How Can Public Events Plant the Seed for True Placemaking?

Jen Jones Donatelli is a writer based in northeast Ohio who shares today's guest article about public events and how they can be part of a broader placemaking movement in our cities.

The electric energy of a major music or street festival is unmistakable — with thousands of people and exciting sounds, tastes, and sights. But after the crowds clear, what type of long-term impact does a public event leave in its wake, and could it be more meaningful?

A "First Night" New Years celebration at Lock 3 in Akron (Source: Shane Wynn via AkronStock)

A "First Night" New Years celebration at Lock 3 in Akron (Source: Shane Wynn via AkronStock)

That’s the question that leaders in Akron, Ohio are asking, especially as it pertains to Lock 3 — an outdoor venue that Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development James Hardy calls “Akron’s Central Park.” Originally built in 2003, the venue has hosted more than 2.5 million visitors to date for annual events like the Rib, White & Blue Festival; Signal Tree Festival; Winterfest; and the Rubber City Jazz & Blues Festival.

That wasn’t always the vision. In fact, Lock 3 was “originally meant to be a temporary public space until another development came along,” according to Hardy. But the popularity of the programming cemented its status as a permanent fixture, and over the last 15 years, it’s turned into a lot more than just a stand-alone event venue.

“Lock 3 was created when there was nothing going on downtown. There was no public space, no programming, and everything shut down at [business] closing time,” says Hardy. “Not only has Lock 3 created a public space downtown, but it has sustained businesses on Main Street in a very significant way — filling the restaurants, coffee shops, retail, and everything in between.”

With that in mind, Hardy and his team are revisiting the types of event programming that make sense for downtown Akron’s emerging commercial and residential communities. (According to the Downtown Akron Vision & Redevelopment Plan, 850 residential units have been added downtown since the recession, and the area could add as many as 1,500 new units in the next 10 years.)

“Lock 3 has really served as a catalyst for downtown stabilization, but now we’re reimagining what it needs to be in a downtown that runs itself,” says Hardy.

While Hardy says they plan to continue the aforementioned signature events and weekly Rock the Lock summer concerts, the shift may mean more “homegrown” and less large-scale events run by outside entities that require street closures and heavy logistical commitments.

“Playing host to a ton of regional events will probably be difficult with a large residential population and retail businesses now open on weekends,” says Hardy. “It goes back to our original mission, which was to bring life [to downtown] and help service retail businesses and restaurants. [As that develops], the last thing we would want to do is hurt them.”

Another major focus will be Lock 3’s evolution from an event venue into a versatile, inviting public space. Hardy says there isn’t a lot of other greenspace in Akron’s downtown, and that Lock 3 was “never designed to be typically beautiful or conducive to passive use and recreation. As the downtown population grows and more businesses relocate closer to the urban core, more employees will be walking and biking, so it needs to be a more inviting place.”

Hardy and his team won’t have to look far for inspiration, as numerous other communities in Akron have turned their focus to events that create a renewed sense of place and encourage sustained economic growth. So far, three areas of Akron—Kenmore, North Hill, and Middlebury—have invested in Better Block-led events, which “go into areas that are blighted or have disinvestment and figure out ways to make them desirable neighborhood destinations,” according to founder Jason Roberts.

A Better Block event in Kenmore activates empty spaces and makes the street more inviting and safe for everyone in the neighborhood.  Read more about it.  (Source: Better Block)

A Better Block event in Kenmore activates empty spaces and makes the street more inviting and safe for everyone in the neighborhood. Read more about it. (Source: Better Block)

Better Block accomplishes that by examining what already exists in the community and how to enhance it, rather than “looking at every abstract problem from a birds-eye view 1,000 feet up,” says Roberts. “Better Block [events] are made up of a community’s own ideas, skills, and resources—a manifestation of the community that’s already there.”

Held last September, Better Block’s Kenmore event was a prime example of that approach. Themed “Kenmore Rocks,” the colorful, bold event was designed to spotlight the unsung musical nature of the neighborhood—which plays home to The Rialto Theatre, two guitar shops, and seven recording studios.

“Kenmore was obviously a music district, and people weren’t talking about that at all, so we wanted to tie in that local identity,” says Roberts. “[Successful neighborhoods] physically represent the culture in a space, like you see in a Little Italy or Chinatown.”

The rebranding effort appears to have been at least somewhat effective, as Akron2Akron is hosting a music tour of Kenmore Boulevard on June 1, and the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance has opened a new music venue called Live Music Now.

The Better Block North Hill event had a similarly sticky footprint, building on the area’s considerable refugee population to reposition the area as an international district. An ongoing offshoot of that effort is the Exchange House, an AirBnB and cultural center that offers programming for local refugees and ESL classes.

Zac Kohl lives in Middlebury, where a Better Block event took place in 2016. Kohl moved to the area five years ago and is now executive director of The Well Community Development Corporation, which formed 18 months ago. During that time, The Well has hosted events including Summit County Eats, Pechakucha Akron, Big Love, and its own Middlebury Mixers designed to connect community members.

This year, The Well will host a series of farmers’ markets with on-site food trucks and local breweries. They’ve also built a hoop house, community garden, and pergola.

“When we think about placemaking, it’s not necessarily about the type of event, but more about how we are connecting people to people,” says Kohl. “Five years ago, I moved onto my block and nobody came outside, and it was full of vacancies and poorly maintained homes. Now, people feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves, and my block is full of homeowners.”

Kohl says that he hopes the events will fuel the next wave of community development and bring “more people out walking, more businesses coming into vacant storefronts in our major throughways. Businesses follow people.”

That’s certainly what Hardy envisions for downtown Akron and Lock 3. In fact, the Office of Integrated Development (which Hardy heads) was specially created in February to streamline and strengthen such efforts.

“It had become pretty apparent that divorcing community development from economic development didn’t make policy sense or practical sense from a resource application perspective,” says Hardy, who also acts as Mayor Horrigan’s Chief of Staff. “We wanted to think about how we could bring those efforts together under a common mission and vision. I feel very strongly that programming absolutely plays a role in that.”

Like Roberts and Kohl, Hardy believes that true community development starts from the inside out, and he plans to reflect that with the changes at Lock 3. “Placemaking doesn’t stop at the beautification and programmatic side of things,” says Hardy. “That’s a critical piece, but just one of many when trying to create a sense of place. It’s about starting first with the people who live there and moving from that central core.”

This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.

(Top photo by Fibonacci Blue)

About the Author

Jen Jones Donatelli is a Cleveland-based author and journalist. Currently, she is the editor of FreshWater Cleveland, an online publication that covers the people, places, and projects shaping and transforming Cleveland. She is also a contributing editor for Destination Cleveland’s city guides and has written for other regional publications including Cleveland Magazine and Ohio Today. On a national level, her work has appeared in GOOD, Redbook, Budget Travel, Robb Report, Los Angeles Confidential, and more.