The Innerbelt National Forest and how cities plan for the future
by Noor Hindi and Yoly Miller, photos by Christine Batten
Part I. We Built a Forest
As a resident of Akron for more than 20 years, I have always believed that if I want my city to thrive, then I have to do everything in my power to help her thrive. I have volunteered in many capacities, first through my church, then with civic organizations. I have built furniture, provided child care, cooked meals, helped with homework and dumped my fair share of fertilizer, mulch and topsoil in private and public places around the city.
When the call for volunteers reached me for the Innerbelt National Forest, the idea of building a forest intrigued me. I wanted to know how it was going to be accomplished and how it could be completed on time. It was dirty, hard work. Shoveling dirt, rolling wheelbarrows and planting kept me busy for a whole afternoon. There was a surprising number of young women doing most of the work. Two women dug holes using an auger. Teenage girls from Summit Lake Build Corps painted stockade fencing before erecting it around the nearly finished park. Hunter Franks, the person who developed the grant proposal to build the park, was also there, fielding phone calls and answering questions. Everyone there had been working before I got there, and they were still working hard when I left.
I have to admit, I was skeptical that anyone would visit the park after its grand opening. It is situated in a corner off a now-decommissioned section of Route 59. There are no sidewalks on the west side of the park facing 59, and crossing Ash Street is daunting. Drivers have never had to stop for pedestrians crossing the street to get to the Innerbelt.
But I went back to the park often to see who was using it when there was no programmed entertainment. The Saturday after the park opened, I found Franks, in his last couple hours in Akron, watering the trees. On other days, I met groups of cyclists taking a break from the Towpath and couples walking hand in hand. Most often, though, were people sitting under the shade of the umbrellas, reading during their lunch hours.
Yoly Miller has been volunteering in the greater Akron area since she moved here in 1997. She aims to foster community and influence fellow Akronites to roll up their sleeves and help make our city a better place to live.
Part II. Using Temporary Projects to Plan for Akron’s Future
For the last two months, dozens of people have gathered day after day on a grassy strip beside a decommissioned freeway. They’ve been hanging out among temporary trees and hammocks and benches to hear discussions, music or poetry, participate in goat yoga, make crafts or unwind during a lunch hour.
It’s an unexpected place to gather, but people have been using it — so much so that the Innerbelt National Forest, which was supposed to be a two-month installation, may be around for a while longer.
The Innerbelt National Forest was funded through a $224,000 grant from the Knight Cities Challenge. The forest was proposed as a temporary installation by California artist Hunter Franks, who was behind the 500 Plates dinner on the Innerbelt last year. The project sought to “increase public life in Akron by transforming a decommissioned freeway into a temporary forest and public space,” according to a mission statement on its website.
The last mile of the Innerbelt was closed in 2015, and the City of Akron is in the process of deciding what to do with the land. When it was built in the 1970s, the Innerbelt aimed to make it easier for suburban residents to reach offices downtown. But the construction demolished a neighborhood and displaced a large population, predominantly low-income black families. Further, the highway ultimately acted as a barrier that further segregated the city, according to Akron director of planning and urban development Jason Segedy.
The city’s acknowledgement that the Innerbelt was a mistake — and the inclusion of that conversation at the newly opened park — was important to Darrita Davis, co-director of community outreach at The W.O.M.B. (The Way of Mind and Body). At a panel discussion at the park, she talked about how the Innerbelt pushed displaced families into poverty. Along with a small museum detailing the freeway’s construction, Innerbelt National Forest Programming Director Hannah Troyer says she included Davis’s panel in a lineup primarily focused on music and art because she didn’t want the park to further erase people displaced by the Innerbelt.
The Innerbelt National Forest was designed to be a two-month installation, and it was just one of many short-term projects funded by private foundations in Akron in recent years. Readers may recall Better Block weekends, the Curated Storefront project in vacant windows downtown or Inside|Out by the Akron Art Museum.
