An Ohio City is Turning an Unused Highway Into a Pop-Up Forest

Akron, Ohio hopes to fight urban inequality by removing a divisive highway. Other cities across America are looking into doing the same.

Rendering of the Innerbelt National Forest, a "pop-up forest" in Akron, Ohio Hunter Franks

Built in the 1970s when Akron was a thriving tire manufacturing center, the Innerbelt portion of Ohio’s State Route 59 was supposed to make driving downtown easier. But its construction cut off the largely African-American neighborhoods of West Akron from the city center, creating social and economic rifts that affect the city to this day. Now, with Akron having been hit hard by population decline, the city will permanently shut down the underused highway.  There will suddenly be 30-plus acres of prime real estate sitting empty. Normally land like this is simply sold to the highest bidder, and the city gets a new office tower or parking deck. But many in Akron are hoping the old highway space could be used to help heal the city instead.

Thanks to a multi-million-dollar grant, artists will turn part of the highway into a “temporary forest” and a public space. They’ll bring in plants, add seating and offer programming—concerts, a farmer’s market, movie screenings.

“We’re hoping to socially reconnect that area and provide a space for folks of different socioeconomic levels to come together,” says Hunter Franks, an artist who is working on the public space project, dubbed the Innerbelt National Forest.  

The Innerbelt National Forest will go up early next year, and run for three months. If it is a success, its supporters hope it will convince city officials to give the highway over to public use permanently. It could be a mountain bike park, they say, or an adult playground complete with swing sets. Or simply a walkable corridor free from cars and construction.

“We want to open it up to people and see what happens, see what people use it for,” says Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation, which awarded the grant.

Kutuchief grew up in the city, and has seen how the highway created a “cycle of disinvestment” in West Akron. “It was this Great Wall of China that pinned in downtown and just decimated neighborhoods that used to be the connective tissue between downtown and West Akron,” he says.

The Innerbelt was originally planned to save downtown. In the 1960s, booming suburbs were funneling traffic and business away from Akron’s urban core. Traffic planners designed the Innerbelt to connect downtown to the growing interstate highway system, figuring that would help keep the area thriving. Like many road projects at the time, the Innerbelt was planned to avoid harming “good” parts of town, while a report written at the time said the construction would cut off or clear “substandard areas.” Those “substandard areas” included the historic African-American neighborhood of West Hill and the picturesque Glendale Cemetery.

“In a lot of large American cities the freeway infrastructure simply did not value low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color—they just sort of went right through them,” Franks says.

The disconnection wrought by the highway was both psychic and economic. West Akron residents were cut off from economic engines like the Cleveland Clinic, just on the downtown side of the road, while downtown workers could no longer stroll to sights in West Akron like the zoo or Glendale Cemetery, meaning they were no longer investing dollars in businesses along the way. Downtown suffered too, as a lack of pedestrian traffic outside of office hours meant the city became ghostly after dark.

“The highway used to be key to economic development,” Kutuchief says. “Now, removing the highway or making it a place for people is key to economic development.”  

A number of cities in the Rust Belt and beyond are tackling similar issues. Urban highways, often built during prosperous times in the mid-20th century, have turned out to be liabilities, destroying or cutting off neighborhoods (usually poor, minority ones), inhibiting pedestrians and making downtown revivals more difficult. The issue has become so well-recognized that in 2016 the U.S. Department of Transportation launched an initiative to look at the role transportation infrastructure plays in inequality. But what do you do with infrastructure that is actively harming your city?

A few cities have actually demolished underused and divisive highways. In the mid-1970s, Portland, Oregon’s Harbor Drive was the first major highway in America to be deliberately removed. It’s now a beloved riverfront park that many consider a lynchpin of Portland’s reputation as a green bike- and pedestrian-friendly city. San Francisco’s State Route 480 used to block views of the bay until it was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the city voted to demolish it. It’s now the iconic Embarcadero, a three-mile stretch of walkable waterfront. In the early 2000s, Milwaukee tore down the Park East Freeway spur, which had cut off several neighborhoods from each other. It took a number of years, but the land is now being redeveloped into mixed-use housing and retail, and has helped boost development in nearby areas. Other cities, like Boston, have “capped” their urban highways, putting them underground (this is notoriously expensive). But projects like this remain rare, even as urbanists increasingly see urban highway removal as a key to improving civic life and reducing inequality. This year, Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit promoting walkable communities, released a list of “Freeways without Futures,” targeting highways it thinks are particular liabilities to their cities. The list includes roads in Dallas, Buffalo, Rochester and Denver, and several in California. “Each one presents the chance to remove a blight from the physical, economic, and environmental health of urban communities,” the group says.

The grant to create the Innerbelt National Forest comes from the Knight Cities Challenge, a $15 million initiative to help 26 American communities once served by Knight family newspapers. Franks’ project, along with four other winners, was selected from hundreds of applicants. Franks is also founder of the League of Creative Interventionists, a group dedicated to making public art that helps people think about urban space in new ways. With chapters from Charlotte, North Carolina to Cologne, Germany, it promotes what some have called “tactical urbanism”—using affordable, temporary measures to let cities try out different ideas for urban improvement. This allows citizens to be part of the process, seeing what they like and what they don’t before the city invests money in permanent changes.  

“We want to co-create with people rather than coming in and bestowing wisdom on people,” Kutuchief says. “We have a lot of history of things being done to people rather than with them.”

Franks is based in San Francisco, but he does work across the globe, specializing in helping communities reenivision their urban infrastructure. He's been involved in Akron for several years; in 2015, he helped the city begin to explore the idea of making the Innerbelt into public space by organizing an enormous community dinner on the highway, which was shut down for one day for the occasion. This "500 Plates" dinner brought representatives from the city's 22 neighborhoods together. The food came from recipes shared by local home cooks—collards, pasta salad, vegan chili and more. As they ate, the neighbors discussed how they'd like to see the city transformed.

Kutuchief says his team has also been inspired by Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, which was decommissioned in 2008 and turned over to the public. Today it’s a vast urban park, with people riding bikes, flying kites and picnicking on the old runways, and holding fairs and festivals in the old hangars.  For cities like Akron that don’t necessarily have the funds to tear down highways, simply repurposing them may be the easiest way to go.

“If we can do this, than other cities can reimagine some of their freeways,” Franks says. “Maybe freeways and cars are not the most necessary pillars of urban life.”

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