A Forest on the Freeway: "Innerbelt National Forest" Swaps Concrete for Community

When it comes to the scars of previous generations’ outdated urban planning, Akron, Ohio isn’t all that different from other metropolitan cities. We have seemingly perpetual construction, inefficient roadways, and a decommissioned urban freeway that sliced up the city in a misguided effort to save it from post-industrial decline. However, Akron’s efforts to repurpose that old infrastructure are setting it apart from the rest. In the summer of 2018, a temporary green space sprouted along the decommissioned Innerbelt Freeway. This pop-up space, cheekily dubbed the Innerbelt National Forest, was the handiwork of Hunter Franks and the League of Creative Interventionists, in collaboration with the citizens of Akron.

Complete with potted trees and other plants, a concert stage, mulch trails, and other amenities, this 32-acre park and gathering spot ran from August into October, and was funded by a Knight Cities Challenge grant. [Editor’s note: Full disclosure: Strong Towns is the recipient of a grant from the Knight Foundation for our work in Akron.] The project served as way to engage the community and reconnect the neighborhoods previously bisected by the defunct freeway, as well as to test the waters of creating a permanent green space in place of the highway.

While the installment was only temporary, the Innerbelt National Forest demonstrated Akron’s resilience and ability to adapt, as well as the fact that a bottom-up approach that heeds the voices of the community can be a stepping stone to permanent change.

The Road to Nowhere is Paved with Good Intentions

The nearly-deserted Innerbelt in 2010. (Source: David Grant via Flickr)

The Innerbelt Freeway was meant to be Akron’s saving grace. As downtown struggled to attract consumers and residents migrated to suburban areas, the Innerbelt’s purpose was to create a vital artery of traffic into the city. By connecting the suburbs and other major roadways like US 224 and State Route 8, and giving drivers a cut-through to the heart of Akron, it was—in theory—a perfect solution to revitalize the inner city.

But like any theory, no matter how good it sounds on paper, it’s success is determined by putting it into practice, and the Innerbelt failed miserably.

Construction on the six-lane freeway began in 1970. It was never completed. Instead of providing an easy through-way to the city, the Innerbelt succeeded only in razing historically-black neighborhoods, separating (and effectively segregating) communities, cutting off westbound foot traffic into downtown, and siphoning taxpayer money and city funds into unwanted and ineffective infrastructure. Originally built to handle 120,000 cars per day, the Innerbelt only ever served 20,000 at its peak. It never reached US 224 or State Route 8, effectively creating a “Road to Nowhere.” Finally, in 2016, the 4.5-mile stretch of overbuilt and underused highway was closed and promptly abandoned—that is, until Hunter Franks and the League of Creative Interventionists stepped in.

From a Pop-Up Dinner to a Pop-Up Forest

The Innerbelt National Forest in the summer of 2018

Founded by Hunter Franks in 2014, the League of Creative Interventionists describes itself as “an informal group of people around the US using art in public space to create community.” The League’s goal is to find opportunities to create participatory public spaces that foster human connection. It uses a decentralized model, in which local Fellows are selected and given substantial control over a 12-month project. To help ensure success, they are provided with a stipend, guides, resources and tools, and access to a national network of peers and mentors.

The Innerbelt National Forest wasn’t the first time Franks and the LCI got involved with the Innerbelt Freeway. In 2015, the group put together an event called 500 Plates, a community meal for 500 people on 500 connected tables across a stretch of the abandoned freeway. It was at this event that the idea for the forest first took root, with 87 percent of the attendees stating they wished for the road to be reimagined into a space where Akronites could connect both with nature and with their neighbors.

In more autocratic hands, the idea of creating green space on top of a former highway could very well have gone the same route as the highway itself: an over-ambitious project that under-delivered. But the differentiator lies in the ability to adapt and adjust to feedback, while including local voices and local businesses in the project.

Goat yoga in the Innerbelt National Forest

For the three-ish months that the Forest was in place, it hosted visitors of all shapes and sizes, from local Akronites to out-of-town tourists. It saw numerous concerts, yoga with goats, poetry readings, farmers markets, and probably saw more foot traffic than the freeway ever saw cars. Hannah Troyer, Programming Lead for the Innerbelt National Forest, attended all 26 events held during their 8 weeks of operation. On the subject of the public’s opinion, she stated, “I don't ever remember a negative reaction to the space. Many people were intrigued at the idea, and pleasantly surprised at what they found when they visited. People were most interested in what would happen to the space after the project was completed.”

Family fun in the Innerbelt National Forest

What truly set this project apart was the group’s partnership and collaboration with local artists and businesses. The Innerbelt National Forest and the League paid $72,400 to local artists and businesses in Akron who were part of the project, making it a great example of a mutually beneficial relationship—each entity supporting the other for the benefit of the community.

Looking ahead, the forest will reopen for another season, with the City of Akron and other local partners planning to bring back programming in the Spring of 2019. According to Troyer, the responses from the community have been overwhelmingly positive. “Throughout the initial 8 weeks of the project, we conducted a survey in which 100% of responses indicated that they wanted the space to remain. We got many positive responses as well as some constructive feedback that will help us to make this a more sustainable community space in the future. As we look to the future, we'll be looking for more feedback to help transition this space from a temporary project into a more semi-permanent or permanent public space for the community.”

For now, the forest is mostly closed for the off-season. Many of the Forest’s trees were permanently planted in the ground, while other potted plants were stored or re-homed for the winter. However, passers-by can still see the space from the nearby Towpath trail. In the spring, Akronites and visitors alike will once again be able to enjoy the beauty and community of the Forest, and continue to enjoy the green space no matter what ultimately gets implemented on the former freeway.

(All photos courtesy of the League of Creative Interventionists unless otherwise stated)