As the new riverfront park in Bridesburg marches closer to fruition, Riverfront North Partnership is ensuring a thoughtful approach to how the park will be activated. Using a community engagement model and launching a learning committee with the goal of creating a strategy that is sensitive to the Bridesburg community while also being welcoming to regional visitors, RNP has decided to build “from the people up”.
Together with Bridesburg’s Community Advisory Committee, RNP staff and two Board members, as well as representatives from our key partnerships (14 of us in all!), embarked upon Akron, OH to soak up what’s been accomplished in the Rubber Capital of the World and learn how to create public spaces with community engagement first and foremost in mind.
Thanks to our very gracious host, Dan Rice of the Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition, we spent the better part of 3 days exploring Akron along the towpath (their greenway), including the downtown area and Summit Lake.
Day 1: Downtown Akron & the Towpath
We kicked off our learning at the offices for the Erie and Ohio Canalway Coalition, meeting with four representatives of the various organizations that have convened around Akron Civic Commons. Dan Rice, Kyle Kutuchief of the Knight Foundation, Suzie Graham and Kelli Fetter of Akron Downtown Partnership, and Howard Parr of the Akron Civic Theatre gave us the broad overview of the work that’s been done in Akron. We began to hear some common themes: value partnerships, build trust, and fail forward.
Suzie and Kelli took us on a tour of Downtown Akron, visiting Lock 2 and Lock 3 parks. Lock 3 was larger, sandwiched among the Akron Children’s Museum and the Civic Theatre/Bowery area. It featured seasonal amenities such as an amphitheater whose acts are curated by the Civic Theatre, an ice-skating rink, indoor mini-golf. Low cost/impact programs have been tried out here such as free screenings hanging hammocks, placing a repurposed shipping container serving beer and snacks, and commissioning its own whimsical “Lock Next Monster” created out of re-purposed tires by a local artist.
In close proximity to Lock 3, our last walking stop was to see the construction around the Bowery – a redevelopment project involving six buildings for mixed-use space; and the Akron Civic Theatre, one of five remaining atmospheric theaters where patrons experience a twinkling star-lit sky and intermittent clouds moving across the horizon.
It was then time to get out on the Towpath on bike. We first checked out Park East, a neighborhood with a diversity of residents – renters, homeowners and senior citizens, located between Downtown and Summit Lake. Low cost improvements have been made to-date, including wayfinding signs, and programming (including a concert series by a local fraternity) meant to create a local gathering spot and an integral connection point. We traveled past the old B.F. Goodrich plant; where an old parking lot functioned as summer sand volleyball courts. Its attraction being its location along the towpath that also compliments what is happening in Summit Lake and downtown, creating a destination along the way.
Day 2: Summit Lake
We very much were looking forward to Summit Lake, as it seemed most akin to the work RNP is looking at in Bridesburg. Although very different bodies of water, the goal is the same: to build revitalized public places that welcome everyone. In Summit Lake, Dan Rice had his work cut out for him. Not only because of racial differences, but also because of how this community and the lake had been discarded. It was depressed, polluted, and not a place of joy. People were unaware what was hidden behind the bushes.
“Projects move at the speed of trust, and trust takes time”
Dan knew he had to break the legacy of things being done to, and not with the community. He had to rise above the history of broken promises. After some early missteps, Dan and the Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition began knocking on doors and listening to the residents. Through that, they found some residents who were “persons of influence” and could help talk to other residents about the park work and what was and could be behind the bushes.
When we arrived at Summit Lake, we sat at picnic tables along the shoreline and met a few of those “persons of influence”. Grace Hudson and Sandy Saulsberry shared with honesty what this process looked like to them. They were initially skeptical, thinking “here we go again, a bunch of professionals coming in to tell us what they were going to do.” But when they were asked what they wanted to do to make this space more inviting (at low cost), they answered with simple requests: grills, lights, and picnic tables. When those items showed up, the residents started to believe that they were being listened to. The transformation has been seen not only through the addition of fire pits, free bikes to borrow, fishing and boating programs, but in the fact that the community is out in numbers using those amenities.
Summit Lake also features other low-cost interventions including large-print photographs of community members that were taken through a pop-up class and there are plans for renovations of a pump house with the intention to convert it to an environmental education center.
The day at Summit Lake was capped off on kayaks and canoes on the water, and a walk around the newly established Summit Lake loop trail, only recently opened in May. This was a huge accomplishment as there was a big divide between the two neighborhoods along Summit Lake and relations had been contentious. A loop trail, that was developed with much resident input, was a physical step in the direction of connectedness in what was a shared amenity for both communities.
As our group of 14 wrapped up our time in Akron, we headed back to Philadelphia and to Bridesburg with knowledge and excitement of what we can do working together. To build the best possible spaces, we need to listen, build trust, and bring people along in the process.
Three Takeaways from Akron
- Communication and building trust are key and this process takes time. For the best space, we need to build with and not for the community and help empower the residents in decision- making. Show up where they are and listen with the intention of understanding. The invitation is something we must give often, both to residents and to those outside the community
- Low cost interventions have huge impact. While the overall site plan for Bridesburg is done, think about how we can implement low cost ways to activate the space. In Summit Lake it was bringing in the grills, picnic tables and photo art the community asked for. At Lock 3, it was trying things and not being afraid to fail. If an idea didn’t work, move on and try something else.
- Great parks are beautiful but it how you use them that makes them great. These spaces can really be a catalyst for a wider community development if you include activation that’s specific to the community and building long-term stewardship in the activation.