If you were given more than $200,000 and the opportunity to transform one of your city’s most notorious eyesores, what would you choose and how would you transform it?

Artist Hunter Franks doesn’t hail from the fading former canal town of Akron, Ohio, but the John S. and John L. Knight Foundation does. So it's a huge honor that the San Francisco-based Franks was selected to receive a $214,420 grant from the arts- and journalism-centered nonprofit to breath new, community-bettering life into its hometown.

But then again, Franks has done good work in Akron before and his latest proposal, well, it’s a doozy.

Dubbed Innerbelt National Forest, Frank’s winning submission to the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge places a lush pop-up forest atop a shuttered stretch of highway that bisects two once-conjoined Akron neighborhoods. Geared to promote growth and stability in perpetually shrinking Akron, Innerbelt National Forest reconnects these severed neighborhoods via a vibrant public space that functions as both a well-shaded urban refuge and a venue for arts-based community programming.

The genius here, of course, is that Franks has set out to revive the very thing that severed these neighborhoods to begin with. Opened to traffic in the late 1970s after years of financial woes and heated local opposition, the Innerbelt — a 4.5-mile-long portion of State Route 59 skirting downtown Akron — proved to be a colossal failure almost from the get-go. Instead of tiptoeing around the Innerbelt or focusing his attention on another part of Ohio’s fifth largest city, Franks aims to heal Akron’s most painful wound through a dramatic reinvention. Sure, Innerbelt National Forest, as a concept, has whiffs of the High Line. The comparison is inevitable. However, Franks' vision is also its own unique creature: a ruinous Midwestern mistake repurposed as a tool for unification.

Permanently closed to traffic since 2015, the six-lane highway was built to link Akron’s dwindling downtown core with the Interstate and the city’s rapidly growing suburban fringes — not a bad idea in theory.

Google map screenshot of Innerbelt, Akron, Ohio Built and only partially completed in the 1970s, a span of Ohio SR 59 that was meant to provide greater access to downtown Akron quickly backfired in a spectacular, if predictable, fashion. It closed permanently in 2015. (Screenshot: Google Maps)

Detested by area residents and drastically underused by motorists, the Innerbelt, which was never completed in its entirety, only hastened downtown Akron’s demise. Just ahead of its 2015 closure, the Plain Dealer noted that the bungled highway carries just one tenth of the traffic that planners anticipated it would.

The freeway today stands as an eerily quiet reminder of lost ambitions and a forgotten neighborhood. Sometimes, early in the evening one can drive the entire 4.5-mile length of the road without seeing the tail lights of another car.

In the end, the Innerbelt quickly proved itself to be not a lifeline for downtown Akron but a final nail in the coffin that, in the process of its construction, destroyed historic African-American neighborhoods and severed West Akron from the city center. To this day, the divide between underserved West Akron and the city’s commercial core remains with a dangerous, incomplete and now dead highway wedged between them.

Innerbelt, Akron Ohio, before its closing Akron's Innerbelt proved disastrous when completed in the 1970s. Underused by motorists, the roadway divided neighborhoods and hastened the decline of downtown Akron instead of slowing it. (Photo: David Grant/flickr)

A new breed of freeway park

Akron certainly wouldn't be the first city to fuse two freeway-separated neighborhoods cities back together again with public parkland.

Dallas, Seattle and Boston are just three cities that have blanketed neighborhood-severing freeways with innovative “lid” parks. The latter city went as far to bury an elevated, perpetually congested stretch of Interstate 93 — the Central Artery — and then cover it with a park. Last year, nonprofit Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) unveiled an ambitious and highly likable proposal for a sort of freeway cap park on steroids – an entirely new mini-neighborhood, really — that would “re-stitch” northern downtown Atlanta with the southern reaches of Midtown. By placing public green space (and much more) directly atop the a three-quarter mile stretch of the Downtown Connector (I-75/85), CAP hopes to erase the “physical and psychological barrier” created by this freeway-divided section of the city.

Taking it a step further, Portland, Oregon, is an example of a city that's removed a disruptive, neighborhood-cleaving highway altogether and replaced it with a park.

While Akron has similar plans to demolish and eventually redevelop sections of the Innerbelt, the process is moving ahead in a piecemeal fashion. This helps sets Franks’ singular vision apart from the pack. Instead of creating a park over an active freeway or building anew atop land where a freeway once stood, Franks plans to transform 30 acres of dead but intact, freeway. (The Plain Dealer reports that Franks and his team have recruited Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Groundswell Design Group to assist in the endeavor.)

Much less expensive than a traditional freeway cap park, this type of park is a far rarer breed. According to a recent profile on the project published by the Smithsonian, Akron’s newest park while stick around for a short three months after debuting in 2018. If residents respond positively to the presence of a pop-up forest located on a stretch of dead highway, there’s hope that city officials will decide to permanently dedicate the space to parkland.