Readers may have also encountered the new bike lanes on Exchange Street past the University of Akron. Those were temporary. A $40,000 grant from the Knight Foundation funded Hands On Exchange, an experiment on that stretch of road that included reducing car traffic to one lane in each direction. In a 2017 statement, mayor Dan Horrigan said the project would “allow us to gather feedback from residents, students, businesses, pedestrians, and partner agencies to then permanently design Exchange Street into a more functional and valuable corridor.”
The new traffic pattern began in mid-August. After six weeks, the city tweeted, “We’ve heard your feedback loud and clear.” The bike lanes are scheduled to be removed by mid-October, about two months after their installation.
The Knight Foundation is one of several prominent family foundations in Akron, and its funding is private, unlike the city and county budgets. Still, these projects made The Devil Strip wonder: What is the benefit of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on urban improvements that only last a few months?
We asked community organizers and funders about the value of short-term projects and what kind of impact they’ve had in Akron. Here’s what we found out.
- Temporary projects may become long-term projects
According to Troyer, organizers for the Innerbelt National Forest are currently in talks with the City of Akron and Dan Rice, president and CEO of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, to keep the park in place. If the project is extended and made into a semi-permanent forest, the money that was intended for tear-down costs will be used to maintain the park.
Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation, says starting with temporary installations gives the community chances to see ideas succeed before they commit to them.
“I can take you through dozens of projects that were started out as temporary, have become semi-permanent, and an open question remains about their permanence,” Kyle says. “The reason why we fund temporary (projects) is permission. If you went to the Innerbelt and tried to do something permanent, many stakeholders, including the city, would say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down.’ But if you position it as, ‘Let us try it, and if it’s a failure, we will take it out, but if it works, let’s have a conversation,’ then there are more opportunities for experimentation.”
Urban planner David Swirsky has worked on many short-term projects, including 500 Plates and the Akron City Repair project. Swirsky was a founder of the League of Creative Interventionists (another Hunter Franks project) and has been a co-organizer for The Big Love Network.
Swirsky believes temporary projects give citizens the chance to re-envision public spaces.
“It’s really the power of art and imagination for people to see the physical space as something that’s not just dead, but vibrant and lively,” Swirsky says.
- In the case of Knight Foundation grants, artists usually get paid
For most artists, getting paid for work is challenging. Many agencies offer “exposure” to artists instead of cash. But according to Troyer, all of the artists who performed at the Innerbelt National Park were paid. Troyer was paid for her programming work. Kai Wick of Wick Studio was paid to create most of the forest’s infrastructure.
According to Troyer and Franks, $72,400 was spent on programming and payments for Akron area artists and independent businesses. That doesn’t include contractors and artists like Wick who were brought in to help, nor does it include the thousands of dollars spent on supplies for the park, which were all purchased locally.
All of the events held at the forest were free and open to the public.
“All of the people who perform or come to the park (were) paid, and they’re not volunteers, and it’s not ‘for exposure.’ Everyone was compensated for their talent, which is really nice to have and something that Akron really needs,’” Wick says.
- Temporary projects can bring community stakeholders together
Tom Ghinder, founder of educational nonprofit Akron Promise, enjoys being part of a community of active Akronites and attended the opening reception of the Innerbelt National Forest. “I think [these projects] are catalysts to allow other things to happen and to initiate other ideas,” he says.
Tina Boyes, director of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, saw firsthand how a two-day “tactical urbanism” project helped bring neighborhood stakeholders together. A Better Block weekend in 2017 helped Kenmore residents get to know local businesses and artists. Boyes says there’s still a lot of work to be done, but being able to reimagine Kenmore inspired residents to patronize local businesses and participate in the development of a broad neighborhood plan.
“I think we’ve galvanized a bit of the artists’ community and we’ve also brought together people who maybe felt on the margins of the things that happened here,” she says.
Noor Hindi is the Managing Editor of The Devil Strip. She’s also a poet through the NEOMFA program. Follow her on Twitter at @MyNrhindi.