Source: Laura Bliss, “In Shrinking Akron, a Dead Highway Becomes a Forest,” CityLab; Emily Matchar, “An Ohio City is Turning an Unused Highway Into a Pop-Up Forest,” Smithsonian Magazine
Akron, OH (June 12, 2017) – Akron’s Innerbelt, a sunken six-lane, 4.5 mile artery built in the 1970s, devastated historic black neighborhoods, and became an underused “road to nowhere.” Today, with the help of a grant, two acres of that highway will be transformed with trees, pedestrian access, and public events.
Thirty-five acres of highway are in the process of being decommissioned, and smaller, safer, surface streets are on the way to replace it; currently, about a mile of road is closed to traffic for construction.
Once the road is right-sized to fit the relatively small stream of traffic it gets, about two dozen acres will be left over. Now, a quarter-million dollar project will invite locals aboard the asphalt to imagine how the rest of it could be readapted for the long term.
With a $214,420 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s 2017 Knight Cities Challenge, the artist Hunter Franks will transform two acres of highway with lush trees, alluring light installations, and public events fully accessible for surrounding neighborhoods.
“Akron was the center of the American tire industry—it was literally built by and for the automobile,” says Franks. “The fact that the city is now willing to part with this key piece of auto infrastructure, and recognize it’s not the highest use of that space anymore, is a pretty huge step.”
He hopes that his three-month-long “Innerbelt National Forest” project will foster social connections between West Hill, the University of Akron, and downtown—diverse communities long isolated from each other—and stimulate visions for the city’s future that move away from private cars.
As funding sources and permanent plans take shape, the idea to park-ify what remains of the highway makes a lot of sense. With another Knight Foundation grant in 2015, Franks invited 500 Akron residents to a gigantic dinner party on the shuttered highway to discuss what could be done with it in the future. “Overwhelmingly, we heard that people wanted to see a green space that served as a connector,” he says.
Now they’ll get at least a glimpse of what that would be like. If the pop-up is a hit, Franks thinks it could influence the course of the highway’s redevelopment. The city is still working to determine the future of the leftover acreage; it could be easily sold to a housing developer or turn into commercial property. “Even if a corporation just buys it, they can learn that people want to see access to this space,” Franks says.