Next week, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn will be in Akron, Ohio to talk with Akronites about our prescription for bottom-up, incremental change in cities: an approach we call Neighborhoods First.
Our cities and towns are too often seduced by the promise of transformative, silver-bullet investments—but the highest-returning investments we can make in our neighborhoods are often far smaller, far more numerous, and all around us. By observing how neighbors live their lives, by asking them where their daily struggles are, by getting out on the street and discovering what is actually going on, any local government can discern what the community’s pressing needs are.
A portfolio of incremental projects, each building on observed needs and past successes, is the basis of a solid, long term investment strategy for communities of any size. It is an approach that fits into every budget. And most importantly, you can get started right now.
At 7 p.m. on Monday the 29th, Chuck will give the Neighborhoods First presentation at the Rialto Theatre on Kenmore Boulevard. There will be time for Q&A after the presentation, which is free and open to the public.
The next morning, there will be a follow-up walking tour of the Kenmore neighborhood. This is a chance to take the insights from Monday's talk and look at how to put them into action in Akron, observing places that could benefit from "small bet" investments.
Walking tour participants can meet at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday the 30th, at the office of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance (located inside Freedom Tax Service) at 1014 Kenmore Blvd.
If you're in Akron, we hope you come out to meet with us and talk with us. This is really about you. It's about identifying and celebrating the kind of bottom-up work that can really help places like Akron grow stronger.
A Rebounding City is the Perfect Place to Put Neighborhoods First
Akron earned the moniker "Rubber City" because of its flagship industry, epitomized by companies like Goodyear. But the name is also a perfect reflection of the promise to bounce back from hard times. And Akron's recent history has given it an advantage that might look at first glance like a disadvantage: the city doesn't have a lot of excess resources to burn.
A city whose coffers are overflowing can dump money into Orderly but Dumb projects without carefully examining the underlying approach or assumptions, or attempting to measure the ensuring return on investment. (Which is not to say they should, of course—it’s still pretty dumb—but they can, at least for a while, spend without really thinking about the future.)
A city strapped for resources, on the other hand, has to be Chaotic but Smart, letting pressing public needs guide incremental investments, and constantly reassessing where the biggest bang for the buck is.
A city that is gaining population can go full-bore into the Growth Ponzi Scheme: it can neglect existing neighborhoods while directing new growth to a spread-out, horizontal development pattern. Again, this isn’t particularly smart, but but it is seductive for many cities, as the "shiny and new" growth produces a short-term infusion of cash, while saddling the public with enormous long-term infrastructure liabilities. Akron has its own checkered history with Ponzi-esque growth, but that model is increasingly understood to define the city's past and not its future.
A city that is losing population and has a surfeit of vacant homes does not have that option anymore. Akron's existing neighborhoods are where it needs to turn its attention.
Akron can't dump money on its problems. Akron has to be resourceful. Akron has to be scrappy. Akron has to leverage citizens' passion as the starting point for change, and use public resources as the force multiplier.
Here's some good news: this is how you build a strong town for the long haul.
Here's some better news: a lot of great stuff is already happening in Akron. And we applaud it.
Here are just two brief examples of the Strong Towns approach in action in Akron:
1. Making Kenmore Boulevard More People-Friendly
In the summer of 2017, a group of residents took some chalk and flimsy lawn furniture and arranged it along three blocks of Kenmore Boulevard. They strung a few lights around an empty stretch of grass and stuck some bikes on the sidewalk. They left all of this around for a few days, then took it down. They hosted a few musical performances and invited residents to make a mural—which was cute—but the whole thing was exceedingly temporary…. Or was it?
The premise of the work done by Better Block, the organization brought in to execute this demonstration, is to show people what's possible when you prioritize human activity on a neighborhood street over the fast movement of traffic. A temporary, low-cost experiment can create the momentum for permanent change... and that's exactly what has happened in Kenmore. Fast forward to September 2018, when the City of Akron completed a "road diet" that has made Kenmore Boulevard safer for both drivers and pedestrians, and a more hospitable environment for the continued growth of the city's most vibrant commercial district outside of downtown.
2. Building Community in Middlebury
In Akron's Middlebury neighborhood, the fledgling community development organization The Well has taken over and renovated the former First Presbyterian Church building into a home for its own offices, several other nonprofits, and community event space with a shared-use kitchen. In the summer of 2018, a lot behind The Well's building became the setting for Middlebury Wednesdays, where food trucks, live music, and the Hapi Fresh Farmer’s Market brought the community together.
This kind of effort doesn't directly create jobs or put people in vacant houses, but it's a hugely important part of the work of putting neighborhoods first, because it fosters the kind of shared commitment to a community that can break the cycle of neighborhood decline. The Well's Zac Kohl hopes that Middlebury can follow the example of Oswego, New York, where the revitalization of a struggling neighborhood is underway, thanks to a critical mass of neighbors who have committed to renovating a critical mass of houses.
You can check out the rest of our Akron coverage for more examples of how the city is benefitting from an incremental, strategic, bottom-up approach to building on its existing assets.
And if you're local to Akron, we hope to see you at the Rialto on the 29th!
(Cover photo: Stephanie Leonardi via AkronStock)