06-29-20

Public Space and Neighborhood Resilience

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Akron’s Revitalized Summit Lake (Photo: Tim Fitzwater)

Governing recently published an article by James Hardy, Deputy Mayor of Akron, discussing investments in public space as urban infrastructure. He writes about the importance of parks and public spaces to the economic and social well-being of cities, noting that these places offer respite from the uncertainties and stress of this challenging time while allowing us to safely connect with one another and with nature. Research clearly shows these shared places are essential for preserving our mental as well as physical health, and in recent weeks they have also been sites of vigorous and democratic free speech, providing venues for peaceful protest and for long-oppressed members of our communities to speak truth to power.

The article brought back warm memories of the CUDC’s community design charrette in Summit Lake back in 2010.

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Each year, CUDC staff and graduate students in Architecture, Urban Design, and Landscape Architecture from Kent State’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design participate in a community design charrette. A charrette is a quick, collaborative session in which designers and local stakeholders work together to address design and development challenges. The location and focus areas of the charrette varies from year to year. The Summit Lake charrette  focused on improving housing conditions, finding new uses for vacant properties, expanding business opportunities, and expanding access to the natural amenities of the neighborhood.

The primary amenity, of course, is this lake that gives the neighborhood its name. Summit Lake opened as Akron’s “Million Dollar Playground” in 1917, attracting 25,000 people a day. The lake was a major vacation destination for Akron residents. As industrial development in Akron expanded in later decades, the canal entering Summit Lake became a discharge point for local business and industry. Although dumping into the canal has ceased, many years of discharge had contaminated the lake with PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyl) and PCHs (Planar Chlorinated Hydrocarbons). The mortgage foreclosure crisis and the Great Recession caused further challenges in the neighborhood including poverty, vacant housing, and demolition.

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And yet, the neighborhood retained its inherent strengths–well-built housing, long-standing local institutions, and most importantly, an engaged and committed group of residents who love their neighborhood. Throughout the charrette process, community members met with the students, discussing and debating ideas for improving their neighborhood. Ideas generated during the charrette were captured in a summary report and in a shared vision for what the neighborhood could be become.

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Over the past ten years, Summit Lake has undergone a remarkable transformation, driven by collaborative investments in the neighborhood’s public spaces including a new beachhead, pavilion and nature center, improved facilities for fishing, canoeing and kayaking, arts projects, and a farmers’ market. 

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To quote Mr. Hardy:

In every city we need to reckon with and address the centuries-old racial and economic divides that threaten to tear us apart. One important way to bridge those divides — to bring people together and begin rebuilding stronger, more equitable communities — is through public space.

 

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