Can you feel it? No, not the jackhammers of Main Street construction. I’m talking about the comeback of the city of Akron. We are at a tipping point: one taking us toward a new, optimistic future for our Rust Belt city. From the shores of Summit Lake, to the s’mores roasting in Park East, to the bricks being tuck-pointed at downtown’s Bowery Building, small wins are adding up to big change for the city of Akron.

Since 2015, Akron has been a part of a national initiative, Reimagining the Civic Commons, supported by national foundations and local partners. The initiative seeks to revitalize public spaces — such as parks, trails, libraries and recreation centers — as catalysts for connecting people of all backgrounds, cultivating trust and countering trends of social and economic division. To advance these goals, local leaders are working with residents and stakeholders to improve the network of public assets along three miles of the Towpath Trail connecting downtown Akron, Park East and Summit Lake.

Akron is one of five cities testing this model alongside Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia. Through the opportunity, Akron received a $5 million grant and access to a national learning network, which provides the tools and training needed to re-knit communities by transforming public spaces. A new report released today evaluates the progress made in all five cities since the initiative launched.

The report sums up the successes of Akron’s Civic Commons strategy as “think small.” Essentially, by focusing on incremental, targeted improvements, we have reaped some big impact.

Let me explain.

Summit Lake is Akron’s largest body of water. Decades of neglect created a deep mistrust in the adjacent neighborhood where people were often left out of decision-making. In 2015, there was only one bench on the shore of the lake, and it was placed with its back to the water.

Currently, through the Civic Commons project, the area is starting to see a great transformation. Efforts started with a robust engagement process and have continued to put residents first. One initial request from residents was to create a place where they could sit by the shore and enjoy a barbeque with their family. They got it.

In addition, the lake shore is being maintained for families, fishers and trail-users. Volunteer-led clean-ups are keeping the lake beautiful. Summit Metro Parks is making rapid progress on The Pump House, a formerly blighted building surrounded by a barbwire fence that will become a welcoming nature center next year. By restoring the lake and working with the community, the city has started to build back trust and create a neighborhood that everyone can enjoy.

Similar progress can be seen in Park East, an economically diverse neighborhood between Summit Lake and downtown. It has a large park and boasts stunning views of the canal that bisects it, but neglect kept it from being a place where people want to linger. Improved public amenities and resident engagement are writing a new story for the area.

The formerly dark underpasses entering the park now glow with warm LED lights. Local designers Hazel Tree and Krunchworks have added custom movable furniture, colorful murals to brighten the gray concrete and a rock-climbing wall. These new outdoor living rooms are the perfect place to stop and enjoy the view.

Under the leadership of the Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition, a team of neighborhood ambassadors welcome visitors and steward the space. And when the weather is brisk, they light up fire pits and roast marshmallows.

One of the best places to witness the momentum in downtown Akron is at Lock 4, looking up at the Bowery redevelopment. Previously, the Bowery Building was emblematic of the teetering state of our city. Today, the blighted block in the center of our city is being converted to a mix-use development with apartments, retail and a new performance venue on Main Street. It is one of at least four residential projects underway in the core of the city that will make our downtown a real neighborhood again.

You may be wondering whether all these lovely sounding changes are making a real difference. A recent survey by Interface Studio found that a majority of visitors to the city’s Civic Commons sites believe that nearby neighborhoods have a bright future. Among those surveyed, 82 percent of downtown residents, 87 percent of Park East residents and 94 percent of Summit Lake residents believe that surrounding areas will improve “some or a lot” over the next few years.

Optimism is a powerful force in a city. Akron Civic Commons is working to build trust and show residents how small ideas can reap big impact. There is much left to be done, but life along the Towpath Trail continues to pull Akron forward.

 

Kutuchief is the Knight Foundation program director for Akron.