Underused Freeway Becomes A Temporary Forest

In April 2018, part of an underused, failed, community-segregating, six-lane freeway in Akron, Ohio, is to become a temporary green space, with the hope that it will foster the ideas and conversations that will guide its future.

Among the many freeways without futures stories, this is one that we, at Pop-Up City, are following with great interest. Last year, we documented a 500-person lunch on a highway, organised by Hunter Franks, a San Francisco-based artist, who envisioned local people coming together and re-imagining the possible uses for the future of the freeway when it closed permanently in 2016. Unsurprisingly, it turned out the main things that people wanted were more green space and more public space.

The highway in question is the State Route 59, known as the Innerbelt, a 4.5-mile long large six-lane east-west highway that was built in the 1970s in Akron. It was built with the hope of saving the city from the, to this day, declining population in Northern Ohio by helping to revitalize the city center. On the contrary, the construction of the huge road not only demolished historic black neighborhoods, but also acted as an economic barrier, physically segregating downtown and the more commercial, West Hill neighborhood. Far from successful in its mission, the freeway was chronically underused, yet, apparently still had higher-than-usual accident rates, adding further salt to the wound.

With the utter failure of the freeway apparent to all, a total of thirty-five acres of it are finally being decommissioned, with some of it already being dismantled. A portion of the land will be retained and redesigned to serve the small amount of traffic that currently uses it. The rest, which makes up approximately 30 acres in the center of the highway, will be reclaimed by Akron, who are open to suggestions about what to do with it. Pleasant news is that there us a real emphasis being placed on Akronites coming up with ideas themselves about how they want the space to be used in the longer term, before the developers swoop in and claim the land.

There are lots of interesting ideas arising. Hunter Franks has won a grant for nearly a quarter of a million dollars from the Knight Foundation’s 2017 Knight Cities Challenge to fund his vision — the Innerbelt National Forest project (the idea for which germinated at the aforementioned 500-person lunch on the highway). The fundamental idea behind the project, which will last a total of 3 months, is to reconnect two isolated neighborhoods (downtown and the West Hill neighborhood) both physically and socially. Physically connecting the neighborhoods by transforming two acres of retired freeway in Akron with lush trees, light installations and public space, while simultaneously creating a space for social connection where the users can begin to re-imagine the space in the long term. Franks will facilitate the social connections by means of hiring three local people who will represent the University of Akron, the West Hill neighborhood and downtown Akron to organize community engagement events and to recruit volunteers.

This is an exciting project, which is using participatory, bottom-up methods to empower and enable citizens to make a real, lasting difference to their city.