Vintage postcard of Akron, Ohio Ohio's fifth largest city behind Toledo, Akron was once dubbed the 'Rubber Capital of the World' due to the once-plentiful presence of tire manufacturers. Today, it suffers from dramatic population loss. (Photo: Sent from the Past/flickr)

“We want to open it up to people and see what happens, see what people use it for,” says Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation, explains to the Smithsonian.

The Knight Foundation was founded in 1950 by the heirs to the Akron Beacon Journal publishing empire primarily as a means of bolstering local education programs. As it expanded its philanthropic outreach over the decades, the foundation eventually outgrew Akron and relocated to Miami, where it is headquartered to this day.

In 1991, James Knight died and left most of his $200 million fortune to the nonprofit with this mission: “… promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts” — that he co-founded with his brother John four decades prior. Aside from their eponymous foundation, the Knight brothers are best known for founding the (now-defunct) Knight Ridder group of newspapers in 1974. During its heyday, Knight Ridder was America’s second largest newspaper publisher with 32 different daily titles including the Philadelphia Daily News, the San Jose Mercury News, the Detroit Free Press and the Miami Herald.

Kutuchief himself grew up in Akron native and was well aware of the ruinous effect that the Innerbelt had on the city. “It was this Great Wall of China that pinned in downtown and just decimated neighborhoods that used to be the connective tissue between downtown and West Akron,” he tells the Smithsonian. “The highway used to be key to economic development,” Kutuchief says. “Now, removing the highway or making it a place for people is key to economic development.”

Rendering of Innerbelt National Forest, Akron, Ohio and picture of dead freeway Innerbelt National Forest is envisioned as a temporary park that Knights Cities Challenge winner Hunter Franks hopes will resonate with the local residents and, just as importantly, city officials. (Rendering Hunter Franks)

Supporting good ideas from San Jose to Philly (and many cities in between)

The recently announced 2017 Knight Cities Challenge winners were awarded a combined $5 million in grant money. A total of 33 winning proposals were selected, all of them dedicated to spurring positive, innovative change in 19 of the 26 different cities that Knight Ridder once published daily newspapers in and that the Knight Foundation continues to invest in.

This includes eight special focus cities — Akron, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia; San Jose, California; Macon, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; and St. Paul, Minnesota — where the foundation retains a resident program director like Kutuchief. The 18 remaining “Knight Communities” include a diverse range of mid-sized cities across the country such as Biloxi, Mississippi; Duluth, Minnesota; Long Beach, California; Wichita, Kansas; Boulder, Colorado; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

In total, this year’s challenge received ideas from more than 4,500 applicants, all of them focused on one or all three of what the Knight Foundation considers as key ingredients to a successful city: civic engagement, economic opportunity, and the ability to attract talented people.

Multiple proposed ideas for the eight core Knight Communities received support. Five grants, with a combined total of over $1 million, were awarded to Philadelphia-based proposals alone. Five Detroit-based grants were awarded while Miami won three.

In Akron, the city where it all began, two grants were awarded.

Joining Franks, William “Mac” Love, the force behind Akron-based “creative courage company Art x Love, was awarded $241,000 to realize his idea, @PLAY, across 18 neighborhoods. With plans to install neighborhood-tailored games and recreational activities across Akron, Love tells Cleveland.com the ultimate aim of his proposal is to “bring diverse people together and get people to change their patterns and attitudes about local identity through a more vibrant sense of place.”

While Love, a brand consultant by trade, is a first-time Knight Cities Challenge grantee, Franks has benefited by the Knight Foundation’s largesse in the past. (Outside of Akron, Franks has installed swings on BART subway cars in the Bay Area; "heartbombed" abandoned homes in Macon, Georgia; and sparked the globally adopted Neighborhood Postcard Project.)

Franks’ vision for the Pump House Center for Art & Culture, an in-development adaptive reuse project that transforms an old lakeside pump station in South Akron into a community creative hub, has received support from the Knight Foundation.

In 2015, Franks used $96,000 in grant money to host a 500-person group supper on the — you guessed it — newly closed Innerbelt highway. Representing all 22 Akron neighborhoods, the communal meal’s 500 guests were seated at a 500-foot-long table (63 individual tables linked together) and encouraged to talk about opportunities and challenges in their respective neighborhoods, as you can see in the video above. Attendees were also invited to share with each other their own thoughts on how the Innerbelt should be reused and reborn.

That said, it’s safe to assume that the idea for the Innerbelt National Forest, like some of the world’s best ideas, was borne from a leisurely group meal.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.