Between all the reimaginings, rebounds, revitalizations, rebuilds and restores that populate a Knight Foundation report released Thursday is the story of Summit Lake and Cascade Plaza and how much the two public spaces are alike.

It might not appear that way at first glance. One is the largest body of water in Akron, and the other a small grass-and-concrete pond situated downtown.

But the two are the start and endpoint of a multi-year effort to transform public spaces in the city to appeal to visitors and — most importantly — residents who live around those areas. The results, as detailed in the report and comments of individuals involved in the process, ripple from the southernmost end of Summit Lake to the northernmost point of Cascade Plaza.

“Common Goals, Different Approaches” examines how Akron and four other cities — Philadelphia, Chicago, Memphis and Detroit — used their $5 million cut of the three-year, $40 million project to “reimagine” public spaces, making them more functional and inviting.

“What this grant is looking to do is making these spaces a place people want to use,” said Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation.

 “Part of the Civic Commons process is engaging the residents and not telling them coming in what they need,” he said.

James Hardy, chief of staff for Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, says that the city benefited from the Civic Commons process in a post-recession world where funding to upkeep and improve public spaces may never achieve pre-recession levels.

“Akron boasts an incredible amount of acreage in public space,” Hardy said. “What Civic Commons has taught us is that there is a different way of working.”

In the past, the report details, Akron's efforts were big, with Canal Park as the most obvious example. The report examines Akron's go-smaller approach.

In that effort, much of Akron’s attention has been focused on the area from Summit Lake to Cascade Plaza and the Towpath Trail tying the two points together. In between sit Locks 2, 3 and 4.

Suzie Graham, president of the Downtown Akron Partnership, said her group’s efforts at Cascade Plaza revealed a few surprises.

“We have tried a number of different things to see what works for our current downtown population,” Graham said.

Recreational sports leagues, a rollerskating dance party and yoga were all popular. Brunch on the plaza, not so much, Graham said.

“It was just a lot of fun, frankly,” Graham said about the testing. “Cascade Plaza is a really cool public space.”

Dan Rice, president and CEO of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, the lead organization on the Akron Civic Commons project, said process is key. Like Hardy, Rice said engaging with residents as partner proved effective.

The Knight report is a testament to that concept.

”Everything we do now is resident-led,” Rice said. “We are truly co-creating, co-stewarding and co-designing.”

At Summit Lake, that led to a few basic fixes: Clearing brush, adding picnic tables and grills and a shelter. It’s along a small part of the lake, but the start has been made, he said.

Kutuchief agreed.

“Through very intentional programming,” he said, “They have helped to reconnect people to the waterfront.”

As the Reimagining Civic Commons grant funds wind up, Rice said the effort to engage residents and recreate public spaces will continue with the residents in the lead.

“The old way, you hire an engineering firm… they come back and present [a proposal],” Rice said. “Why would you do that when you can go right to the residents and they tell you what they want?”

 

Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or aashworth@thebeaconjournal.com.