public space. Akron’s proposal included the lake and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, which winds along the shore and follows a canal north. But when Lukes and a group of landscape architects and park staff broached the idea of remaking the waterfront for residents, they instead heard requests to fence off the shoreline.
Understanding why has everything to do with the lake’s history. In the early 1900s, a local rubber plant dumped effluent water into the lake. Officials deemed it too polluted for recreation and so built a park and public pool on the waterfront, but these amenities were only for white residents, not the Black residents who lived around the lake. Soon after that, lenders redlined nearby neighborhoods, and churches and grocery stores were leveled to make space for a freeway. “There was a legacy of things done ‘to’ and not ‘with,’” says Dan Rice, the CEO of the nonprofit Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, which is acting as the convener of the project.
The team held listening sessions for six months. Demetrius Lambert-Falconer, Summit Metro Parks’s chief of community engagement, says official sessions often morphed into front-yard and dinner-table conversations. She walked the trail to identify regular users (“guy on fishing pier,” “lady who walks dog around 2:30”) and ask them what they wanted to see. After conducting studies to make sure that the lake was safe for recreation (regulations dating back to 1972 have helped to clean up the water), the team started to see patterns. Residents wanted simple things like grills, shade structures, and benches. Until that point, only one bench was present on the lakefront. It faced away from the lake.
The Civic Commons project statements are clear that local communities should lead, both in voicing what they want to see and then in caring for assets once they’ve helped design them. To make that work, the team ended up taking a more nimble role, Rice says, mowing a temporary trail to test its layout and erecting a tent pavilion when residents asked for shade structure. This allowed everyone, including community members, to see and test ideas, and then fine-tune plans for more permanent infrastructure. That front-and-center emphasis on co-creation embedded in the grant has helped rebuild trust in a way that wouldn’t be possible with one or two public meetings.
Today a pop-up nature center provides books on loan from the library, fishing gear for kids, and employment for neighborhood residents. (It shut down in March under pandemic guidelines.) Grills, fire pits, and tables shaded with colorful umbrellas can be found along the lakefront. And social infrastructure—lines of communication between residents and government, in the form of the parks department—are being rebuilt too. “You can’t solve decades of environmental racism, systemic racism, and urban renewal in five years,” Rice says. “But we are starting to have really good dialogue.”