Reimagining the Civic Commons

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Akron

Three civic asset areas, Civic Gateway, Park East and Summit Lake, along with the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail are reimagined and connected to bring economically diverse neighborhoods together, build civic pride and advance environmental sustainability.

Akron’s demonstration focuses on three sites and the connection among them:

Civic Gateway:
Located on the northern end of downtown, the Civic Gateway is comprised of a variety of recreational and social amenities, including the Akron Civic Theatre, Lock 4 Park, Cascade Plaza and the Akron-Summit County Public Library. Design and programming across these assets reimagines the Civic Gateway as the animating civic heart of downtown, connecting thousands of office workers in nearby buildings with downtown and neighborhoods residents.

Summit Lake Park:
Once the “million-dollar playground,” Summit Lake Park is reimagined as a platform for activities such as bicycle and canoe share, community gardens and cultural programming to attract local residents and trail users from throughout the region. These investments shift perceptions about and increase the use of the lake while improving ecological conditions, all of which generate new value for the area.

Park East:
Strategically located along the Towpath Trail between downtown and Summit Lake, Park East is a neighborhood with a diversity of residents including renters, homeowners and senior citizens. Through wayfinding, programming and investments in infrastructure, Park East will become a welcoming local gathering spot and an integral connection between Summit Lake and downtown.

These assets together create a chain, all connected by a linking, equalizing asset: the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

By testing ideas through creative prototyping, Akron is seizing the opportunity to dream big and fail fast, all in service of achieving success sooner. These projects offer a new model for community engagement, honoring all through the co-creation of a civic commons that brings citizens together as part of their daily lives.

“By redesigning these public spaces with our local community and organizations, we will be able to change negative perceptions of our civic assets and create space where people, regardless of their income or background, want to gather.”

Dan Rice, president and CEO, Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition

Civic Commons Studio #2: Inspiration from Chicago

06.27.17
photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

By Bronlynn Thurman

It’s messy and you will make mistakes. That was one of the first things that people told us at the second Civic Commons Studio in the windy city. I could visibly see sighs of relief as the group became more comfortable in the unpredictable nature of working with humans. Building relationships is hard, messy and complicated, but in the long run, they’re worth every precious second.

This was my first Civic Commons Studio and being in a space such as Chicago brought about many feelings for me. Although Akron is approximately 30 percent African-American, you do not see well-supported black spaces such as those in Chicago. I was amazed by the strength of black culture in the area. Theaster Gates is a powerhouse of creativity and his interest in ethical redevelopment is inspiring.

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

Personally, I gained more from exploring his spaces and hearing his partners speak on the tours, than I did from the sessions. It is one thing to listen to others speak about projects, challenges, successes, and ideas, but it’s another to stand in those spaces and see the fruits of that labor. Theaster has created an ode to black people and you can feel the love, care, and attention in every project.

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

Not to say that Chicago is without its own issues, but coming from a city like Akron to Chicago has shown me what intentional focus on building spaces where people can coexist and mix without sacrificing their dignity can look like.

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

Here are my top three takeaways from the Civic Commons Studio #2 – Chicago

-Partnerships are key. Chicago Art + Industry Commons is building solid partnerships across both the private and public sectors.

-Document your process. You need to document where you began and the journey to the final product because that is vital information to showing the success of a project.

-Keep things flexible! People are unpredictable and needs change dependent upon a variety of factors that may be out of your hands.

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

As much as I don’t believe in leaving the revitalization of a city to one person or a small group of people, I do wonder, where is Akron’s Theaster? And how can the civic commons help bring him or her to light?

Bronlynn Thurman is Akron Program Associate at Knight Foundation and Program Assistant at GAR Foundation.

Where We Begin: A photo essay of Akron

05.12.17
Civic Gateway; photo credit: Katelyn Freil

Vision: Three civic asset areas, Civic Gateway, Park East and Summit Lake, along with the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail are reimagined and connected to bring economically diverse neighborhoods together, build civic pride and advance environmental sustainability.

This is where we begin.

Civic Gateway

photo credit: Katelyn Freil

Park East

photo credit: Ron Tyson

Summit Lake

photo credit: Stephanie Leonardi

Katelyn Freil is communications coordinator for Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition.

