Inspired by the Commons, A Legacy City Reimagines Itself
Restructuring how it delivers services to people is a critical part of Akron’s equitable revitalization
In early 2017, City of Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan convened a group of business and community leaders to assist him in reexamining the role of city government in economic development. Over the course of the year, these leaders, known as the Akron Growth Council, determined that if the city was to provide meaningful economic leadership in the community, its internal structure needed to change. Specifically, the Akron Growth Council noted the limitations of having the economic, planning and community development, and engineering functions siloed and separate from each other in philosophy and operations.
In tandem with the Akron Growth Council’s work, the City began its engagement in Reimagining the Civic Commons — a national initiative in 10 U.S. cities aimed at revitalizing and connecting civic assets. The initiative focuses on four main goals: civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, environmental sustainability, and value creation. Reimagining the Civic Commons revealed a new way of working to Akron’s leaders and further demonstrated the need for local government to change.
In response, Mayor Horrigan used his 2018 State of the City address to announce the creation of the Office of Integrated Development (OID), which would bring together the city’s planning and urban development, economic opportunity, public life, development, administrative support and development engineering functions into one integrated department. To plan for this significant transition, the city undertook an 18-month strategic planning process in partnership with my company, Spirit for Change Consulting.
This planning process resulted in the City of Akron Office of Integrated Development’s Five-Year Strategic Framework, released in December 2019. The framework — like OID itself — is about working smarter together to build and sustain an Akron that is healthy, equitable, beautiful, and resilient.
The Office of Integrated Development is a reimagining and restructuring of several existing City of Akron departments to connect efforts and deliver the highest quality of service to Akron’s residents, workers, business owners, and visitors. OID demonstrates the City of Akron’s commitment to innovative, transparent, and efficient governance and represents a new way of working both within and with the City of Akron. The new team brings together the existing departments of Planning and Urban Development, Economic Development, Downtown Operations, and Recreation, as well as elements of the Engineering Bureau, under a single strategic vision and newly created leadership in the form of a Deputy Mayor for OID.
The Office of Integrated Development is charged with stewarding Akron’s rich legacy into a more equitable future. The City of Akron recognizes that for the city to truly succeed in the future, every Akron resident must benefit from a livable and resilient community and have fair access to opportunity and the ability to participate in a just, inclusive local economy. This commitment to equity is reflected not only in the mission, vision and core values, but in each of five strategic goals, six categories of metrics, and designated priority projects.
While the creation of the Office of Integrated Development took place well before COVID-19 existed and changed the global landscape, the impacts of the pandemic make the OID effort that much more timely. The City of Akron, like many other municipalities, is faced with a changing economy and workforce, growing expectations of residents on an expanded set of policy priorities, and a budget limited by the realities of debt burden. OID is not a solution to every challenge faced by the community, but it is a proactive response by the City to these needs and a calculated bet on Akron’s future.
A focus on public spaces and public life
A critical element of the Office of Integrated Development’s work involves prioritizing placemaking, placekeeping, and public spaces. The City of Akron’s commitment to great public spaces and enhanced public life is not new but, with the creation of OID, those efforts are expanding with an added sense of urgency due to COVID-19. The pandemic has underscored both the importance of community spaces where residents can safely come together as well as the need to radically reimagine how the public realm can be more equitable.
The Office of Integrated Development’s work in this space is greatly informed by its participation in the Akron Civic Commons efforts. As one of 10 cities in the national Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration, Akron is working to counter economic and social fragmentation by revitalizing and connecting public places using an outcomes-based process focused on civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, environmental sustainability, and value creation. The Akron Civic Commons focuses on three neighborhoods — Downtown/Civic Gateway, Summit Lake, and Park East — and the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath trail that connects them.
