01/30/14| “BIG IDEA” for Parks and Open Space

An Indianapolis publication recently asked storrow|kinsella  "what is your BIG IDEA" regarding parks and open space planning and design for Indianapolis.

Our response was that there are shelves-full  of great  ideas but a lack of an implementing framework for their coherent execution and sustenance across the region we call home. Our unlikely-to-be-published Big Idea follows:

Re-imagine the current hierarchy of public system management.

The idea: Establish a method/agency to guide the spatial and transportation systems that define the region, with a charter to integrate and guide land use growth, preserve open space, and create balanced multimodal transportation as a framework for a regional constellation of communities and open space connectivity (much like the joint agency established for the parks, parkways and boulevards in George Kessler’s time).

Currently, planning and design are fragmented across multiple jurisdictions and agencies according to discipline-based silos. There is no unifying grand vision that each agency master plan fits within (for example the recent parks master plan is done independently of the transportation master plan). Most important, there is little cross border continuity for systems planning other than for traffic management led by the MPO and INDOT.


Big and bold: people of imagination leading an apolitical planning, design and management of public space as a state-regional-local interdependency. The model: Oregon statewide land use planning, and its metropolitan growth boundaries, sustainable communities and natural resource and open space preservation, initiated in 1973 by a progressive republican governor, Tom McCall, and backed up by the non-profit “1000 Friends of Oregon”. Today we look at Portland as a template, but few understand how it got there.


There is a real paucity of big picture vision, and a lack of imagination, will and/or resources to create and maintain quality public spaces and systems across the Indianapolis region.

The ephemerality and degradation of quality public resources and systems over time results from an inability to plan on a regional-to-local continuum, execute those plans at a high level of design, and to dedicate adequate resources to maintain them over generations.  Parks are often the first budget shortfall victims. The concept of the public right of way as part of the city’s open space system was an assumption in the 1920’s Kessler Plan that only recently has been revisited with the Cultural Trail initiative, and to some extents with the Complete Streets movement.

A positive trend is that there is a growing demand for the creation and stewardship of quality public systems by an emergent body of creative people who are either staying, returning or coming here based on the attraction of spatial and amenity-based quality of life successes of recent years.  They are becoming a critical mass responding to and demanding more quality design and stewardship of that public realm.  The successes are the big ideas (Regional Center Convention/Visitation facilities investment, Super Bowl community development, and Cultural Districts/Cultural Trail come to mind) built upon the surviving remnant (the Good Bones) of the efforts of earlier generations. Ralston, Kessler, Sheridan, Lugar, Hudnut, Ray Irvin, Bill Gray, Brian Payne, Mark Miles, and Michael Huber, come to mind as instrumental leader-thinkers for some of the recent and crucial initiatives, but there are certainly others.  Political leadership responds to the critical mass attracted by the efforts of that “community leadership”, but is still hobbled by an inability to access and channel a vast regional wealth, both private and corporate, other than through tired and unpopular taxation systems. The Water Company sale and parking system franchising are notable exceptions, as is the CICF-led Cultural Trail initiative, all clues for a different model. But all constrained by a lack of enlightened comprehensive planning on a state and regional basis.

The Big Idea:  a Central Indiana metro-parks system connected by a regional park and boulevard network, expanding the Kessler “big idea” for the heart of our state that integrates smart land use and balanced transportation.

Oh...it wasn't published.

A related discussion and a much bigger idea was presented back in 2008 with The Central Indiana Green Connector  concept. We prepared that to support efforts by our client HARMONI (now Midtown) to influence conversations regarding Mass/Rapid Regional transit. It looked at the misguided and sprawl-inducing Central Indiana Commerce Connector reimagining it as a a framework for a regional open space system based on urban growth boundaries. 

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