Reimagining the Civic Commons

   

Creating human connections in the commons

09.29.17

The civic commons project in Akron, Ohio is comprised of three distinct places: the city’s downtown, the Park East neighborhood and Summit Lake. All are connected from north to south by the Ohio Erie Canal Towpath Trail, which follows the historic route of the Ohio & Erie Canal.

The civic commons work in Akron is built on this linear and geographic connection, but it is also built upon human connections—the kind of vital connections you can’t find on a map. The impact of these connections become clear as you learn more about the project from the people working to reimagine the Summit Lake neighborhood and reconnect the beautiful natural area to the people who live nearby.

Team members from Reimagining the Civic Commons cities tour the Summit Lake neighborhood.

A healthy skepticism

Summit Lake has a somewhat checkered history. One hundred years ago, it was the site of a popular amusement park. It once served as Akron’s drinking water source, the water was used as coolants for the manufacturing plants of the last century’s booming rubber industry and it was also put to use as a dump for industrial waste. The neighborhood that grew up alongside the lake has also seen its fair share of change over the years. It once provided needed housing for the growing city as the area’s economy boomed, then, as industry left, fell into decline. In the 20th century, residents were further cut off when a freeway reduced connection to the city and local institutions like the neighborhood schools were closed.

Thus neighborhood residents carried a healthy level of skepticism when Akron’s Reimagining the Civic Commons project began. People wondered if the Akron project was “for them,” or designed for others from elsewhere. Before reimagining the places along the lake, the Akron team worked diligently to understand each other, and later, turned to learning what the neighborhood wanted. The civic commons team (which included a broad and diverse group of organizations including Summit Metro Parks, Students with a Goal, and the Summit Lake Community Center—overcame the understandable skepticism of residents by allowing neighborhood residents to truly co-create the project at Summit Lake—in essence, deeply listening to the needs and desires of neighbors first, and manifesting those desires over time.

Summit Lake Civic Commons team members Demetrius Lambert-Falconer of Summit Metro Parks, Eric Nelson of Students With A Goal and Gia Biagi of Studio Gang.

Co-creation in Akron’s commons

This listening continues as the programming and activities at Summit Lake engage people and deepen connections. Local neighbors have jumped into helping provide art classes for adults, teach fishing to children and the photos of budding photographers in the neighborhood are displayed as outdoor art.

Residents asked for a place to “sit, relax and have a grill,” and the civic commons project has provided just that. Benches and picnic tables, shade and a re-imagined beachfront have opened up Summit Lake to and for the neighborhood, and children play in reimagined nature play area. These are tangible indications of early success, built on a core belief in action that the civic commons is and will always about relationships between and among people.

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