Akron turns decommissioned highway into a "pop-up forest"

Credit: Hunter Franks
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Many cities in the so-called rust belt are still “shrinking” - because people continue to move away. Akron has lost so many people, it has decommissioned the Innerbelt portion of State Route 59.  In a collaboration with the public radio initiative Allegheny Front, covering environmental issues in western Pennsylvania, Julie Grant reports that the city hopes that by turning it into a temporary "forest," it will revitalize downtown.

Kyle Kutuchief wants more places around Akron, Ohio for people to just hang around. Kutuchief is program director at the Knight Foundation here. And to show me what he means, we walk onto a newly renovated pedestrian bridge.

“Behold, behold, the grandeur. Your radio audience can’t see it right now but we’re standing over a big old highway.”

And this highway, known as the Innerbelt is empty. It’s actually being removed.

“A highway that was intended to carry about 115,000 cars a day only carried about 15,000 cars a day.”

Kutuchief says the highway’s construction in the 1970s created a barrier between the largely African-American neighborhoods of West Akron and the city center - creating social and economic rifts that still affect the city.

Now the Knight Foundation is working with Akron on a new vision.  Knight’s re-imagining of this space is being led by a San Francisco-based artist.

In a video from 2015, when the highway was still open to traffic, the artist, Hunter Franks, hosted a big community meal..

“So we’re here in beautiful Akron, Ohio, at the site of 500 plates,” said Franks.

He got the state to close Route 59 down for a few hours, to set up a really long table, big enough for 500 people, right on the highway.

“We’re having 500 people from every neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, come together, sit next to their neighbors, and also to imagine what this innerbelt freeway could be used for in the future,” said Franks.

Speaking more recently by Skype, Hunter Franks says people really seemed to want more public space, and more green space.

“I think the juxtaposition of this freeway and all this concrete with something that is so soft and welcoming and gentle to people in a park, or whatever the green space may end up looking like, that was really something that people connected with," he said.

The Knight Foundation has given Franks a grant to create something of a pop-up forest. For a few months starting next spring, they’ll bring in temporary trees and plants, add seating, and offer things like concerts, a farmer’s market, and movie screenings.

Re-imagining infrastructure like this isn’t unique to Akron.

“This is a phenomenon that’s definitely happening across the country, and internationally as well,” notes Joshua Newell.   He’s an assistant professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

He points to the High Line in New York City. It used to be an above ground rail line, and it was converted into an elevated park and walkway.

“And now it’s a huge success, and major tourist attraction in Manhattan, and brings people from all over the world to walk along the Highline,” he said.

But critics say that property values and rents near the Highline have skyrocketed, pushing out local businesses and lower income residents. Newell says gentrification is something cities should be wary of when adapting old infrastructure.

“There’s a very real danger of increasing property values around these very attractive, often green spaces in the city. And so that has to be a continual effort by city officials and community to guard against.”

In Akron’s quiet downtown, where few people are walking around on this hot summer day, the Knight Foundation’s Kyle Kutuchief says gentrification is less of a concern. He says many work in the city’s high rises, but he wants to see them on the streets.

“That people don’t just sit in their cubicles and have Jimmy John’s delivered and get back in their cars and go home. That there’s, you know, ‘Let’s go meet for breakfast," he said.  "'Let’s go walk to the food trucks and grab lunch.’ And it’s just having that rhythm of life and activity and interest in the city.”

Kutuchief hopes the pop-up forest will bring people together, and spark some creativity for what’s next in Akron.  For the Allegheny Front, I'm Julie Grant.

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