Community, Collaboration and Trust: A Glimpse at How Akron, OH Leverages Federal Funds for Public Spaces

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Photo credit: Akron Civic Commons

By centering trust building and community voice, Akron, Ohio has created a cross-sector vehicle for transformational change that is mobilizing millions of federal dollars to invest in historically maligned neighborhoods.

With this recent influx of federal funding, primarily from the U.S. Bailout Act (ARP), Akron is expanding its ability to collaborate across silos while maintaining equity as a guiding principle to create value in civic assets. forgotten.

A total of $5.5 million from ARP funding will be used to increase the City of Akron’s investment to $10 million for parkland transformation at Lock 3 and Summit Lake as part of Reimagining the Civic Commons in Akron. The Knight Foundation, a local funding partner, has agreed to provide an additional $3.5 million in matching funds to secure ARP funding, bringing its support for the two parks to $9.5 million. With volunteer City of Akron partners and an engaged community, more than $19.5 million has been spent improving public spaces through this partnership.

Reimagining the Civic Commons lays the groundwork for this transformational work by emphasizing the following outcomes: civic engagement, socio-economic diversity, environmental sustainability, and value creation. Launched in 2016, Reimagining the Civic Commons leverages community participation to activate public space. Initially investing in protests in five cities: Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia, the Reimagining the Civic Commons network now includes San Jose, Minneapolis, Miami, Macon and Lexington.

A new community engagement model to build a strong foundation

In Ohio, Akron Civic Commons focused on bringing together three different neighborhoods by collaboratively reimagining public spaces with community members and stakeholders. Improvements to Akron’s Demonstration Centers along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail connect Civic Gateway, Ohio and Erie Canal Park and Summit Lake through temporary and permanent design features and regular programming.

  • Ohio and Erie Canal Park is a neighborhood with a rich diversity of residents, including renters, homeowners, and seniors. Through investments in design and infrastructure, the neighborhood becomes a gathering place between Summit Lake and downtown.
  • The Civic Gateway is home to public assets including the Akron Civic Theater, Lock 2 Park, Lock 3 Park, Lock 4 Park, and Cascade Plaza. Programming in this area focuses on connecting office workers with downtown and neighborhood residents in public spaces.
  • Summit Lake is reimagined as a place for activities such as bike share, canoe trips, community gardens and cultural programs to benefit residents as well as area trail users.

According to the organizers, “these projects offer a new model of community engagement, honoring everyone through the co-creation of a civic common good that brings citizens together in the context of their daily lives”.

In Summit Lake, the Akron Civic Commons team worked to build trust with neighbors and emphasized consistent community dialogue to ensure long-term impacts on the physical environment, as well as relationships. between neighbours, elected officials and the team of civic municipalities.

The team started by listening to residents’ requests and implementing the requested improvements. They started with these smaller-scale projects like adding benches and temporary shade structures that helped test ideas with the community and develop a way of working that included long-term resident engagement. .

Now, work at Summit Lake includes larger improvements, such as the Summit Lake Nature Center, which opened on July 1, 2021, and a $10 million investment in a new park on the north shore of Summit Lake. . Most importantly, Summit Lake residents know that the improvements reflect their input, as they are part of every step of the process. In the reimagined space, residents can borrow fishing rods, enjoy fire pits, dine at the community center, borrow bikes, or shop at the farmer’s market.

Innovative citizen partnerships

This work has been accomplished by developing relationships between public and private actors, while including residents and community members of Akron everywhere. One of the key outcomes of this collaborative process prompted the City of Akron to create a cross-sectoral Office of Integrated Development, which manages co-created community visions and plans – consolidating previously siled departments like parks, works public, planning and development. This innovation aligns with Civic Commons’ idea that if you organize civic assets differently, you can achieve better results. This approach resembles the Strategic Neighborhood Fund in Detroit, MI, which also encourages more collaboration, communication, and streamlined processes focused on results at the neighborhood level.

The spirit of collaboration has resulted in more funding from local and federal sources. In 2020, the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority received a $450,000 Choice Neighborhoods grant from HUD that will build on collaboration with Akron Civic Commons. The development will continue to center the voices of Summit Lake residents and their visions for the future of housing and economic development in the neighborhood. Last year, the Akron City Council passed a $4.5 million commitment from the City of Akron for RCC.

Akron Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstrates that collaboration between projects, public agencies, private actors, and resident engagement can create a cohesive, long-term plan for stronger neighborhoods and communities. These coherent plans can serve as vehicles ready to receive funds. It’s a timely lesson at a time when municipalities across the country are struggling to determine where billions of dollars in federal resources can land in their city with an impact on equity.

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