In 2016, Reimagining the Civic Commons launched a $40 million investment into public spaces across five US cities (Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, and Philadelphia), with the aim to foster greater civic engagement, promote economic development and enhance environmental sustainability. With the 3-year grant period drawing to an end, a selection of reports have revealed that each city, having taken steps to encourage community engagement, took markedly different approaches, tailored by individual necessity and suitability, to better their civic commons. Akron, with its recently revived Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail and Summit Lake, has received a particularly glowing appraise.
Summit Lake, widely known for its unwelcoming reputation, is the poorest neighbourhood of a depopulated Akron, with a majority black population in a “mostly white, but segregated, city”. The lake itself was believed to be polluted and hazardous, so much so that when the Civic Commons originally asked residents what they wanted, many called for a fence to surround the “dangerous” lake.
After publishing environmental reports confirming the lake safe for recreational use, and cutting back shrubbery to reveal the beautiful lake, the Civic Commons held meetings where organisers put forward information, and residents could express concerns and ideas. Soon residents were calling for places to sit and cook out, with sheltered areas and clear views of the lake, and that is what they got. The area is now complete with seating, BBQ grills, shaded areas and a brand new education centre.
As pledges and promises began to match results, residents gradually became more engaged. More attended Civic Commons meetings, and more started making demands for further provisions, such as art installations. As residents came to understand these efforts were for them, public use of Summit Lake, the Trail and new education centre increased – “it was community engagement on steroids”.
For the first time in years, the people of Akron and Summit Lake were asked what they wanted, given the opportunity to make the space work for them, and to take a sort of “emotional ownership” of the area they ‘reimagined’. In doing so, Summit Lake has become a communal necessity for the city’s residents, thereby promoting social integration and cohesion. Akron’s green space can now serve its potential in the battle with deteriorating mental and physical health in urban areas. There is also optimism that Akron will now attract new homes, new business and jobs, increased population (set to double in the next few years), as well as higher property values and lower crime rates.
Recent studies, particularly Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) held by the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape and Architecture, have revealed the role of green space in the physical and mental wellbeing of urban communities. In a series of ‘Policy and Practice Briefs’, IWUN has stressed the responsibility of governing bodies to ensure that the “design, maintenance and usage” of green space “promotes equality and inclusion” by creating areas that are safe, accessible and welcoming to as many users as possible. To do so, IWUN contends that planners should invite all residents to have a hand in influencing local policy on green space and urban nature. Accordingly, the quality and offerings of facilities can be better designed for the specific needs of a community, whilst staff and activities can be tailored to promote social inclusion and cohesion.
Reimaging the Civic Commons appear to have already encompassed this notion. The project has demonstrated how, and with what effect, community engagement can take place and ensure green spaces are tailored to the needs of, and embraced by, surrounding communities. Essentially, the entire community needs to genuinely believe the “reimagined” space is for them, and to see results that correlate with their hopes and suggestions by which “civic commons” can become genuinely valuable to the community, and to the lives of those within it.
These suggestions and lessons-learned in the US have valuable potential, particularly in light of growing disagreement amongst planners, campaigners and residents. Such is the case in Newcastle, following the announcement of plans to build 900 new homes next to a 4,500-home estate earlier this month. Protesters, which include wildlife campaigners, have denounced the intention to “assault” more open green space in Newcastle, whilst others have expressed concerns for the already-stretched amenities. Unfortunately it is not unusual for planning processes to be met with such criticism. Investing in a Civic Commons approach that encourages local communities to take emotional ownership of the spaces being created and involves residents from the off-set, may well have reaped better results and a whole lot more: appropriately designed spaces that respond well to communities, fostering good mental and physical health and enhanced social cohesion and integration. This is surely a good return for developers, planners and local communities alike?
By Jess Bradbury
To find out more about Civic Commons go to http://civiccommons.us/
To find out more about IWUN go to http://iwun.uk/
Campaigners slam ‘relentless assault’ on Newcastle’s green space amid 900-home estate plan https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/campaigners-slam-relentless-assault-newcastles-16240458