Ron Tyson is a community member of Park East and long-time photographer, capturing images of his neighborhood and the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Stephanie Leonardi is project manager for the Pump House Center for Art + Culture at Summit Lake.

 

Collaboration is a journey

04.27.17
Demetrius Lambert-Falconer with Civic Commons Learning Network members; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

By Demetrius Lambert-Falconer

Have you ever worked on a project with classmates, family members or a scout group? If you have, the sound of the word “collaboration” may conjure up sweaty palms, shortness of breath or pure panic. This was my initial reaction when asked to participate in the Civic Commons journey. Collaboration is a journey, where there is no hierarchy in the union and a presence of equality.

Akron participants at Civic Commons Learning Journey; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Collaboration with the absence of hierarchy

Societies around the world are led by hierarchical structures. One person is the head, and all others should follow. This way of leading tends to represent the interest of the head and not the tail. Today, the Civic Commons journey is different. Reimagining Akron’s Civic Commons journey requires the collaboration of many organizations with the absence of a hierarchy. With a common goal in mind, participants willingly relinquished all desires to be the head of this family. From directors of city government offices like Chris Ludle, Deputy Director of Public Service and established organizations like Summit Metro Parks to home-grown resident retirees of the community like Ms. Grace and grassroots training programs like Students With A Goal (SWAG), Akron Civic Commons table is a flat structure for mobilizing all interested parties. The first meeting I attended without my director was nerve wrecking. Part way through the meeting, I found myself jumping into the conversation with my questions and asking for clarifications. Yes. I just jumped right in and there were no boos or “side-eye” expressions as I previously expected. All parties involved were engaged and appreciated the next person’s perspective. The unspoken validation of my views solidified the feeling of true collaboration, and I wanted more.

Akron participants at Civic Commons Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Equal value, equal weight

A second element of validation was a feeling of equality. A calming feeling that each of the three locations represented in the Akron Civic Commons project are equal: equal value, equal weight, and an equal voice of expression. This table does not have a “golden child” ready to take the attention from the other. The concept of equality may seem as common as apple pie to you. However, when the three locations — downtown Akron, Park East and Summit Lake — were examined closer, it was obvious that sense of being valued was an uncommon experience for residents of these communities. Residents have experienced years of disenfranchisement from educational programs, disconnection from the city itself because of highways, and even dismissal from participating in the development of their communities. Regardless of the historical and socio-economic lineage of the three chosen communities, the Akron Civic Commons family has elected to create civic spaces with a vision of equality.

photo credit: Tim Fitzwater

Pump House at Summit Lake

Learning and participating in the city I love

As I continue to map out other elements of collaboration, such as patience and perseverance, I no longer start to hyperventilate at the thought of creating significant strides at the Akron Civic Commons table. As a matter of fact, I am elated to have a seat at the Civic Commons table, where the absence of a hierarchy and the element of equality are the guiding forces of this journey. Even though I am a 13-year resident of Akron, I am new to Summit Metro Parks and the Akron Civic Commons project. This opportunity has allowed me to learn more and actively participate in the city my family calls home. This opportunity is allowing me to learn more about the city I love.

Cabin on Cascade Plaza; photo credit: Tim Fitzwater

Demetrius Lambert-Falconer is outreach manager at Summit Metro Parks.

From Oak Cliff to Akron: Lessons on stigma

04.10.17
photo credit: Eric Nelson

By Eric Nelson

Overcoming stigma was the subject of a recent learning journey made by members of the Akron Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) Core Team. Members traveled to a neighborhood in Dallas named Oak Cliff.

History buffs may recognize the name Oak Cliff as the site where Lee Harvey Oswald, the man allegedly responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was captured inside of the Texas Theatre in 1963. Others may point to Oak Cliff’s earlier connection to the notorious bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s.

Texas Theatre; photo credit: Eric Nelson

More recently, Oak Cliff was largely ignored and left to decline.

But for people who were raised there, and people who could not afford to live elsewhere, the neighborhood of Oak Cliff was simply home.

Consistent with too many neighborhoods with large concentrations of low-income families, Oak Cliff developed a stigma as a place to avoid.

