During the Spirit and Place Festival this year, Health by Design sponsored a presentation by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) at the Indiana State Museum. UrbanIndy wrote an entry about the event, pointing out how the event fostered participation and collaboration.
Placemaking (@wikipedia) is about building plazas, city squares, and all kinds of pedestrian infrastructure that supports active streetlife. Placemaking is a great way for people to get involved in their community, because placemaking requires no special skills. Everyone knows what kind of spaces they enjoy, and there are no technical challenges such as fire safety or structural safety concerns that require specialized knowledge.
I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of good design, because landscape architects, civil engineers, traffic engineers, and architects must be involved for a successful project. But in general, the public can and should be active in setting goals and design objectives.
I decided to apply what I learned from PPS to my own experiences with my neighborhood. PPS strongly advocates for public involvement in placemaking, encouraging residents to communicate what they know about their places. It is up to the public to speak up about what works, what doesn’t work, and what they want their places to be like.
During the presentation, Ethan Kent (working for the Great Cities Initiative) asked all the participants to think about their local places. In particular, they ask people to use the power of ten to organize their ideas. So for my evaluation of Irvington (see earlier posts), I have come up with 10 ideas each category: 10 places that work, 10 places that fail, and the 10 best opportunities for change.
10 Irvington Places that Work:
These places are the reasons that people enjoy living in the neighborhood. They succeed on a basic level and inspire the residents to use the public space as a shared resource, building a community.
This rail-to-trail linear park is brand new, but is a great addition to the area. (See earlier posts for more information)
South Audubon Circle
This park in the middle of a traffic circle is one of the neighborhood’s most loved places. (See earlier traffic circle post for more information)
Washington St. Commercial Corridor
This stretch of East Washington Street is a functional and exciting commercial area, with a theater, local coffeeshop and Starbucks, library, old lodge building, several restaurants, and locally owned shops.
Michigan/New York Bike Lanes
The bike lanes make commuting on two wheels to downtown possible. (See earlier post) The intersection with Pleasant Run Trail and Ellenberger park makes for an interesting crossroads.
Some of the best historic homes in Indianapolis can be found in the neighborhood. They are scattered throughout, rewarding exploration of the area. (See earlier post) Many of the homes create a sense of history and community, turning the narrow streets and sidewalks into comfortable neighborhood places.
Twice a year, Irvington closes down a few blocks of E Wash St and has a party in the street. Thousands of people, local merchants, funnel cakes, kids, dogs, and a fish fry replace the internal combustion engines. (See Halloween post for more photos)
This place is at the nexus of pleasant run creek park and the bike lanes heading downtown.
It has a great blend of functions and greenery, making it a cherished place within the community. Ellenberger park is a great example of something unexpected that fits in. Just like Central Park in NYC, a good stretch of green can make a great place when supported by the community.
Audubon Court Apartments
Recently renovated and opened to residents, this old apartment building has a unique style and wonderful street presence along Washington Street. The front porches and interesting features make this a place rather than just an address.
Bona Thompson Library
This structure from the old Butler University campus hosts many events and serves as a communal place nestled in the quiet residential streets. It is where the residents learn about local history, hold forums for discussion, vote, and keep treasures.
Irvington Branch Library
This building represents the city’s commitment to the area. The library is one of the best and most useful buildings in the area, and it creates a place on its grounds that is used for all sorts of local gatherings and outdoor meetings. It’s also a good location to sit and watch people walking through the neighborhood.
10 Irvington Places that Fail:
This section features a list of places that fail to provide for the interconnected needs of humanity. Some of them were designed for specific clients and serve their owners well, but a key element is missing. Public spaces must responsibly accommodate many different users. These spaces have been designed, but the designers failed to put the buildings in the context of the neighborhood.
