After two years of campaigning, the Ohio city of Akron is finally reclaiming a public space formerly allocated to the Innerbelt Freeway, with plans in place to transform it into a cultivated 35-acre park. It all started when urban activist Hunter Franks got 500 Akronites together on a dining table on the Innerbelt Freeway in October 2015 in a project titled “500 Plates.” Franks’ idea was to unite the community of 22 neighborhoods after the freeway divided them. The idea grew louder until it became a public demand: tear the Innerbelt Freeway down and make way for the Innerbelt National Forest.
The locals gathered at “500 Plates” were asked to write down what the neighborhood needed on butcher paper running down the middle of the tables; that’s when Franks found out that a need for a green space was a common demand between the 22 neighborhoods living on both sides of the freeway. That being said, the San Fransisco-based artist plans to populate the freeway-turned-park with potted plants, public seating, and recreational programs to reconnect the two communities that were separated by the freeway 40 years ago. The green space project just received a Knight Cities Challenge grant, which is giving $15 million to projects in 26 U.S. cities. The Innerbelt National Forest won $214,420 to “reconnect two socially and physically isolated neighborhoods by replacing a closed freeway in Akron with a lush forest and public space.” Within three months, the people of Akron will begin to reap the rewards of years of campaigning.
Akron’s Innerbelt freeway, also known as Route 59, was designed in 1970 with the sole purpose of bringing economic revitalization to the city’s downtown. However, in 2014, city planners and politicians called it a day and decided to shut down the last mile of the Akron Innerbelt Freeway, the six-lane road that spans from the urban core of downtown to the western leg of Interstate 77.
The plan was that, by 2018, a makeover worth $12.5 million would turn the final mile of the freeway, from the Dart Avenue exit to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard., into two surface-level one-way streets, with room for new buildings in between. According to a report written in The Ohio Journal of Science: “The greatest effects of the Federal Aid highway-oriented policy have been social, economic, and environmental. People have been displaced, neighborhoods have been changed, business patterns have been altered, the air has been polluted, and our cities even look very different—primarily as a result of building urban highways and freeways.”
This comes partially as a result of the ballooning of projected traffic on the city’s newly constructed freeways, from an original 1947 estimate of 116,200 to 425,476 in 1963. Surface streets in downtown Akron were packed and existing roads couldn’t keep up with growing numbers of cars commuting into the city everyday for work.
Earlier this year, after a fire broke on Atlanta’s I-85 highway, people demanded that it be replaced with a public space instead of paying almost $17 million for its restoration. Atlanta, among other U.S, cities, want to follow San Francisco’s lead of removing freeways to make way for green public spaces.
San Francisco began to remove freeways in the late 1980s – with largely positive results. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged two major freeways in the city’s urban core, the city replaced the Embarcadero Freeway that ran along the San Francisco Bay with a wide boulevard that opened up acres of downtown waterfront and led to the renovation of the landmark Ferry Building. The city went on to replace the Central Expressway with parks and another wide boulevard. Although freeways are considered a tool to aid the economy, when both freeways were removed from San Fransisco’s civilization, employment rates went up and tourism boomed in both areas.