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Akron's New Approach To Community Development: Go Small And Sustainable

Downtown Akron Partnership

A year-long partnership between Akron and the nonprofit Strong Towns has begun to take shape. The head of the group that focuses on small, incremental investments to spur big changes toured three of the city’s neighborhoods and spoke with the people trying to recover and build on those neighborhood’s strengths. 

A few hours before he spoke to a crowd at Akron’s Civic Theatre downtown, Chuck Marohn listened in a back room of Compass Coffee – the emerging hub of Middlebury, one of Akron’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods. He’s heard conversations from the Pacific Northwest to Boston around one big theme: Cities are ready to reclaim themselves.

“Cities are ready to make investments that build their strength and resiliency, make them financially more productive and prosperous and make them better places to live,” Marohn says.

“Modest Little Changes”

Marohn says the efforts aren’t only in older cities, but they have been most prominent.

“I just think that old cities are probably more conducive to our approach than newer cities,” Marohn says. “They’re very open to the small modest little changes that it would take to make their neighborhoods more successful. And when you can make those tweaks in a city like Akron, what you see is that you can invest a lot less money and get a lot higher return, in actual dollars – and make people’s lives better in the process.”

Marohn says it not a competition for investment between downtowns and neighborhoods. Historic development patterns, he said, include both, with neighborhoods having their own small ecosystems complementing downtowns, and vice versa.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation put up $120,000 for the year-long partnership between Akron and Strong Towns. Marohn says the effort includes his group learning more about Akron and Akron learning more about efforts elsewhere.

“And then the final phase,” he says, “what are the things that we can do on the ground here as a community to actually start to make things a little bit better?”

Marohn was a civil engineer before he became an urban planner and saw problems with sprawl and other issues from both angles.

Credit M.L. Schultze / WKSU
Tina Boyes, head of Kenmore's community development effort, was one of those meeting with Strong Towns Chuck Marohn Tuesday.

“I really thought for a long time that it was because as engineers we were asked to fix things that planners should have thought of ahead of time,” Marohn says. “What I found out is that planners are really smart people, they know a lot of things. We’re just working on a bad system.”

Unsustainable Suburban Scrawl

Other cities that have experience population loss, such as Youngstown and Detroit, embarked in the last decade on efforts to shrink their physical footprint. Marohn says he doesn’t think it will stop there.

“I think that even cities that are not losing population … will be faced with that,” he says. “When we look two decades into the future of our communities, the math indicates it is very clear it at we will have fewer roads, fewer pipes and fewer sidewalks.”

“Every city in North America is going to shrink in geographic size,” Marohn continues. “All of those subdivisions that we’ve created out on the edge, all of the interchanges and frontage roads and new developments – all that stuff is insolvent. None of it pays for itself; there isn’t the money to maintain it, there isn’t the money to replace it and put it back and fix it – and so it’s going to go away.”

He points to the decaying shell of what was Rolling Acres Mall as an example.

“I think people are shocked by that; they look at that as an affront because people in this community remember that mall as a great place,” he says. “Yet if you look back, that is what our ancestors though when they looked at that had become of the downtown. Downtown Akron was a beautiful, gorgeous place filled with arts and culture an all kinds of great things. And we basically walked away from it because we thought it was a bad investment. We found out now that stuff out on the edge is a bad investment."

The Strong Towns partnership is working primarily with three neighborhoods: Kenmore, Middlebury and North Akron.