The Thoughtful Investment Our Cities’ Public Spaces Need

The parks, trails and other outdoor amenities that make up our civic commons are crucial to building stronger, more equitable communities. Transforming them calls for a collaborative effort.

Akron, Ohio's revitalized Summit Lake
Akron, Ohio's revitalized Summit Lake.
Tim Fitzwater
There is bipartisan agreement among nearly every member of Congress that America's infrastructure is in dire need of attention. But while "infrastructure" usually invokes roads, rails and airports, we also need investment in a different kind of infrastructure: our communities' public spaces. These parks, trails and other open spaces that bring people together make up a crucial part of our cities' civic infrastructure. In a time of pandemic, economic disruption and growing rage over police brutality and systemic racism, public spaces are more important than ever.

President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal included programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps that, in providing millions of jobs, not only built or rehabilitated hundreds of thousands of structures but also created more than 75,000 acres of park land. It's time for us to consider what modern, equitable versions of these programs could do for our economy, for unemployed Americans and for the well-being of the communities we call home.

Why public spaces? In the face of the pandemic, our civic commons have become cathedrals within our communities, offering us respite from the uncertainties and stress of this challenging time while allowing us to safely connect with one another and with nature. Research clearly shows these shared places are essential for preserving our mental as well as physical health, and in recent weeks they have also been sites of vigorous and democratic free speech, providing venues for peaceful protest and for long-oppressed members of our communities to speak truth to power.

But it will require thoughtful effort on the part of local governments for investments in public space to yield wide-ranging economic and social gains. If cities are simply passive recipients of funds from Washington and elsewhere, long-term benefits are unlikely. Using innovative, outcomes-oriented strategies and breaking down bureaucratic silos is key. In Akron, Ohio, we have begun to leverage investments in public space to achieve social, environmental and economic goals through the creation of a new department that merged previously siloed functions into one seamless agency with equity and public life at its core.

Prior to the formation of the Office of Integrated Development (OID) a year ago, our economic-development effort was entirely focused on growth metrics, our engineering bureau was disconnected from the city's strategic development efforts, and our planning department had been relegated to the back burner for decades. Parks and other public spaces had suffered from years of budget cuts and fragmented leadership.

OID's ability to work across silos, within government and with outside community partners is allowing us to achieve equitable economic and community development through the prioritization of public spaces as critical infrastructure. Through the Akron Civic Commons — a multi-sector collaborative that includes residents, local government, nonprofits, employers and the country parks district — we are learning how to rebuild and reconnect neighborhoods while generating civic trust by using public space as a foundation.

Through this model, we are seeing success in long-neglected neighborhoods such as Summit Lake. Once Akron's "million-dollar playground" for industrial elites, the neighborhood suffered years of disinvestment, and by the late 20th century the glacial lake from which it takes its name was contaminated with industrial pollution. Urban-renewal projects in the 1970s cut the neighborhood off from the economic engine of downtown. Residents were distrustful of local government, and rightly so.

Today, Summit Lake has undergone a transformation that was thoughtfully co-created by residents, nonprofits, city and county governments, and philanthropy. By collaboratively investing in the neighborhood's public spaces and programs — a new beachhead, pavilion and nature center, improved facilities for fishing, canoeing and kayaking, arts projects, a farmers' market — we have fostered trust between residents and local government. As one local resident put it, "The neighborhood has overcome its history of industrial pollution and sewage runoff and is building back its vibrancy."

Are we on the cusp of a societal transformation? I sincerely hope so. If cities and their residents are to recover and emerge resilient from all we face, we will need bold leadership, a rethinking of outdated public-sector organizational models and a new kind of partnership among governments, community organizations, philanthropy and, most importantly, neighbors.

In every city we need to reckon with and address the centuries-old racial and economic divides that threaten to tear us apart. One important way to bridge those divides — to bring people together and begin rebuilding stronger, more equitable communities — is through public space.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Akron, Ohio's deputy mayor for integrated development