If you’ve heard the term Reimagining the Civic Commons around Akron in the last year, you are not alone. This concept has been seeping its way into Akron’s lexicon at record speed, but you may be wondering: what is it? Reimagining the Civic Commons is a new approach to revitalizing and connecting civic assets. Funded by The Kresge Foundation, The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation over the course of 3 years, this $20 million grant is split between four cities: Akron, Chicago, Detroit, and Memphis. Each city has to match funding (thank you to GAR Foundation for supporting local efforts) and work within a specific neighborhood or set of neighborhoods. The funding goes towards one of these four pillars: socio-economic integration, environmental sustainability, civic engagement, and value creation.
But, what does this mean? In Akron, it means that we are focusing on the neighborhoods along the Towpath Trail: Downtown, Park East, and Summit Lake. Our team of partners spend time working with neighborhood residents, businesses owners, and community stakeholders to figure out what those neighborhoods need, and we then work to make those needs come to life. For example, in Summit Lake, a neighborhood with a history of disinvestment and industrial pollution, we sought to build relationships within the neighborhood by attending community meetings, asking questions, and being transparent. Because of this process, we were able to develop projects like the Metro Parks Nature Center; the Leaven Lenses Photography Project, where resident students were paired with local photographers; establishing a commercial kitchen in the Summit Lake Community Center; and recreating the Summit Lake Beach. In Downtown Akron, we worked with local design studios, as well as national studios, to give facelifts to Lock 2, Lock 4, and the pedestrian bridge over OH-59. They’ve all become wedding photo destinations, and none of this could’ve been possible without the input and collaboration of the residents and our partners.
This type of work has completely transformed the way that we do business, and the ripple effect is apparent. Our partner organizations have increased two-fold and others are paying attention. The Knight Foundation has doubled down in Summit Lake, with a $500,000 grant to Summit Metro Parks to convert the Pump House into a cultural center, and the parks system was recently recognized at the state level for their work in the area. It was just announced that Mural Arts Philadelphia will be working with county arts organization ArtsNow and our convener for Civic Commons, the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, on a project in Summit Lake. And the momentum in Akron can only grow from here.
This process is slow, but when building relationships and trust, slow is the best way to go.