The Future of Parks in Indianapolis

Author: Ryan P. Cambridge, PLA, ASLA, APA
Date: November 10, 2016

As the dust settles on one of the most contentious election seasons in United States history, many Americans are finding themselves deeply unsettled about the trajectory of our country and its communities. In addition to concerns regarding national security, economic stability, and unity shared by many, I also find myself both concerned – and more importantly – optimistic about the future of parks and public spaces in Indianapolis.

Nearly the entirety of my professional career as a registered landscape architect has been spent working with parks departments across the U.S. As such, I have had the privilege of seeing – in an intimate fashion – a wide array of systems; some excelling, some failing, and many just sustaining. The current state of the Indy Parks System, especially when compared against some known national benchmarks for “success,” is cause for concern.

Indianapolis has a large and uniquely historic city park system. Planned largely by George E. Kessler – a famed and early pioneer in the field of landscape architecture – Indianapolis’ park system includes 210 parks and 11,254 total acres, 125 playgrounds, 155 sports fields, and 130 miles of trails . Indianapolis is also home to Eagle Creek Park, which at 5,300 acres, is one of the largest municipal parks in the U.S. For comparison purposes, Central Park in New York City is a mere 843 acres. In addition, Indy parks hosts a multitude of programs far too numerous to list here.

How Does Indy Measure Up?

The quantity of parks, acreage, programs, and facilities in Indianapolis is encouraging, however, how we as a city choose to financially support them is not. According to the newly released 2016 City Park Facts report by The Trust for Public Land (TPL), Indianapolis continues to underperform when compared to our peers, especially when it comes to funding. This sentiment is validated by many of the city’s most outspoken parks advocates, and has been for some time.

As cited in the TPL study, which evaluated the park systems of the 100 largest cities in the United States, Indianapolis spends $32 annually, per resident on parks and recreation. Of that $32, only $4 goes to capital development for new parks and facilities. This number represents solely municipal investment, and is unacceptably low when compared against some of the most “livable” cities in the United States such as Seattle ($281), New York ($210), Chicago ($173), Denver ($120), and so on.

Yes, there are many things about each of those cities that differentiate them from Indianapolis, but the numbers show that we are lagging behind even some of our regional peers, such as Minneapolis ($222), St. Louis ($210), Cincinnati ($188), Nashville ($103), Milwaukee ($98), Ft. Wayne ($78), and Louisville ($61) . In fact, of 100 largest cities in the U.S., Indianapolis – which is the 14th largest by population – ranks 91st with regard to investment in parks. ¬¬

Why is this Important?

Our city’s investment in parks – both existing and new – is critically important because there is now, as parks advocates have long preached anecdotally, a quantifiable correlation between a community’s park system (in both size and quality), and its overall quality of life, sustainability, and economic capacity. Parks are critical infrastructure; just as much as quality roads, schools, and utilities. In today’s global market, many prospective employees will choose where to live (and invest) based on the “lifestyle” that community provides, rather than moving to where perspective jobs are perceived to be. Quality of life is a key metric in attracting talent, and parks are a notable contributor to quality of life.

The old model of parks – one where the biggest decisions park directors cared to champion was whether to purchase a blue or green playground – IS DEAD. Parks today are immeasurably more complex, and are being asked by their leaders and constituents to do more than merely provide places for play and recreation, as critically important as those things are. Today’s parks are also being asked to DIRECTLY and QUANTITATIVELY impact community health, social equity, sustainability, and economic development, to name only a few.

The model through which parks facilities and services are being funded and delivered is also gone. In the past, many parks departments across the U.S. existed solely as municipal subsidies; slaves to the General Fund. In a city that has long stood on the platform of fiscal conservancy, this model of funding will perpetuate all of the challenges our system is currently facing with backlogged maintenance, let alone new park development.