Through the Civic Commons process, which occurred in parallel to the formation of the strategic framework, OID leaders learned the importance of authentically engaging with residents to co-create shared public places. At Summit Lake, OID staff had to face the hard truth that the City had been complicit in allowing the neighborhood to decline. A legacy of unrealized promises permeated the initial meetings with neighbors, and as staff and residents worked through that history, it became clear to the City that public space could become a powerful platform for engagement and equity.
The annual Akron Parks Challenge, launched in 2018 in partnership with the Akron Parks Collaborative, invites residents to pitch their vision of how to improve their favorite Akron park. The initiative provides up to $100,000 per selected park to make the residents’ vision for each place a reality. Reservoir Park, one of the first to win the challenge, utilized prototyping to engage well over 100 residents in reimagining and re-designing the space. With a strong coalition, the neighborhood leveraged the City’s investment and successfully doubled their funding through additional grants.
Public life is about the connections that form when people come together in public spaces. At a time when trust in public institutions and between neighbors is falling, focusing on enhancing public life is more essential than ever before. OID has embedded this focus into its very structure with the creation of a Public Life team. One area of focus for that team will be the implementation of the Recreation Strategic Plan, a five-year strategy that recommits the Akron Recreation and Parks team to delivering on a mission to “provide fun, safe, and affordable opportunities to enhance quality of life and encourage deeper connections” with the community. Once again, grounded in a framework of co-creation, OID surveyed over 3,100 residents of all ages and used insights from the survey data to focus the plan.
Active streets are also critical public spaces throughout the city. OID launched the Great Streets Akron in 2018 to spark new investment in eleven neighborhood business districts across the city. With a focus on placemaking and placekeeping in Akron’s diverse neighborhoods, Great Streets leverages façade improvement matching grants, small business development programs, and streetscape and public safety improvements, as well as pop-up and permanent programming, all designed to support local businesses by attracting residents and visitors.
With support from the Knight Foundation, OID partnered with Progressive Alliance Community Development Corporation to host the Copley Road Better Block event in 2019. Over the course of one weekend, this historically Black business district transformed its public realm to engage residents from across Akron in rediscovering this corridor. Nearly 5,000 people attended over the course of the weekend enjoying pop-up performance pods, an e-scooter pilot, and a temporary food market. Since the Better Block, Progressive Alliance CDC has partnered with the City on a joint storefront space and one of the food trucks from the market has leased space for a sit-down restaurant.
A pathway for legacy cities
Too often the narrative on local governments and post-industrial cities focuses only on what’s not working. The Office of Integrated Development Five-Year Strategic Framework demonstrates that legacy cities of all sizes have the ability to reimagine the role of local government in advancing equity, centering on residents, reclaiming and reframing narrative, and charting a path to inclusive growth. Having done this work ahead of the pandemic, Akron has been able to respond to COVID-19’s immediate economic impact with efficiency and community trust.
Leaders at Akron’s Office of Integrated Development believe that reinvesting in civic spaces is an essential element in the larger revitalization of the city, and their work provides some principles that can guide similar work in other cities as they turn their attention to recovery:
1. Investments in public space should not be separate and apart from economic development, but rather should be catalysts for attracting private investment.
2. A dynamic, high-performing public realm — one that is informed by, and welcoming to, people of all socioeconomic backgrounds — can serve as a platform for larger community development efforts.
3. Access to natural beauty is, and should be, a basic right that all people share in regardless of their zip code.
Legacy cities face a unique set of challenges that require civic leaders to rethink the traditional model of local governance. The loss of municipal revenue and a painfully slow recovery after the Great Recession leaves many communities struggling to adapt in an economy grappling with the impacts of a global pandemic. The OID Framework provides one promising pathway for legacy cities to consider. A pathway for making tough strategic trade-offs that emphasize equitable local growth and shared resources across sectors.
James Hardy is the Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development for the City of Akron, Ohio.
Lynn Ross is the founder of Spirit for Change Consulting and Knight Foundation’s lead consultant on Reimagining the Civic Commons.
Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration of The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and local partners.