‘An experiment in community:’ University Park residents are designing and building a new park

Reporting, writing and photos by H.L. Comeriato

Marissa Little’s crew finally takes a well-earned break. They lean against a low chain link fence, shedding their coats in the sun.

The group of volunteers from the Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore spent the morning clearing debris from a vacant lot next to Boss Park in University Park. The lot is overgrown, dotted by loose trash and packed with unhealthy fill dirt. Permaculturist and longtime community organizer Beth Vild says the soil at this site will need help for more than a year to become healthy and nutrient-rich.

At the moment, the city-owned lot doesn’t look like much. But Little and Vild have big plans.

Read more:

This effort to grow and revitalize Boss Park is part of Neighborhood Network’s University Park Neighborhood Plan, says Little, who is a neighborhood revitalization coordinator with Neighborhood Network, a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Summit County with “a focus on revitalizing the University Park and Middlebury neighborhoods.”

Little describes the University Park Neighborhood Plan as a collaborative, community-centered effort to build and adapt available natural spaces to fit residents’ needs and build community.

In 2018, Neighborhood Network received a block grant from the Community Development Corporation that allowed them to pursue Boss Park as a site for revitalization. 

Currently, the space is a flat, grassy field with a few brightly colored benches and trash cans. A sidewalk sporting hand-painted hopscotch squares cuts through the park, connecting Sumner and Allyn streets. 

Leggett Community Learning Center is just next door. As Little’s crew works to clear the brush, a pair of middle schoolers drag their scooters around the edge of the lot on their way to pick up lunch at Leggett’s food distribution site.

Boss Park is in a unique position, says Little, both historically and geographically — part of the reason its revitalization is so important.

Working to combat “mistrust and distrust” in University Park 

Formerly known as “Goosetown,” University Park was home to the majority of Akron’s German-American immigrants until the 1950s. By the end of World War II, Italian, Slovak and Croatian immigrants also called Goosetown home.

Since then, Akron-based archaeologist and photographer Charlotte Gintert says the neighborhood endured decades of inequitable urban planning decisions.

By the time construction began on I-76/I-77 in the late 1960s, slicing the neighborhood in half, residents had already been excluded from important decisions about planning and infrastructure in their own neighborhood.

In the early 1970s, the City of Akron acquired Pleasant Park, a 5 acre natural space south of Thornton Street, donated by Samuel Thornton himself, and built the city’s main post office. Gintert says the loss of the park was a particularly devastating blow, creating mistrust in the neighborhood that still exists today.

Now, the neighborhood is made up mostly of University of Akron students living in rental properties. On Allyn street, a giant, vinyl ‘For Rent’ banner is pinned to the exterior of a two-story home. 

In 2001, a non-profit organization called University Park Alliance was established in an effort to revitalize the neighborhood. Over the next decade, UPA announced big plans and bought at least 33 properties in the area. 

By 2013, the organization had spiraled, both legally and financially. After the John S. Knight Foundation canceled a $6 million grant and a nearly $2 million loan given to UPA, University Park residents were left only with UPA’s empty promises. 

Little and Vild say long-time residents are still skeptical.

“There were things promised that never happened,” says Little. “So there’s some mistrust and distrust in the neighborhood.”

In the shadow of such skepticism, Vild’s participatory design process has allowed residents to vote on everything from the plants included in the park’s edible landscaping to artistic elements like archways that mimic the entrances to the Mon Buddist Temple just a few blocks away.

Little says providing a way for residents and community stakeholders to vote on the more artistic elements of the park helps build community in the neighborhood.

“We can engage neighbors more and get people involved in the process and not rush it,” Little says. “I’d love to see this as an anchor public space. It’s an experiment of community.”

“Participatory design makes all the difference”

On the crest of a hill, at the west end of the lot, Vild directs a group of volunteers.They move carefully around the recently installed mounds and swales — a means of retaining healthy soil and diverting water run-off. 

Mary Shepard, who worked for Habitat for Humanity of Summit County for eight years before retiring, dips the roots of a plant in mushroom inoculate. A few feet away, Habitat volunteer Bill Carter digs a hole with his hands.

Vild, who has several certifications in permaculture, says its design principles mimic patterns that already exist in natural ecosystems, and encourage residents to explore their own connections to and participation in those ecosystems.

“The ultimate built environment show of democracy is public space,” says Vild. “So that participatory design makes all the difference. I think it makes a huge difference in development that is not about gentrification but about creating a better quality of life for the residents in a neighborhood.”

“There’s the community hope of bringing more people together, of having people re-invest and connect with the earth of their own backyards in their own neighborhoods,” Vild adds. “But it has to be done with people, not for them.”

To be sure residents, businesses and community stakeholders were involved in the process from the very beginning, Vild produced three “base designs” of the park — each with its own unique features — and asked the community to choose which they liked best.

After residents voted on a base design and gave individual feedback, Vild says she combined elements of all three base designs to meet residents’ needs. She and a team of volunteers will build gabion cages — mesh wire filled with rocks — to help stabilize the park’s soil along the edge of a small cliff. Volunteers will also build a slide and rock climbing wall into the hillside, and plant edible foliage among the mounds and swales.

“The green space feedback that we got was that people wanted more, like, chill nature places to sit outside, not ones that are active-focused. This park is very active-focused,” says Vild. “You can walk your dog around, play in the field, throw a Frisbee. So there’s a lot of active park space, but not a lot of just ‘sit and chill and enjoy nature’ type of space that’s even in walking distance around here.”

The other thing residents agreed on was a need for edible landscaping, says Vild, which would help not only long-term residents facing food insecurity, but also university students grappling with food and housing instability. 

South of Thornton Street, where student housing becomes more scarce, food instability becomes more common. 

Just five blocks from Infocision Stadium, nearly half of all residents receive food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That’s more than triple the amount of residents receiving food assistance just a few blocks north, where the University of Akron’s campus begins.

In addition to providing edible landscaping to bolster access to fresh fruits and vegetables in University Park, Vild and Little say they hope this shared natural space will offer residents a “mental health oasis,” where both University of Akron and Leggett CLC students can come to de-stress and recharge.

According to a 2017 report from the Center for American Progress, 70% of people living in low-income communities don’t have access to safe, natural spaces where they can relax and recreate — which means they’re more likely to miss out on the mental and physical health benefits of spending time outside, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, improvements in cognitive function and relief from chronic stress and anxiety.

Overcoming skepticism

Little says teachers at Leggett CLC have seen their students struggle to connect with and enjoy natural spaces where they live. Throughout the planning process, Vild says 15 Leggett teachers voted on the park design.

Shannon Morgan and Teresa Morrisson, both teachers at Leggett CLC, say they’ve tried to use Boss Park and the adjacent lot as hands-on learning spaces for their students, but they have struggled to keep both Leggett’s playground and the neighboring lots clean, safe and free from vandalism. 

“We’ve heard a lot of talk over the years [about improvements],” says Morrisson. “There was never any follow through.” 

“It would be great to have a place to teach kids about the life cycle. Not just from pictures, but from real life experience,” says Morrison. 

“It’s getting rid of technology and taking learning out into the environment,” adds Morgan. “It would be super great to be able to do that.”

Little hopes including both residents and Leggett educators in the park design process might help the community overcome that doubt and work toward a common goal: creating a safe, healthy shared natural space, where students, educators and residents can find joy and tranquility among their neighbors.

In 10 years, Little and Vild hope the space will be almost entirely self-sustaining. Instead of mowing a vacant lot, residents will be able to harvest fresh fruit and enjoy picnics and playdates in a space they helped design and build themselves. 

And that, says Little, is a pretty big win.