Enter the original Better Block members, Jason Roberts and Amy Wallace Cowan. In 2010, the pair decided to do something about the vacant storefronts, and their neighborhood’s curb appeal. Jason and Amy talked to city officials to get permits to shut off a one-block section of Oak Cliff. With the help of volunteers and local businesses, Jason and Amy reimagined and staged a temporary alternate visual narrative for Oak Cliff. The temporary staging was a hit, drawing hundreds of local residents, city officials, and skeptics alike. Oak Cliff’s resurgence was born.

Host for the Oak Cliff Learning Journey was none other than Jason Roberts himself. This motivating and highly informative study tour provided the history, challenges, and triumphs of the entire Oak Cliff reimagining process.

Jason Roberts leads the learning journey in Oak Cliff; photo credit: Eric Nelson

Oak Cliff, in many ways, is comparable to the Summit Lake community of Akron. When I returned home from the learning journey, my cheeks were sore from smiling! The “before” image in my mind was present day Summit Lake. But my “after” images were that of a reimagined Akron — an Akron where the Towpath Trail is the main artery providing nourishment to Downtown, Park East, and Summit Lake seamlessly.

Top Five Applicable Takeaways From the Oak Cliff Learning Journey:

Reimagine bigger! It is encouraged to have lofty, community-driven visions for what could be.

Pop-ups help to promote collective vision. Create fast and cheap visual possibilities in partnership with the community.

Be intentionally inclusive with planning. Akron is stronger when resources are shared by all.

Be passionate and courageous for the Akron RCC project! When people ask, “Why?” redirect with the more relevant question, “Why not?”

Control the narrative. What we say about our community, others will say about our community, even if it has not yet come to pass.

Civic Commons Learning Journey to Dallas

Eric Nelson is Executive Director of Students with a Goal (SWAG) in Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood.

Socioeconomic Mixing: A team intention

04.03.17
Akron Civic Commons team members at Lock 4

By Shannon Keeling

Brought together by a love of all things Akron and a desire to reinvent our civic common spaces, the Akron Civic Commons core team was formed. With the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition as its convener, our group began as a small group of key partners with ties to three civic assets connected by the Towpath, but its expansion signals our intention to model economic integration even in the way we work.

Akron Civic Commons team member Suzie Graham, Downtown Akron Partnership

As we began this journey, we believed that to be successful, our team needed to be comprised of stakeholders with the ability to push projects forward and move at a fast pace. But we soon found we needed to expand to include key members of the community who understand the heartbeat of our assets. We realized that economic integration is best achieved by connecting those with the financial means to get things done with those “boots on the ground” partners who have the desire and ability to improve their communities, but may lack the necessary resources. They are the people actively working to build common spaces such as community gardens, farmers markets and more. Many of these people run small non-profits. They work hard because they care for their communities and the people within them. We began adding these community advocates to our team and expanding our network.

Through the expansion of our core team, we have begun the process of economic integration. We are mixing established partners in downtown such as Downtown Akron Partnership and the Akron Civic Theatre with smaller organizations at Summit Lake including Students with a Goal (known as SWAG) and the Summit Lake Community Center. As we bring these community advocates together with established organizations, we are embracing our differences and taking the opportunity to learn from and help one another.

Pump House at Summit Lake

We are asking questions such as, how might we bring people into proximity through shared space, activities, and experiences? How might we position ourselves at the seams of diverse communities?

New subcommittees are working together to encourage repeat and sustained interactions among diverse people in our civic commons. We are connecting those with ideas with the resources and the support of those who are able to turn ideas into realities.

As we continue learning and growing together, we hope to change the perceptions and expectations of what is possible. At our recent retreat we welcomed new members and their ideas to the table. This expansion has given a stronger voice for the often neglected communities, through representation on our core team. As we grow, we work to build new relationships and connect people of varying backgrounds to work together to create exceptional civic commons spaces.

Shannon Keeling is Special Projects Consultant at Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition.

