Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The six-lane Innerbelt connector obliterated downtown Akron in the 1970s. Next summer, it’s going to be covered in trees.
In the annals of bad highways, Akron’s Innerbelt—a sunken six-lane artery built in the 1970s with the hopes of stemming the Northern Ohio city’s then-nascent population loss—deserves special mention. Never fully completed, the 4.5-mile long freeway was envisioned as a connection between central Akron and the peripheral expressways that were magnetizing residents to the suburbs. Instead, the Innerbelt devastated historic black neighborhoods, cordoned off downtown from westbound foot traffic, and became a notoriously underused “road to nowhere” as Akron’s population dwindled to fewer than 200,000 souls—two-thirds of its 1960s peak.*
That narrative is familiar in so many American cities. But Akron’s much-despised sunken spur is now looking toward a distinctly different future. Thirty-five acres of highway are in the process of being decommissioned, and smaller, safer, surface streets are on the way to replace it; currently, about a mile of road is closed to traffic for construction. Once the road is right-sized to fit the relatively small stream of traffic it gets, though, about two dozen acres will be left over. Now, a quarter-million dollar project will invite locals aboard the asphalt to imagine how the rest of it could be readapted for the long term.
With a $214,420 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's 2017 Knight Cities Challenge, the artist Hunter Franks will transform two acres of highway with lush trees, alluring light installations, and public events fully accessible for surrounding neighborhoods. “Akron was the center of the American tire industry—it was literally built by and for the automobile,” says Franks. “The fact that the city is now willing to part with this key piece of auto infrastructure, and recognize it’s not the highest use of that space anymore, is a pretty huge step.”
He hopes that his three-month-long “Innerbelt National Forest” project will foster social connections between West Hill, the University of Akron, and downtown—diverse communities long isolated from each other—and stimulate visions for the city’s future that move away from private cars.
Downsizing the Innerbelt corridor from highway to surface street was already a promising start. “It's a smart decision—instead of doubling-down on a bad idea, we are learning from the past,” Jason Segedy, Akron’s planning director, said in 2014.
As funding sources and permanent plans take shape, the idea to park-ify what remains of the highway makes a lot of sense. Dallas’* Klyde Warren Park and Boston’s Big Dig are examples of cities that have successfully decked over highways with street-level public parks. (Not all such projects are met with total support: A plan to cap a section of I-70 in Denver is in the works, and facing huge local resistance.) With another Knight Foundation grant in 2015, Franks invited 500 Akron residents to a gigantic dinner party on the shuttered highway to discuss what could be done with it in the future. “Overwhelmingly, we heard that people wanted to see a green space that served as a connector,” he says.
Now they’ll get at least a glimpse of what that would be like. If the pop-up is a hit, Franks thinks it could influence the course of the highway’s redevelopment. The city is still working to determine the future of the leftover acreage; it could be easily sold to a housing developer or turn into commercial property. “Even if a corporation just buys it, they can learn that people want to see access to this space,” Franks says.
Franks plans to survey community members to hear what their thoughts on how the “forest” should be organized and programmed before the park opens. No matter what, the space will offer opportunities for visitors to voice their ideas for what happens to it post-teardown. There are still jurisdictional and spatial questions to work out—the highway is still technically under state control—but he hopes to open in summer 2018.
Reconnecting neighborhoods by updating the infrastructure that once divided them isn’t simple: The wave of gentrification sparked by New York City’s High Line offers a case study in the potential pitfalls of adaptive reuse projects, and concerns about rising property values pricing out longtime residents are motivating resistance to the Denver highway cap. But the housing market in Akron is a far cry from either of those cities; with median home values hovering at a scant $63,000, displacement is not the concern at hand. As the city’s population continues to decline, Akron leaders are exploring dozens of strategies to remake the city into a more attractive place to settle.
Kyle Kutuchief, the Akron-based director of the Knight Foundation’s Community and National Initiatives program, says the project is a clever, low-cost way to pilot a project that might otherwise stretch the city’s financial abilities. It could also build a critical mass of support for a park that, say, a private developer would find hard to ignore.
“There is a highway that’s closed and just sitting there today,” says Kutuchief. “How do you make it into a place people want to be, understanding the budget pains that come with being a shrinking city? Could we fly a kite, have a picnic, do something we’ve never thought of?” At least for a portion of the highway, Akron could start to find answers.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Akron’s population loss and Klyde Warren Park’s location.