Given this reality, Indianapolis must – as progressive cities like New York and Chicago have for decades – fully embrace a more progressive model of service delivery; one in which both public sector and private sector collaboratively rise up and partner together to increase Indianapolis’ quality of life through the support and development of our most important economic, environmental, and social tool; our parks!

Why Be Optimistic?

For the first time in many years, Indianapolis has the leadership in place – both public and private – who appear poised to fully embrace the importance of parks in a city that sings the praises of a high quality of life, yet struggles to fund improvements necessary to sustain it. We have a newly appointed, progressive parks director (Linda Broadfoot), an active and supported parks foundation that is able to solicit and invest “private” dollars (IndyParksFoundation.org), and a mayor who is choosing outright to be a champion of parks.

A couple of weeks ago, Mayor Joe Hogsett kicked off the fundraising campaign for the Indianapolis Parks Foundation’s 2017 IPL Mayor’s Lunch for Parks, pledging his support for both the foundation and the city’s parks department. The IPL Mayor’s Lunch for Parks is the foundation’s largest fundraising event of the year, and is seeking to raise more than $300,000 to support Indianapolis’ public parks and their programs. This is also a big year for the foundation, as they celebrate 25 years of operation and 15 years of the annual Mayor’s Lunch for Parks. In that 25-year period, the parks foundation has invested more than $50 million in support of the parks that many of us enjoy on a daily basis.

In addition, Indy Parks has their own “My City, My Park” initiative identified in the city’s most recent strategic plan, which is designed to help facilitate “personal and corporate volunteerism, financial support, and adoption of city park spaces and programs.” This initiative is a proactive approach to identifying and leveraging public-private partnerships to help support the ongoing evolution of the Indy Parks system, and should be more broadly embraced by our local business community.

Parks are the very heart of the public realm, and therefore, also the gatekeeper to quality of life in our city. I would encourage each and every resident, business owner, and elected official who desires a genuinely high quality of life in Indianapolis to stand alongside our foundation, the Indy parks department, and our city, and become an advocate for parks, regardless of how often you may each individually “touch” a park space or participate in a program. If we as a city, stand up for and support parks the way that we historically have our treasured sports teams and venues, we will ensure that Indianapolis will be of the best places to live, work, and play!

Ryan-Cambridge-Browning-Day-Architects
About the Author: Ryan P. Cambridge, PLA ASLA APA, is a practicing registered landscape architect who serves as the director of Parks + Open Space Planning at Browning Day; a multi-disciplinary planning and design firm in Indianapolis (www.bdmd.com). Since 2008, Ryan has helped lead the development of more than 15 parks system planning efforts for municipal governments across the United States, representing nearly $750 million in future “public realm” investment. Ryan is a self-professed “parks geek” and seeks to further the awareness of, and investment in, the public realm though his leadership on the Board of Directors for the Indiana Parks and Recreation Association, the Advocacy Committee of the Indianapolis Parks Foundation (Ryan is also the event chair for the 2017 IPL Mayor’s Lunch for Parks), and the Programming Committee for the Indiana Chapter of the Urban Land Institute. Ryan is also privileged to be one of only a handful of professionals in Indiana currently serving on the Project for Public Spaces Placemaking Leadership Council (pps.org).

[i] City of Indianapolis. 2016.  Welcome to Indy Parks and Recreation.  Retrieved 10/14/2016 from: http://www.indy.gov/eGov/City/DPR/Pages/IndyParksHome.aspx.

[ii] The Trust for Public Land. (2016). 2016 City Park Facts. San Francisco: Trust for Public Land.

[iii] The U.S. Census Bureau. 2016.  The 15 Most Populous Cities on July 1, 2015. Retrieved 10/18/2016 from www.census,gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-81.html.

[iV] City of Indianapolis. (2014). Indianapolis Strategic Plan 2014. Indianapolis: Office of the Mayor Gregory A. Ballard. Retrieved from http://oei.indy.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/IndyStrategicPlan_HiRes-1.pdf.