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Why Public Spaces Are Critical Social Infrastructure

We need to reimagine them and invest in them as platforms for health, equity and neighborhood wellbeing.

A cyclist on the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail.
A cyclist on the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail.
(Flickr/Tim Evanson)
A few months ago, I found myself recording a video to promote our second annual Akron Parks Challenge. The Parks Challenge gives residents of our Ohio city the opportunity to pitch their best ideas for city parks improvements, which are then entered in a competition to win one of two $100,000 capital grants. The video was being made at a community center, and I was wrapping it up when a boy, about 9 years old, approached me with a note. It read: "Mayor Horrigan, I want to do my homework here, but I need to get online. Can you do that for me?"

His plea struck a nerve, and it got at a larger point: Our community centers, parks and other public spaces are more than the sum of their parts -- they are critical social infrastructure that provides the fabric for a city's health and wellbeing. In an era when people are more isolated than ever and distrust in government runs high, it's imperative that we reimagine public spaces as more than just physical assets to maintain but as platforms for equity and neighborhood revitalization.

As civic leaders, we are challenged with balancing competing interests, all vying for position within our budgets and policy agendas. Public-space investments usually do not fare well in these calculations. And yet in Akron, we have prioritized our public spaces because the investments we make in them have a protective function in our neighborhoods. These places are not just where people gather, but are central to our social, economic and environmental policy goals. Whether it's offering Midnight Basketball to combat youth violence or leveraging our plazas to support downtown residential development, supporting healthy public spaces is central to our strategy to halt population decline and rebuild.

Perhaps our largest current effort is Akron Civic Commons, which is supported by a three-year, $5 million grant from the Knight, Kresge, Rockefeller and JPB foundations. Akron Civic Commons seeks to utilize a three-mile stretch of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail as a tool for community building. To users of the trail coming to Akron, mostly white, middle-to-upper-income individuals, this section is the stopping point -- the point at which they turn around and head back. And to the residents of the majority-black, mixed-income neighborhoods within this section, the strong perception is that these spaces were not built for them.

To overcome this, the Akron Civic Commons project has deployed a resident-led redesign process that is yielding results beyond the traditional metrics. Early data is showing more income diversity utilizing improved spaces, stronger belief that the neighborhood is changing for the better, and a higher percentage who feel safe in their community. These are the types of results any mayor would want on any number of initiatives, and we are seeing them throughout our public-spaces work.

Abandoning older legacy assets is a seductive but hollow path. Instead, cities should invest in what they have, working to create a culture of worth by reclaiming and rebuilding existing public spaces as centers of social and civic life. If we are willing to listen and observe, we will recognize that our public spaces -- parks, community centers, libraries and even streets -- are screaming to be reimagined.

Local leaders can leverage public spaces to push back against the social and economic divides in our cities and neighborhoods. We can guide our communities toward a future that is more equitable, where all are welcome, and yes … where you sit at your neighborhood community center and finish your homework with a good Wi-Fi connection.

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