Old Pennsylvania Railroad Commercial Area
The loss of railroad commuters made businesses move to E Wash St during the early 20th century. Some of the old buildings are still here, but there was no effort to preserve the original storefront area and newer buildings make it look like a suburban development. (See earlier post)
Indy East Motel
In its final years of operation, this motel became a state-sponsored halfway home of sexual offenders, instigating a powerful reaction from local residents. The neighborhood fought a long battle to close this motel, knowing that a closed business would be more welcome than a haven for crime. The empty property is the legacy of a property owner who cared more for money than the welfare of his community. (see story on Indy.com)
Commercial Corridor east of Arlington
Just another photo showing the banal, repressive, and dangerous streetscape found in most communities in the US. Complete Streets anyone?
Dilapidated Apartment Buildings
When rents are low, the apartment buildings suffer from disinvestment and the residents are forced to live in substandard housing. There are several apartment buildings along E Wash St that have neglected the opportunity to create spaces, in contrast to the Audubon Court mentioned above.
Parking Lot for Plasma Center
This one place inspires more hostile feelings amongst residents than anywhere else in the area besides the old Indy East Motel. The original buildings were demolished (aside from one blighted corner building). The new building does not address the street, but the parking lot instead. Combined with the suburb-style pharmacy across the street, it feels out of place. I have no problem with the business, but the space it created is just plain weird.
Washington Street as Urban Highway
Too many lanes, no accommodation of bicyclists, and no reason for being oversize. This road is way overdesigned for traffic. Seriously, how would any area ever accommodate street life with a high speed highway splitting it in two? The accelerating cars speeding down Wash St prevent any street conversations or even talking on the phone while enjoying a snack at Starbucks.
How many East-West highways are necessary on the East-side of Indy? We have I-70, Michigan/NY (1-way streets), E Wash St (US-40), and Brookville/English. WTF? Further east of Irvington they even added lanes to US40, now with 7 lanes of traffic and no median, crosswalks, or consistent signal spacings. The photo below was taken at 5PM, I don’t see why we needed this expansion in any case. If you ever needed evidence of no intelligent life on the planet, this would be it.
Excess Greenscaping, Parking Lots, and Low-Profile Buildings
The low price of real-estate during the second half of the 20th century invited sprawling architecture and parking lots in place of the historic and more energy efficient multiple story buildings located on the street front. It also meant that the local roads stopped feeling like contained places that comfort and support pedestrian life.
Asphalt Road Conditions
Another problem with the streets-as-places model in the neighborhood is the patchwork asphalt roads. On one hand it does slow traffic, but on the other hand it makes it appear that the neighborhood does not care for its own infrastructure. The city-dictated maintenance schedule is to blame, so locals have to live with a public eyesore on their doorstep for many years.
Sidewalks with Utility Poles
Why does this happen in the US?
Bell Telephone Building
The destruction of this beautiful building’s facade went beyond a mere loss of historic character. The loss of windows meant that the street lost its status as a watched and cared for place.
10 Best Opportunities for Change in Irvington:
This section is a compilation of my ideas for the neighborhood. They are not official, and I have never submitted them for consideration in any capacity. But the whole point of the exercise is brainstorming, so I hope they get people thinking about ways to improve Irvington, or even inspire people to think about their own local places.
The United States deserves better places, and starting locally is the best way to make that happen. Look around you and start thinking about placemaking and the opportunity we have to recreate our public spaces.
Washington Street Corridor Streetscape
This is a project that will be completed within 2 years. Placemaking is the main purpose, so it should be a great project for the neighborhood.
Extension of Pennsy Trail in Each Direction
Another planned project, but with unknown completion time. This one is important because it will add another reason to be in Irvington and also link many of the favorite places together.
Convert Bonna Street into Linear Market
Currently, Bonna Street is a narrow, non-continuous street paved with a combination of bricks, asphalt, and concrete. The adjoining green space is the future location of the Pennsy Trail extending to Ritter, but is being used as nothing more than a parking area right now.
I propose restoring the brick pavers, extending the Pennsy Trail, and using the street for temporary markets and festivals. This would encourage commercial activity to return to this area, adding additional storefronts to the Historic Irvington area.
