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Turning an old highway into a "pop-up forest"

Jul 25, 2017

Many cities in the Rust Belt are still shrinking, because people continue to move away. Some have lost so many people, that highways are unneeded, and being removed.

In one Midwestern city, what’s being constructed (at least, temporarily) is giving some people hope for the future of its downtown.

Kyle Kutuchief wants more places around Akron, Ohio for people to just hang around. Kutuchief is program director at the Knight Foundation here. And to show me what he means, we walk onto a newly renovated pedestrian bridge.

“Behold, behold, the grandeur. Your radio audience can’t see it right now but we’re standing over a big old highway,” he says.

And this highway, known as the Innerbelt is empty. It’s actually being removed.

“A highway that was intended to carry about 115,000 cars a day only carried about 15,000 cars a day,” he says.

Kutuchief says the highway’s construction in the 1970s created a barrier between the largely African-American neighborhoods of West Akron and the city center - creating social and economic rifts that still affect the city.

Now, the Knight Foundation is working with Akron on a new vision. Knight’s re-imagining of this space is being led by a San Francisco-based artist.

Artist's rendering.
Credit Hunter Franks

In this video from 2015, when the highway was still open to traffic, the artist, Hunter Franks, hosted a big community meal. He got the state to close Route 59 down for a few hours, to set up a really long table, big enough for 500 people, right on the highway.

“We’re having 500 people from every neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, come together, sit next to their neighbors, and also to imagine what this Innerbelt freeway could be used for in the future,” he says in the video.

Speaking more recently by Skype, Hunter Franks says people really seemed to want more public space, and more green space.

“I think the juxtaposition of this freeway and all this concrete with something that is so soft and welcoming and gentle to people in a park, or whatever the green space may end up looking like, that was really something that people connected with,” says Franks.

The Knight Foundation has given Franks a grant to create something of a pop-up forest. For a few months starting next spring, they’ll bring in temporary trees and plants, add seating, and offer things like concerts, a farmers' market, and movie screenings.

Re-imagining infrastructure isn’t unique to Akron

Joshua Newell is an assistant professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

“This is a phenomenon that’s definitely happening across the country, and internationally as well,” he says.

Newell points to the High Line in New York City. It used to be an above-ground rail line, and it was converted into an elevated park and walkway.

“And now it’s a huge success, and major tourist attraction in Manhattan, and brings people from all over the world to walk along the High Line,” he says.

But critics say that property values and rents near the High Line have skyrocketed, pushing out local businesses and lower income residents. Newell says gentrification is something cities should be wary of when adapting old infrastructure.

“There’s a very real danger of increasing property values around these very attractive, often green spaces in the city. And so that has to be a continual effort by city officials and community to guard against,” says Newell.

Detroit, for example, is considering the next life for its Interstate 375 highway spur. Newell encourages planners to involve the communities that will be affected throughout the process of making changes.

Julie Grant is a reporter with the environment news program, The Allegheny Front.