It’s easy to take for granted the beauty of a space when enjoying it, especially during the nicer parts of the year when outdoor recreation is on everyone’s mind. Preserved pathways aligned with beautiful landscaping are just some of the scenery that can be missed during a leisurely stroll or bike ride. What is most interesting about these natural “finishing touches” is that while they might go unnoticed when consistently taken care of, they become glaringly obvious when neglected.
For visitors of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail in Akron, there is little that can compare to the three-mile section of the trail spanning from downtown Akron all the way to Summit Lake. The route takes guests on a path that winds through an urban landscape integrated by natural scenery, creating a comfortable balance between industry and environment. Though a three-mile stretch along the canalway might not seem like a far distance to cover, once visitors step foot on the trail itself they become increasingly aware of the efforts that must be made to maintain the path year-round. Northeast Ohio weather can be particularly tumultuous, as can the routine construction projects taking place, resulting in a need for the upkeep and care of our natural resources. The Towpath Trail in downtown Akron is no exception, and born out of the need for its stewardship has grown the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition’s “Adopt-A-Trail” program.
Through a technical assistance agreement with the City of Akron, the Canalway Coalition has proposed the “Adopt-A-Trail” program to develop partnerships among corporations, nonprofit organizations, and individuals dedicated to sustaining the three-mile portion of the Trail. Participation in Canal clean ups and litter removal, landscaping, watch group reports of damage or vandalism, and overall activation through seating or lighting are just some examples of potential projects that may be undertaken. Contributing organizations sign a three-year agreement and are expected to organize at least four “Adopt-A-Trail” maintenance activities throughout the calendar year, each submitted for approval by the City of Akron. To share in gratitude for these efforts, all participating organizations will be recognized through signage along the Towpath Trail and on the Canalway Coalition’s website, social media, and newsletter platforms.
President and CEO of the Canalway Coalition, Dan Rice, says that efforts to incorporate “Adopt-A-Trail” as part of the City of Akron’s maintenance efforts is not meant to replace what is being done; rather, the program is intended to augment what the city is already doing. “We’re really just looking to boost things a little bit and say, ‘How can we help?’ If you can get six volunteers, for example, they can take care of a certain park space within a couple hours, which would normally take much longer.” Rice explains that the three-mile portion of the Trail will be split into half-mile sections, of which each organization will oversee their own segment. Some overlap may occur, seeing as there are 10 organizations currently slated to participate, though Rice says that this is actually a good thing and will provide an opportunity for greater activation.
What stands out to Rice about “Adopt-A-Trail” is the way that it challenges past expectations about the support of public spaces. The days of solely depending on local government to take everything on is fleeting, if not already gone. “This is somewhat of a nontraditional approach, but it’s the only way we can make this happen,” he says. “We have to do things together as a community. We certainly don’t want the public or government sector to abandon these assets, so by creating this host of civic actors, we can help.”
Each organization will depend on its employees to volunteer their time in caring for its designated section of the Trail, though many participants are eager to get started. Alexandria Reiter is a marketing coordinator for GPD Group, one of the participating organizations, and she says her office’s proximity to the Trail is a significant motivating factor. “Our office is right along the Trail and many of our employees are already using the Trail daily, so if we can help maintain this section, we’re already there and excited to support it.” Reiter says that GPD’s involvement provides an ongoing Trail watch and cleanup opportunity for employees that enables them to take ownership of the area, as well. “Not only that, but we have a health initiative and a community engagement initiative that this plays right into. It provides our employees a years-long opportunity right in our back yard.”
As a member of the Canalway’s Associate Board of Young Professionals, Reiter says it was her involvement on the board that prompted her to propose participation in the project to GPD. “We’ve been working on all of these underpass improvement projects and one of the biggest topics that we discussed was a maintenance plan, and how we didn’t really have a maintenance plan in place. We kept talking about one, and then Dan brought up the idea of ‘adopting an underpass’ or ‘adopting a trail.’ So then it turned into ‘Adopt-A-Trail.’”
