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An Ohio city is turning a freeway into a forest

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Akron plans to convert a decommissioned highway into a 35-acre park

The idea to turn the freeway into a park originated at a 500-person dinner on the Innerbelt
Hunter Franks

Across the country, U.S. cities are removing freeways in an effort to connect areas constricted by transportation planners decades ago. The city of Akron, Ohio, is the latest to reclaim its vehicular infrastructure for its citizens, and it’s doing it in a revolutionary way: For three months next summer, a decommissioned freeway will be transformed into a 35-acre park filled with trees.

The Innerbelt National Forest is the idea of Hunter Franks, a San Francisco-based artist who has been working in the Akron community since 2015. He plans to populate the freeway with potted plants, public seating, and programming meant to reconnect the two communities severed by the freeway 40 years ago. The project just received a Knight Cities Challenge grant, which is giving $15 million to projects in 26 American cities.

Before and after on Akron’s Innerbelt National Forest
Hunter Franks

The concept for the forest originated during a 500-person dinner on the freeway that Franks organized in in 2015, shortly after the road was closed. The guests at the community meal also participated in a visioning exercise where they were asked to write down what the neighborhood needed on butcher paper running down the middle of the tables. “People said they wanted green space,” says Franks.

The Innerbelt Freeway, also known as State Route 59, was completed in 1970, and designed to bring economic revitalization to the city’s struggling downtown. Yet it was almost immediately declared a failure because it never delivered the volume of cars promised—or the revitalization.

Instead, the freeway devastated the western edge of the city by demolishing historic neighborhoods, namely a African American jazz district, creating a physical divide through the city's urban core. According to Franks, one side of the freeway remains an underserved neighborhood where residents don't have easy access to downtown’s cultural assets, while the other side is largely a commercial district populated by middle and upper class workers who commute into the area but don't live there.

What Franks envisions is not just a park, but a chance to connect those two groups and create “shared empathy” in the space. Franks will be interviewing local residents, workers downtown, and students from a nearby university to give them investment and ownership in the project.

Akron is redesigning streets around the decommissioned freeway not only to reroute cars but also to become more friendly to walking, biking, and other types of development.

Although the entire freeway has been decommissioned, with the last mile being demolished and reopened for development, Franks notes that this portion of the freeway will not be dismantled. The freeway itself will more or less remain intact, much in the way that Seoul recently transformed a former highway into a public park. So visitors will have the surreal experience of walking across the lanes where cars once sat in gridlock, surrounded by trees. Just taking away the cars means the area will be much safer: The Innerbelt had a higher than average rate of traffic deaths for the region, including the most dangerous intersection in the city, located on an arterial road that served the freeway.

The forest is set to open in April of 2018, and intended to remain open all summer. And although what the Knight Foundation is funding is just a pilot project, the idea is to test the concept, allow neighbors to give feedback, and use the data to perform future improvements, says Frank. “Whatever it turns out being permanently, if it’s a park or just helps inform the social landscape, that is the opportunity.”

In this way, the temporary nature of the project is almost the most intriguing part—and one that offers the best model for other cities that want to “test” a freeway removal before implementing it. Imagine cities giving underperforming highways the summer off, shutting them down for the ultimate open streets event. Just a few months would give neighborhoods the chance to physically reconnect, help emissions and air pollution to drop, and provide citizens with a vision for how much better urban life can be without a freeway running through it.