Civic Commons Studio #1: Opportunities for Akron

03.15.17
Akron's Civic Commons team at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

By Daniel M. Rice

The first Reimagining the Civic Commons Studio in Philadelphia was an incredibly inspiring experience as we engaged in stimulating conversations, networked with national thought leaders and returned to Akron motivated and ready to take on the challenges and opportunities of our Akron Civic Commons. One of the highlights of the Civic Commons Studio was the structure and organization of the learning network which enabled us to experience in-depth conversations with fellow practitioners and speakers and the opportunity to learn and share best practices from across the country. Some of the key insights from our experience included the following observations:

Environmental sustainability as value creation

The presentation by Lionel Bradford with the Greening of Detroit inspired us to think about how urban agriculture can be used to address workforce development.  This session underscored the importance of cultivating and nurturing relationships with residents and community leaders to develop programs that address both environmental sustainability and value creation.  Due to the similarities with our Summit Lake neighborhood, we realized that we can spread the benefits more broadly across the community if we share best practices with our fellow city leaders, and we look forward to following up with Lionel to learn more about his program.

Lionel Bradford, The Greening of Detroit reports out at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Using our values and best principles to frame our civic commons work

During the session on “What are the opportunities to share resources among assets and what are the associated challenges,” some of the key phrases that we noted were transparency, seeking understanding, shared vision, being present, and honest and open dialogue.  While these principles sound logical, there can be the tendency to assume that these practices take place rather than being intentional about our behavior.  We particularly enjoyed the conversation around daylighting leadership and lifting up new and younger leaders, and we are proud that many of our team members are millennials and represent our young talent.  The importance of neighborhood navigators to share the stories of our assets also resonated with our team, along with the opportunity to build relationships across assets through story-telling.

Kathryn Ott Lovell shares the potential of the Civic Commons to daylight leadership; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

The importance of playing with a full deck

One of the highlights of the Civic Commons Studio was Dr. john powell’s remarks regarding targeted universalism and his definitions of public, private, non-public and non-private spaces.  How do we provide access for all members of our community? How do we get everyone to start at the same place (even when they need a little help to get there)?  We are obligated to ensure that all members of society are engaged in our civic commons assets, because if we are not “playing with a full deck,” communities suffer.

Dr. john powell presents at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Finally, Carol Coletta captured the continued evolution of Reimagining the Civic Commons as she described how civic commons is evolving from physical assets to a way of doing business together as a community that asks, “how can we cultivate relationships rather than ‘civic engagement’”? and how can we stop asking “what do you want?” and ask “what can we steward together?”

Carol Coletta shares out at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Our Akron team returned home more determined than ever to evolve our strategies to increase civic engagement, promote economic integration, cultivate environmental sustainability and develop value creation.

Akron Civic Commons team; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Daniel M. Rice is President & CEO of Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition and the convener of Akron’s Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration.

Ready to write the next chapter

02.23.17
Akron civic commons
photo credit: Katelyn Freil

By Daniel M. Rice

In a Midwestern, midsized city, one tends to get stuck in the middle, the space between. Not urban, but certainly not rural. Not a big city, but definitely not a small town. Not cutting edge, but not backwards. So often defined by what we are not, we tend to forget to remember what we are.

The Ohio & Erie Canal runs through Akron. It was a transportation innovation that built the city as a place for commerce and industrial innovation as we became the center for the cereal, mower and reaper industries and ultimately, the rubber industry. An urban plan that transformed the city from 1827 to 1913 making us the place to pass through on your way to somewhere else. A place to pass through.

The flood of 1913, in combination with rail and automotive advances, supplanted the canal as our means to greatness. We caught the next wave. We put rubber in our veins. Between 1910 and 1920, Akron was the fastest growing city in the country. Our population tripled with a wave of Appalachian immigrants and African-Americans migrating from the South who clamored for work in the rubber industry. By World War II, more than 70,000 people were employed in the Akron area rubber companies, making us the Rubber Capital of the World. We championed the tire and its automotive culture, building 50 percent more highway per square mile in our county than the Ohio average. While Akron certainly benefited from the industrial growth of the rubber and tire industry, there was a tremendous cost to the environment, as our land and waterways, including the Ohio & Erie Canal and Summit Lake were abused by pollution. We were excellent at making things to get you on your way.

By 1970, the effects of redlining and suburban sprawl shifted people and economic drivers away from the city, begging us to reinvent ourselves. We used our rubber industry dominance to create 21st century opportunities in biomedical, plastics and metal research, and advanced manufacturing.