New Plaza outside Irvington Branch Library
While the Irvington Branch Library is great as it currently stands, the front sidewalk area is not wide enough to support the impromptu community meetings. In fact, there is no outdoor plaza anywhere on E Wash St corridor that would help groups meet and greet. I have seen lots of activities like bike-rides, rain-barrel workshops, political rallies, and similar events in Irvington. Providing an open location, freely available to anyone that would accommodate 20-50 people would add a key place for the community.
Connecting all Schools Together with Bike/Walk Lanes
The many public, private, and charter schools within the neighborhood can be converted into special places by reducing the need for parking lots and drop-off areas.
Harvested Rainwater Sprinkler Park
Community swimming pools are expensive. They also require a lot of built infrastructure. And then there is the concern that pools may be a waste of potable water. In response to these concerns, I propose adding a Sprinkler Park at Brown’s Corner Park.
The concept is to make it an educational center that explains where recreational water comes from and how the pumps receive power. If no sun is shining and no rain has been falling, then the sprinkler park would not run. This would teach users that water and power are renewable resources, and it’s not just a matter of flipping a switch or turning a faucet.
Because the sprinkler park would have no standing water, it would not require lifeguards or attendants of any kind. The sprinklers would only operate during certain hours, and be freely available. No chain-link fences required.
Greenscaping and Bio-retention area for Irvington Square Mall
This parking lot has *way* too much paving and parking spaces. I have never seen the lots filled, which creates the impression of failed businesses. In reality, it’s just too much parking capacity. I propose adding some green elements that tie into the trail. Adding some storefronts along E Wash St would be a great idea too, but I don’t know if the property owners want to add even more square footage to this sprawling commercial area.
Brick Paving along Historic Streets
Brick street paving is a great way to restore historic authenticity to neighborhoods. It also slows down traffic significantly and forces through-traffic to other areas. Pavers also turn impermeable surfaces into permeable ones, reducing stormwater quantity and recharging aquifers. Irvington has more brick streets than any other neighborhood in Indianapolis, but we can always improve the situation by adding more.
My favorite neighborhood with brick streets (aside from Irvington) is German Village in Columbus, Ohio. (see photo) Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, PA is another great example. (see photo)
Transit Center and Landbanking
Indianapolis is moving towards a regional transit system. It may be 20 years off, but Irvington should start planning for a neighborhood transit center now. It is likely that the B&O lines will be used to run a rail system or a streetcar along E Wash St will be used. (See MPO RTS Study Map here) Either way, the neighborhood should begin thinking about how to accommodate mass transit and for a regional transit system.
In the meantime, a local transit center can be established near the main commercial corridor. Some people think they are just expensive bus stops, but they are much more than that. They are not a waste of money, they are a visible commitment to public transit in the city. Such buildings would be the best possible marketing tool for IndyGo – a stable and sure place for passengers to gather with clearly posted schedules. One great recent example is the Rosa Parks Transit Center in Detroit (see Arch Tracker page).
The neighborhood must be ready to propose a viable solution that will fit into the larger transit system plan. That will guarantee the neighborhood an important position on the transit line and allow Irvington to help develop the solution.
24hr Communal Television Plaza for Public Viewing
This is probably my most radical proposal. Instead of prohibiting gatherings and preventing loiterers, I would try to encourage it. Set up a plaza for free public use, one with a large television (or several televisions). Instead of people watching 5 hours of television at home every day (Nielsen average for US viewers), people could watch their shows or sports events in a communal setting. This has been very successful for large events like the Olympics or World Cup Soccer, so why not apply the lesson to public spaces year-round?
Public safety is often a concern in these places, but statistics prove that these places are safer than less traveled ones. People are generally civil and obey regulations when other people are around. The spaces that need additional regulations and monitoring are the places that nobody visits. We must not be afraid to let people come together freely, because that is the essence of community.