Fellow Canalway associate board member, Kyle Lukes of Environmental Design Group, says he sees the “Adopt-A-Trail” program as a kind of outgrowth of some of the work being done by the board. Though he knew something was in the works to help maintain the Trail, he says he didn’t know what kind of formal look and feel the project was going to take until “Adopt-A-Trail” was officially announced. “I’ve been interested both personally and professionally in doing something like that for a while. At EDG, we have a vested interest in and longstanding relationships with the communities that we serve. I think it was another level of involvement that we could get into.”
Lukes explains that EDG’s ideas for the Trail are still in the planning stages, though they are hoping to lock in their segment near the northern portion of Summit Lake soon. With a minimum goal of raising the aesthetic value of the space, Lukes’ team intends to take the approach of keeping it a “well-manicured, well-loved, and visually appealing kind of trail.”
Beyond just enhancing the Trail’s visual appearance, Lukes explains that joining “Adopt-A-Trail” is an opportunity to take value in Akron’s one-of-a-kind outdoor setting. “I am a trail designer as well as a trail user in my personal life. I think that often times we think of trails as something out in the natural world. You think of the national park or farther south of Akron, where you’re in kind of a more rural setting. Trails in urban spaces can offer a completely different and unique experience that you don’t get in those kinds of settings. It’s not a positive or a negative; it’s a completely different experience that needs to be embraced. And urban areas often times don’t fully embrace those kinds of experiences.”
Care for the Towpath Trail also does the work of taking a resourceful civic asset and making it an attractive interest for local communities. “Public spaces are the great equalizers: they spread equity and all people can use them,” Lukes says. “We’re trying to enhance already existing features to make them better than they were originally envisioned or just to keep them up to par with other parks. After all, trails are linear parks.”
Jim Weber, director of construction at H.R. Gray, agrees with the idea that involvement in projects like “Adopt-A-Trail” is a great way to give back to the spaces that already provide communities like Akron with so much. Weber explains that H.R. Gray has been a part of the construction of many of the trails in the area, as well as supporters of the Canalway’s Trailblazer sponsorship program. The opportunity to work hands-on along the Towpath Trail once again was a prospect he says excited his team from the beginning. “Typically when a [construction] project is done, we don’t really have an opportunity to be a part of it after that. This is kind of a way to say, ‘Hey, we helped build these trails and we want to help maintain them and keep them clean.’”
The enthusiasm for the project between Weber and his team runs even deeper. “It’s personal to us. Our employees use this trail, whether biking or running or walking, during lunch each day. Many times we will walk by and say, ‘We wish we could do more.’ Being able to adopt a section of trail that we can actually look out our office windows and see makes us very happy. This [project] will allow us to really give back to the Canalway and to downtown Akron, which we have been a part of for 25 years.”
Weber also points out that the Trail acts as a sort of gateway into downtown Akron for visitors of the area. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot with my family, and when you go to other cities you find great public spaces. It’s very simple. Great cities have great public spaces. You can point to Chicago and Millennium Park, or New York City and Central Park, or the squares of Savannah. These cities are known for their outdoor areas. This is our opportunity to really create a great new public space here in Akron out of one that already exists.”
In considering Rice’s original interpretation of the potential for success behind “Adopt-A-Trail’s” nontraditional approach, Weber similarly concurs. He points to the pressing issues cities in the area face in devoting their resources, saying that park projects can sometimes lose priority, though understandably so. “This [project] allows the city to be more efficient in how it deploys its workers if this is one less thing they have to manage on their own. For us, we look at this as a way we can help the city by providing people to do this work, allowing them to deploy their forces on something that might be a higher priority at this point.”
One of the frequent comments Weber hears from visitors to Akron is the fact that they find the area to be so clean. The observation of Akron as one of the cleanest mid-sized cities one can find themselves in is both a compliment and a badge of honor Weber hopes to uphold. “To us, if we can help keep that reputation and maintain it, we think that’s a good thing for the city and a good thing for the people of Akron.”
As “Adopt-A-Trail” begins to take shape in the coming spring and summer seasons, the Towpath Trail is sure to bring Akron’s spirit to the forefront thanks to the selfless commitment of its community volunteers.