But that is history. It’s time for a new story.

odnr-officer-at-summit-lake-community-day-4-16_creditbruceford

photo credit: Bruce Ford

Just as geography and the Ohio & Erie Canal defined our community, it is shaping our future as the public spaces and neighborhoods along this historic waterway and multi-use recreational trail, are being revitalized as excellent places to spend time, rather than pass through. By focusing on a three-mile stretch of the Ohio & Erie Canal and Towpath Trail, from our downtown center city to Summit Lake Park, we are seeking to build relationships with all members of our community, because the people of Akron are our greatest source of strength. This three-mile corridor connects our highest salaried and least diverse downtown community with our highest impoverished and most diverse community at Summit Lake. We are seeking to build a city for all people, regardless of their race, income, gender or age, through the development of great public spaces where all citizens can gather, exchange ideas, play and build relationships with one another.

photo credit: Katelyn Freil

photo credit: Katelyn Freil

The work of the Akron Civic Commons is to reestablish our way of doing business, our way of city building, our way of valuing people. We aim to instill collaborative, cross sector inclusion as a best practice for problem solving and planning. Through a ‘test and learn’ approach we aim to demonstrate the value of creating delight, and the priceless joy of sharing valuable space. Our projects will demonstrate that by adhering to the values of Reimagining the Civic Commons—environmental sustainability, economic integration, civic engagement and value creation—we can create great value for Akron. Through this innovative process, we seek to elevate the conversation, creativity, and engagement of the city and demonstrate to all that Akron is much more than a space in between.

Daniel M. Rice is the convener of Akron’s Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration.

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

Civic Commons Studio #2: Inspiration from Chicago

06.27.17

By Bronlynn Thurman It’s messy and you will make mistakes. That was one of the first things that people told us at the second Civic Commons Studio in the windy city. I could visibly see sighs of relief as the group became more comfortable in the unpredictable nature of working with humans. Building relationships is…

Civic Gateway; photo credit: Katelyn Freil

Where We Begin: A photo essay of Akron

05.12.17

Vision: Three civic asset areas, Civic Gateway, Park East and Summit Lake, along with the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail are reimagined and connected to bring economically diverse neighborhoods together, build civic pride and advance environmental sustainability. This is where we begin. Civic Gateway photo credit: Katelyn Freil Park East photo credit: Ron Tyson…

Demetrius Lambert-Falconer with Civic Commons Learning Network members; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Collaboration is a journey

04.27.17

By Demetrius Lambert-Falconer Have you ever worked on a project with classmates, family members or a scout group? If you have, the sound of the word “collaboration” may conjure up sweaty palms, shortness of breath or pure panic. This was my initial reaction when asked to participate in the Civic Commons journey. Collaboration is a…

photo credit: Eric Nelson

From Oak Cliff to Akron: Lessons on stigma

04.10.17

By Eric Nelson Overcoming stigma was the subject of a recent learning journey made by members of the Akron Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) Core Team. Members traveled to a neighborhood in Dallas named Oak Cliff. History buffs may recognize the name Oak Cliff as the site where Lee Harvey Oswald, the man allegedly responsible…

Akron Civic Commons team members at Lock 4

Socioeconomic Mixing: A team intention

04.03.17

By Shannon Keeling Brought together by a love of all things Akron and a desire to reinvent our civic common spaces, the Akron Civic Commons core team was formed. With the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition as its convener, our group began as a small group of key partners with ties to three civic assets…

Akron's Civic Commons team at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Civic Commons Studio #1: Opportunities for Akron

03.15.17

By Daniel M. Rice The first Reimagining the Civic Commons Studio in Philadelphia was an incredibly inspiring experience as we engaged in stimulating conversations, networked with national thought leaders and returned to Akron motivated and ready to take on the challenges and opportunities of our Akron Civic Commons. One of the highlights of the Civic…

Akron civic commons
photo credit: Katelyn Freil

Ready to write the next chapter

02.23.17

By Daniel M. Rice In a Midwestern, midsized city, one tends to get stuck in the middle, the space between. Not urban, but certainly not rural. Not a big city, but definitely not a small town. Not cutting edge, but not backwards. So often defined by what we are not, we tend to forget to…

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