Unpaved Paradise

Akron’s Innerbelt National Forest turns a highway into parkland

Landscape Architecture Midwest Open
The Innerbelt National Forest is part of a larger project converting the former Innerbelt freeway into public land. (Courtesy League of Creative Interventionists)
The Innerbelt National Forest is part of a larger project converting the former Innerbelt freeway into public land. (Courtesy League of Creative Interventionists)

Akron, Ohio, like many of America’s cities, has been torn apart by invasive highways that cut through downtowns and divide pedestrian neighborhoods with rivers of impassible concrete. But in that same city, the course is being reversed. The Innerbelt National Forest, a temporary green space, opened this summer just feet from where the Innerbelt freeway once ran through the heart of the city.

The National Forest opened with the start of August and offers pop-up spaces for community amenities in a naturalistic setting. Trails and potted trees intertwine with play spaces and an outdoor museum, all of which will be open through September. The short-term installation is an experimental part of a longer-term project to engage the public to find a permanent use for the entire former freeway site.

Site plan of the Innerbelt National Forest

Site plan of the Innerbelt National Forest (Via cleveland.com)

The Innerbelt freeway was originally a spur of the national interstate system that Akron built in the 1970s to bring drivers downtown. In the process, the city claimed and cleared neighborhoods, tearing apart the urban fabric at the city’s core. The line of the freeway split the surrounding area in two, effectively segregating black residents to one side and white residents to the other.

In 2016 the city closed the north end of the Innerbelt without a clear idea of what would replace it. Mayor Dan Horrigan has said that the 31-acre site could be developed for housing and amenities, and that it could be used to construct a large central park. For now, the road still stands, though it is cut off from automotive traffic while the city reviews proposals.

Aerial photo of the site of the Innerbelt National Forest

Aerial photo of the site of the Innerbelt National Forest (Via cleveland.com)

The Innerbelt National Forest is the work of the nonprofit League of Creative Interventionists. The League won a $214,420 grant from the Knight Foundation 2017 Cities Challenge to create the Innerbelt National Forest. The idea came from a 2015 event that the league hosted, called “500 Plates.” The event was a community dinner for 500 people, hosted on the highway’s bed, where people were asked what they would like to see in the space.

Related Stories