“Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” — Hans Christian Andersen
For a moment, close your eyes and picture in your mind your favorite city. Visualize the place and remember the smells, the sounds, and even the way it makes you feel. I would be willing to bet that regardless of the city you imagined, you selected for yourself a spot in an incredible public space. Perhaps it was a park like London’s Trafalgar Square, or recreating on a street during Bogota’s Ciclovia, or letting the breeze from the Bay hit your face in Golden Gate National Park. Maybe you recalled a special café or shop whose atmosphere played backdrop to a significant moment in your life.
It is often public spaces that spark our passion for a place. They inspire us to love, to remember or heal, and to come together as a community. This is true, not just for famous cities, but for smaller ones as well. High-quality public spaces help us deliver well-being to residents and vitality to neighborhoods. When done right, they can connect residents from all different backgrounds, cultivating trust and bolstering empathy for others.
All of us deserve, and benefit from, a high-quality public realm — places open to all that nourish minds, bodies and neighborhoods. As the quote above illustrates, we as human beings aspire to much more than just four walls and an SUV. We need those public places where the best moments of our lives are lived. And yet for too many of us, our zip code determines our access to, or the condition of, our public infrastructure. In Akron, Ohio, we are determined to change that.
That’s why we have begun prioritizing public spaces in our City’s larger effort to halt decline and rebuild neighborhoods. We’ve created new programs, such as the Akron Parks Challenge, utilizing participatory budgeting to place residents in the decision-makers role. With support from the James L. and John S. Knight Foundation, we have begun a partnership with the Kent State University Urban Design Collaborative to ensure that beauty is a basic right enjoyed by all. And we’ve learned that the public realm can also play a role in healing the wounds of violence through the resident-led Growing Mindz Memorial Garden project in the neighborhood of Summit Lake.
What we have learned from this work as a local government is that change is necessary if we wish to see better outcomes for all of our residents. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust in their government remains at historic lows. While large majorities of Americans see growing political divides, widening gaps between the haves and have-nots, and have little faith that we as policymakers are up to the challenge, confronting such trends with old tactics and structures does not work.
In early 2018 Mayor Dan Horrigan tasked me with standing up a new structure for how the City of Akron engages in development. He asked for a city department unlike any other Akron had seen, one in which civic and social infrastructure is as central to the economic mission as any tax incentive. The Office of Integrated Development at the City of Akron will fully launch later this year, bringing together planners, economists, engineers, and recreation leaders under one department and one strategic framework. Our mission is to co-create with residents and businesses, a community that is healthy, equitable, beautiful, and resilient. In doing so, we hope to be more responsive to the needs of those we serve and thus build trust that we can overcome any divisions that may exist.
This Independence Day I challenge myself and my fellow civic leaders to demand more of ourselves. To seek a public realm that reflects our highest aspirations as a people, instead of our apathy. To look at our social infrastructure not just as assets to be maintained, but places where residents can find, as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, their “perfect freedom.” Perhaps our pathway forward as a nation rests not in a single candidate or policy platform, but rather in the quality of the countless interactions taking place at a nearby park, sidewalk, or plaza. Or within the conversations that can occur at public spaces when they are designed for and built by the diversity of America. Our civic commons invite us to recall our shared values as Americans — equality, liberty, and our responsibility to serve the greater good. To those values, 243 years later, we still “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
James Hardy is the Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development and Chief of Staff for the City of Akron, Ohio.