What inspires you? Reimagining the Civic Commons in Akron

Lisa King is executive director of Summit Metro Parks, an Akron, Ohio, partner in the Reimagining the Civic Commons national initiative

“Inspiration” is an interesting word because it means something different to everyone and conjures a uniquely personal feeling. But where you have inspiration you certainly have passion. For Akron’s Reimagining the Civic Commons team the spigot of inspiration and passion is turned on full blast. The opportunity ahead presents challenges, sure, but a challenge is just an opportunity for an amazing outcome.

Setting the stage is simple. We have an aged, industrial rubber town with underused civic spaces, city leadership in transition, stagnant population growth, disconnected public spaces, and adjacent neighborhoods that have unbalanced housing values. To wrap your arms around any one of these issues would be daunting if it weren’t for inspiration. Akron’s rubber industrial heritage is our unique backdrop for this challenge, and our team sees that the intersection between history and the arts may be the answer to creating vibrant spaces that are uniquely Akron.

As part of Akron’s prototyping, a cabin was placed on Cascade Plaza amongst tall office towers to bring life to the otherwise bare greenspace. Photo courtesy of Tim Fitzwater.

Enter the new mayor, the first in almost 30 years, with new ideas, energy and passion for his hometown, Akron. Suddenly, he and everyone willing to dream big and contribute to the cause have a new vision for our city and are ready to get to work. This is certainly true of the partners that have come together on the Reimagining the Civic Commons team. We are part of this rising tide and are inspired to make a difference.

In my career I have never seen anything like the current groundswell. Collaboration between a diverse mix of organizations and partners, with meaningful input from residents, are producing creative ideas that focus on common goals—providing spaces for people. Creating custom, permanent solutions that celebrate our diversity and heritage in an authentic way seems right at our fingertips. It’s incredibly exciting.

Cold weather couldn’t stop prototyping in Akron, as people gathered around the fire pits at Cascade Cabin to roast marshmallows at our Friday Happy Hour. Photo courtesy of Tim Fitzwater.

During the prototyping phase of our key areas, (the Civic Gateway, Park East, Summit Lake Park and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail), we found inspiration in unexpected places. The Summit Lake Community Day last April stands out to me because inspiration was on the face of a child who had never made s’mores before or held a fishing pole. It was in the relief felt by a mom previously afraid for her child’s safety around the lake, but who took a pontoon boat ride to begin curing that fear. It was in the crowded, lively space, previously a blank canvas that just needed picnic tables, chairs, food and activities that allowed locals to enjoy the park and one another. Looking back at that day, I felt inspired to do more, and the team felt successful.

While families and friends lined up for pontoon boat rides at the Summit LakeCommunity Day, officers from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources offered water safety training to young ones in the crowd. Photo courtesy of Bruce Ford.

In addition to our focus sites, a key to our success will be plans for the thread that ties these areas together, the Towpath Trail. This central spine was the corridor which historically allowed canal boats to carry goods in and out of town; now it is a repurposed biking and hiking trail. Here lies huge potential to be a vibrant connection between our focus sites and so many points beyond, ultimately inviting neighboring communities to come join the fun downtown. We want to draw people down the trail with public art, music, lighting, landscaping and activities that are inviting. The tangible goal is to increase use of the trail and for users to see that they are connected to so much more than just their neighborhood. We want them to feel like it’s their trail, their space to use, and recognize its value to them and the community. The way the community embraced the prototypes confirmed we are on the right track.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Ford.

Momentum is a powerful thing, isn’t it? Since prototyping, we are seeing many changes take shape in and around our downtown. We now have a new cycle track along Main Street acting as the beginning of a “minimal grid” for bicycle transportation, and newly installed gateway amenities funded by Knight Foundation are adding confidence and identity to our central spine.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Ford.

The Reimagining the Civic Commons team is already hard at work engaging the community in public forums. We want to improve the quality of life and we want to rejuvenate the downtown experience. These goals are within reach for this project. And when we are successful, we will support our local economy. Now that’s a lasting impact that’s inspiring.

Follow Summit Metro Parks on Twitter via @metro_parks. Learn more about Reimagining the Civic Commons at