ECC 2020 Reconnect: What Are Darion, Courtney and Alexa Up To?

Emerging City Champions (ECC) is a fellowship program led by 8 80 Cities. ECC provides young civic innovators with leadership training and $5,000 in seed funding to launch transformative projects to enhance public space, urban mobility or civic engagement in their city.

This year’s fellowship has overcome more over the last six months than any other over the past six years. In early 2020, the UN recognized COVID-19 as a worldwide pandemic. This shift in how we organized and operated changed dramatically. By the time we virtually met our 20 young leaders from across the United States, we already knew this situation, the world’s situation would create a lifetime bond for all of us.

We’ve asked each of our Champions to craft a blog post sharing their achievements in their first six months of implementing their projects. Despite the challenges of the times we are living in, they have strived to continue pushing forward. This is a testament to their endurance. We are so proud of their accomplishments.

ECC is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Visit for more.

Darion Edding
Summit Lake Guided Canoe Trips Program
Akron, OH

Darion Edding is 25 years old; an employee of Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition, and a placemaker of Akron, Ohio. He coordinates park and canal clean-ups, the Summit Bike Share Program, and a canoe tour program. You can find out more about other programs at

Darion’s ECC project is the Summit Lake Guided Canoe Trips Program. This is an annual program based on and using Summit Lake as a natural asset to educate residents and visitors on the wildlife and history of the lake and surrounding area while taking a canoe tour. This year in addition to the canoe tours, Darion will offer canoe lessons as well.

The Guided Canoe Trips are given as a part of the Akron Civic Commons Initiative and Let’s Grow Akron, to bring residents and visitors to the Summit Lake area in contact with Summit Lake. This unique opportunity allows people the chance to explore Summit Lake via canoe. Those who register to canoe are taken out on Summit Lake by an experienced canoeist and given a brief oral history of the Summit Lake area, the lake itself, and the wildlife found in and around the lake while learning to canoe. This is done with the hope of creating a deeper connection between the community and the lake, dispelling myths, and creating an opportunity for social and economic diversity using this civic asset.

COVIDd-19 has impacted the program planning and had an impact on volunteers’ work. Some of the challenges Darion has experienced, like the cold weather, health and climate, stopped him and his volunteers to pursue training in canoe lessons, vital for the program.

Despite the adversities, his program has seen three major successes:

  1. Getting more equipment for the program
  2. Designing a certificate for the canoe lessons
  3. Securing 4 returning volunteers from 2020 while adding 4 new and experienced volunteers for 2021


His plans for the next five months are to get his certification from either the American Canoeing Association or the United States Canoeing Association.

He also plans to develop a lesson plan and course for the canoe lessons while continuing to recruit more volunteers.

Design Downtown Bradenton
Courtney Smith
Bradenton, FL

Courtney Smith is a creative strategist from Bradenton, Florida. In her work at the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce, she develops experiences and programs that develop future leaders and foster relationships between businesses and community organizations. Her ECC project, Design Downtown Bradenton, aims to strengthen downtown Bradenton’s image as a vibrant economic attraction through a public art pitch competition. Community members will be invited to come up with unique business concepts to activate vacant public space. Large-scale concept renderings of their “pitches” will be displayed in empty storefronts and these installations will create an engaging pedestrian experience for the public, who will be invited to provide feedback on the various concepts. The winning concept will receive a cash award.

Design Downtown Bradenton has found key partners in the Manatee Chamber of Commerce and Realize Bradenton –  a nonprofit organization that promotes redevelopment and economic growth in downtown Bradenton by transforming places, engaging people, and realizing possibilities. Through their enthusiastic support, the project has been able to secure its first storefront display location, a real estate partner, and introductions to potential partners in the local education and entrepreneurship communities.

