The City of Indianapolis is climbing economically although there are many areas for improvement. Knowing this, I find myself both concerned – and more importantly – optimistic about the future of parks and public spaces in Indianapolis.
Indianapolis has a large and uniquely historic city park system, which includes 210 parks and 11,464 total acres, 125 playgrounds, 155 sports fields, and 130 miles of trails. The number 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 2017 City Park Facts report by The Trust for Public Land, Indianapolis continues to underperform when compared to our peers, especially when it comes to funding. In fact, of 100 largest cities in the United States, Indianapolis – which is the 13th largest by population (ranked 14th last year) – ranks 79th with regard to investment in parks. This is an improvement from the previous year’s report, where Indianapolis ranked 91st with regard to investment in parks.
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.
The old model of parks – with regard to both service delivery and funding – 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), and are often being delivered and managed through the use of both public and “private” funds.
The 21st Century Park is…
Flexible. Parks that have an intentionally “flexible” design and program are able to adapt different trends in both usage and desired activities over time, allowing the park the ability to stay consistently activated year after year.
Interconnected. Parks must be interconnected, by multiple modes of transport, between other parks and facilities in the system, key community destinations (e.g. downtown), and the community’s residential areas. 21st Century Parks aren’t satellites, but rather, woven into the fabric – and infrastructure – of the community.
Multi-generational. Parks aren’t just for kids. The design and program of a park space must appeal to a wide spectrum of ages, abilities, and ethnicities to be consistently activated. 21st Century Parks blend interactions between these diverse user groups, as well as provide opportunities for age-specific leisure and recreation.
Multi-seasonal. Parks should be as consistently activated year-round as possible. 21st Century Parks anticipate and help facilitate “off-season” usage through the inclusion of winter-specific facilities and seasonal programs and events.
Activated and engaging. The 21st Century Park must facilitate a wide array of different activities without compromising the flexibility of the park space. There should be “something for everyone” to do, especially at the city’s most popular park sites. Some amenities may be provided outright (such as pickleball), while others are self-directed and take place in one of the many “flex” areas of the park (bocce ball, slacklining, picnicking, pick-up games, etc.).
Integrated with technology. Like it or not, mobile technology is here to stay and the design and program of 21st Century Parks must embrace it in order to stay relevant. 21st century parks should anticipate the users’ desire for a different type of “connectivity” by providing Wi-Fi hotspots, VR-based interpretative experiences, online park/trail maps, real-time event announcements, and park (or park-system) specific mobile applications. The No. 1 barrier preventing greater usage of many parks and programs is a generalized lack of what there is to do, when, and where; the effective use of technology can help mitigate this barrier.
Able to yield multiple benefits beyond play and recreation. The value of parks and greenspaces extends well beyond play alone, as important as play is. A community’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 also have the ability to directly impact public health, increase social equity, serve as conduits for social services and education, reduce pollution and congestion, treat and hold stormwater, and to serve as catalysts for investment and redevelopment (to name only a few).
Indianapolis and the Future
Reason for optimism does exist. 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.
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 (IndyParksFoundation.org), the Indy Parks and Recreation 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 for our treasured sports teams and venues, we will ensure that Indianapolis will be of the best places to live, work, and play!
If you would like to learn more, please read Ryan’s full White Paper for his view on the future of parks in Indianapolis.
About the Author – Ryan P. Cambridge, PLA ASLA APA, is a practicing registered landscape architect who serves as the planning practice leader 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)
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.