During all the political conversation of recent months, Americans heard precious little on the national stage about the vitality of our cities. Yet our cities are key to future prosperity and job creation due in large part to the proximity of local economic anchors within their boundaries. These are the places where people live, work and learn and where the art of placemaking will be at the center of building competitive advantages.
Placemaking is the ability to identify the unique assets of a community to create and develop strategies and outcomes around quality of life and economic sustainability that best connect people with their place. As such, all community and economic activity must be grounded somewhere in the community that is connected to its greatest assets, not disconnected.
In Akron, the benefits of visionary planning by local leaders such as Mayor Don Plusquellic and University of Akron President Luis Proenza are visible in significant stretches of new investment in Akron. Visit the Akron area if you haven’t recently. Look around and see the progress for yourself. What you’ll witness is a solid foundation emerging for future prosperity.
Urban planners across the country envy what is already in place in Akron. Where other communities are stifled by the difficulty of coordinating community leaders toward a common vision, Akron’s leaders have mobilized for years. And today, work toward developing a vibrant urban core is emerging in a compact area around Main Street and circling around the University of Akron and the main campuses of three local hospitals.
Akron’s emerging urban core has benefited in recent decades from nearly $2 billion of investment in projects and infrastructure, mainly by the city of Akron, The University of Akron, Summa Health System, Akron Public Schools and Akron Children’s Hospital. Minus such investment, the canvas for building a strong urban setting would be blank.
University Park Alliance has focused the past two years on strategies that build on this investment to create an urban core with vitality and civic activity. In 2013, our efforts will continue toward fulfilling the promise of a livable urban neighborhood. The work at UPA is about becoming a market leader in creating a great “place” to spur community and economic opportunity that grow organically, having a long-term impact on the soul of the Akron community.
UPA, in effect, is attempting to implement a business plan based on a two parallel tracks of transforming real estate projects and enhanced community civic engagement to create a new urban landscape, supported by established business, educational and entrepreneurial strengths. At UPA, our role is to catalyze new development through collaboration, while creating a vibrant community of engaged citizens who are partners in the revitalization effort.
Even in a global economy, everything is local, as all community and economic activity must be grounded somewhere. In great cities, people enjoy a high quality of life when assets are connected closely. It’s the idea of cultural amenities within walking distance, and in turn, close to restaurants housing and shopping. The density creates cohesion and vitality, and, according to economic trends, it also plays a vital role in talent attraction, investment, economic growth and job creation.
With support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, UPA, as a nonprofit community development corporation, is pursuing transforming projects to enhance the ambience and livability of the University Park area.
Beyond bricks-and-mortar, UPA is equally concerned about nurturing the soul of the community, through the support of activities that bring people together to advance the development of social capital and civic life.
That’s why we promote arts festivals, community gardens, civic forums and the like. As a result of one such effort, a high priority for 2013 is the development of a Special Improvement District as a means to further enhance the work at UPA and the neighborhoods.
The timing of our community’s progress could not be more opportune, as globally competitive cities work to establish a sense of “place.” As an example, think of the current allure of Minneapolis-St. Paul. It’s certainly not the weather that attracts people. Rather, it’s the place itself, as shaped by local leaders with visionary planning, that creates market advantage.
In Akron, the investment of our leaders, the new projects UPA is pursuing and the community engagement we are fostering are a formidable combination to create a great urban lifestyle. “Place” is about convenience, amenities close at hand, economies of scale and busy streets. It’s also about the soul of the community, expressed through enriching programs and activities and opportunities for public discourse that bring neighbors together to advance civic life.
Akron’s story illustrates how real possibilities for 21st century competitiveness can emerge from local leadership, self-examination and a community’s can-do spirit.
Sometimes it’s easy to miss the treasures in our own backyard. We hope UPA and Akron’s resilient story will inspire people who live here and also those in other aging cities seeking their own road maps to a new future.
Johnson is the executive director of the University Park Alliance.