Most significantly, Realize Bradenton has invited Design Downtown Bradenton to be part of their upcoming initiative, Love This City Bradenton which is created to attract a diversity of people to downtown restaurants, hotels, businesses, cultural assets, events, and the Riverwalk to reconnect people socially, reimagine possibilities, and rebuild businesses in downtown Bradenton. Initially scheduled to coincide with the seasonal end of the Downtown Bradenton Farmers’ Market, Design Downtown Bradenton is now tentatively scheduled to culminate in Fall 2021 as more details of the Love This City Bradenton planning process becomes available. Over the next few months, Courtney’s focus will be on securing additional project artists and storefront locations in addition to advisory support from related community organizations.

Originally, part of the project goal was to facilitate targeted community listening sessions to provide marginalized voices with the opportunity to be heard. That information would be combined with recent market survey findings and provided to the Pitchers to inform their concept design. In the absence of the ability to host and attend meaningful, in-person public forums, Courtney is instead considering the use of digital tools that will allow for a visual display and exchange of thoughts and ideas throughout the project lifetime. This approach raises additional challenges on equitable access and representation that will need to be addressed.

Through the ongoing training and support provided by 8 80 Cities and fellow ECC colleagues, Courtney has been inspired and energized to think more about how this project can serve as a model for ensuring equitable representation in situations of limited opportunity, as well as how to center environmental sustainability in its execution. She looks forward to refining aspects of the project to meet that challenge.

Schoolhouse Park
Alexa Bush, Detroit

Alexa Bush has served the citizens of Detroit for six years at the City of Detroit Planning Department and is passionate about creating equitable and resilient cities. As a licensed landscape architect, she is focused on improving and activating public spaces to help communities thrive. Alexa received her Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and her Master’s in Landscape Architecture from the University of Virginia.

For her ECC project, Schoolhouse Park, Alexa proposed to use parks and public spaces to support outdoor learning for K-12 students in Detroit, like “streeteries” and other public spaces that have supported small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though her project was planned with this challenge at the forefront, the pandemic has still led to a few pivots and continuing adjustments along the way!

Despite a lot of initial interest, both the parks and school districts have been swamped with their own efforts to address student and community health during the pandemic and adapt to new public health information and guidance. Rather than more direct feedback via focus groups with these stakeholders, Alexa has moved ahead with developing a toolkit for creating outdoor learning environments and a template for districts as they are able to develop their strategies for a return to in-person learning. Her hope is that administrators, principals, and teachers can use this guide to meet their needs while reducing barriers to getting students outdoors for in-person learning for the added risk reduction of better airflow and myriad benefits for students of time spent in nature.

Alexa worked on the toolkit based on her research over the past six months into cost-effective and easy to assemble materials, including collaboration with Green Schoolyards America’s COVID-19 Learning Initiative. Alexa’s Detroit toolkit builds off this broader body of knowledge and experience, localizing resources to the climate and ecology of Michigan, as well as resources like Park Finder that are specific to Detroit. Alexa is hoping to finalize the toolkit in the coming weeks, which you will be able to find on her website as well as at Green Schoolyards America

Additionally, Alexa has found that there is a larger audience for her work, as several non-profits and other organizations could also benefit from outdoor meetings and gathering space to support their own needs for in-person programming. Alexa is partnering more closely with various non-profits to continue the development of her classroom prototype in a city park, as well as educators interested in bringing their students outdoors in various communities adjacent to Detroit in southeast Michigan.

She is currently testing a “go-bag,” a modular kit that students or participants can grab to support their outdoor activities. Tailored to fit in a lightweight canvas bag, the basic kit includes a half yoga mat, clipboard, writing materials and other supplies that can be used in a variety of settings. Alexa is using these bags to test the resiliency and function of supplies under various weather conditions and including cost estimates on a per-student/per participant basis from these findings to be included in the toolkit. Over the next few months, the toolkit will go live, and the classroom prototype will be installed in Detroit! You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @alexajbush @learnoutdoorsmi // Instagram:@learnoutdoorsmi

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