Decades of Disinvestment: It’s Time to Create Equitable Public Spaces

Bronlynn Thurman \
August 04, 2020

This year has presented many challenges for the Akron community and the world at large. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic that disproportionality impacts Black and brown communities, in addition to the more persistent pandemic of systemic racism that has caused centuries of trauma, inequitable treatment, death and barriers to opportunity. As we reflect on these challenges, specifically around the pandemic and how it has transformed the way we navigate our communities, I think about the use of public spaces and their importance to our cities. As our world has become more limited with social distancing requirements, decreased business operations and additional restrictions, we have gravitated towards our urban green spaces to connect with others or seek solace. It is perhaps more important than ever that we push for equitable public spaces.

Why does it matter?

Communities of color and low-income communities have less access to high-quality public space than their wealthy, white counterparts. A recent report commissioned by the William Penn Foundation, one of the largest foundation funders in urban public space, found that access to quality public spaces improves mental health, increases economic activity and property values, creates opportunities for social contracts and connections, provides places for expressing free speech, among other effects. One caveat to note is that there is no singular model for equitable public spaces for every community. The development of these spaces in an equitable manner is dependent upon the history and culture in which these spaces reside. This could not be more true than the way this work shows up in the Reimagining the Civic Commons communities, and specifically Akron.

Image: Shopper and vendor at the Summit Lake farmers market in Akron, Ohio. Photo c/o Tim Fitzwater

It’s been nearly four years since the cross-sector collaboration, Reimagining the Civic Commons, first made its appearance in Akron with a $5 million grant from The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Kresge Foundation. As part of local investment, GAR Foundation supported the initiative with a $300,000 grant over three years, focusing on storytelling, data collection, and further learning opportunities.

Much has evolved since the initiative was announced and each city has approached the work differently. In Detroit, the local government led the work, targeting support to the Fitzgerald neighborhood. In Chicago, the initiative was guided by international artist Theaster Gates focusing on the South Side of Chicago.

What’s unique about Akron’s process is that it seeks to better connect three disparate neighborhoods joined by the Towpath Trail. This work is guided by principles, as well as institutions, residents, and stakeholders all working towards a shared goal: everyone deserves to have access to high-quality public spaces.

Image: Children at Summit Lake/ Akron, Ohio / Photo c/o Tim Fitzwater

How Akron is Reimagining its Public Spaces

As seen across the nation, most often Black and Brown communities are faced with decades of disinvestment. From the nation’s history in redlining and predatory lending, our communities have been stripped of many of the resources needed for them to thrive. Akron Civic Commons aims to tackle a piece of this by establishing a model of how to develop and support public spaces for all. Here’s how:

Build Trust

The Akron Civic Commons team began its work in the Summit Lake neighbor by listening. This process of listening and responding authentically is the cornerstone to much of the work being done on the eastern side of the lake. Establishing trust and further shaping the work with long-standing neighborhood organizations and leaders was and is essential to any success. In fact, executive director of Students with a Goal and Civic Commons core team member, Eric Nelson, often says this work is much like dating.

Disperse Power

Who better to decide what is best for the community than those who live there? A system of participatory grantmaking was quickly established through the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition to help develop programming and projects in partnership with community residents, enabling a dispersal of power. Examples of this process in action are the Growing Mindz Memorial Park, led by two Summit Lake residents; and the community concerts in the Ohio & Erie Canal Park neighborhood.

Inspire Organizational Change

This initiative not only changes the communities in which it works, but also the organizations that are part of the process. Prior to the start of Civic Commons, Summit Metro Parks had little engagement in the Summit Lake neighborhoods. Today, Summit Metro Parks is in the final stages of completing the Summit Lake Nature Center after years of engaging with Summit Lake residents through a Pop-Up Nature Center in the Reach Opportunity Center. This Pop-Up transformed the way that Summit Metro Parks worked within a community by giving them the opportunity to hire from within the neighborhood and developing programming that residents desired.

Watch for Reverberating Effects

What’s a model for change if it’s not reverberating through other areas? Inspired by peer cities, learning journeys, the City of Akron recently created the Office of Integrated Development. This office reorganizes the way the City engages with both business and community development and brings together the existing departments and staff of Planning, Economic Development, and elements of the Engineering Bureau, under a single strategic vision. In addition, the Akron Parks Challenge, a localized structure of Civic Commons instituted by the City, was created to empower residents with the tools and support to collaboratively reimagine their own neighborhood spaces.

In recent months, Reimagining the Civic Commons announced the next phase of the initiative with additional cities added and an additional $1.6 million in support to Akron. Four years won’t change decades of disinvestment, but the collaborative model of Civic Commons has revealed a pathway of working with communities that can have lasting impact for years to come.

Header photo: canoeing at Summit Lake in Akron, Ohio. Photo c/o Tim Fitzwater