Archive for the 'Neighborhoods' Category

The Beauty of Bikes is in the Parking


Indianapolis has been pushing hard to catch up with leading bicycle cities such as Portland and San Francisco. Seeing all that two-wheeled traffic in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods has been a blessing in so many ways – less pollution from cars, less vehicle congestion, better public health outcomes, and especially watching people get outside and reconnect with their city.  But I wanted to share what I consider the key benefit to bringing back bicycles:  the opportunity for dense downtown development without parking lots or subsidized garages!

Bicycles and Cities, together again!

Bicycles and Cities, together again!

Bicycles seem to be sprouting everywhere in Indy

Bicycles seem to be sprouting everywhere in Indy

Our current renaissance of downtown required some big bites of that dreaded sandwich of compromise. While many of us at Urban Indy have taken a stand against subsidized vehicle parking, seeing it as a continuation of the old “highways first” policy that doomed many downtown areas to begin with, it is true that city leaders and business developers have a hard time seeing how any modern city could function without adequate parking. Finding a place to park is the most important concern for many commuters and shoppers, especially since densities have been creeping ever lower and people have to travel further for their jobs. But bicycle infrastructure gives us that magical silver bullet to end this concern, and reverse the trend in our cities.

Bicycle parking is radically more efficient than car parking

Bicycle parking is radically more efficient than car parking

Bicycle infrastructure generates beautiful cities!

Bicycle infrastructure generates beautiful cities!

I certainly don’t want to imply that everyone should be riding bicycles, but it is clear that bicycle infrastructure does benefit everyone. Every dollar not spent on gasoline (or expensive cars, insurance, and vehicle maintenance) is a dollar that is likely spent on local goods and services. The economic benefits are huge! Every bit of mode share (the percentage of people using a particular type of transportation) that bikes can capture means that Indianapolis sees real job growth, real increases in quality of life, and real improvements in household savings.

And never forget that bicycle infrastructure can serve double-duty for accessible routes - Vastly improving Quality of Life for some citizens

And never forget that bicycle infrastructure can serve double-duty for accessible routes – vastly improving Quality of Life for our citizens

Coming back to the issue of parking, this is where bicycles really deliver their benefits to Urban Design. Building a city to mimic the old streets of Paris or Brooklyn is impossible when everyone must drive. Instead, we end up with a “stroad” and collector system, typically with a design life of 20 years before the cancer of dead mall syndrome takes over.

Car lots don't leave room for the cities they serve

Car lots don’t leave room for the cities they serve

Filling car lots requires this kind of infrastructure

Filling car lots requires this kind of infrastructure

But a city with intensive bicycle infrastructure means that beautiful cityscapes don’t have to remain a fantasy. Because bicycles require so little space for their parking needs, they encourage well-designed traditional urban landscapes. Old-style city blocks become feasible, and in fact become more economical than the sprawling parking lots of suburbia; houses can once again use narrow lots when they don’t need a driveway and triple garage door; and streets can once again use names like “lane” or “avenue” without sounding like a cruel joke.

This clever addition to the old meter means I never look for parking near the Circle anymore

This clever addition to the old meter means I never look for parking near the Circle anymore

Bike parking can pull in new customers no matter the location

Bike parking can pull in new customers no matter the location

So here are some examples of great bicycle infrastructure that I’ve collected in the past few years. We may never “catch up” with the great cycling initiatives of the West Coast or Copenhagen, but trust me when I tell you that in the case of bicycle infrastructure The Deed is its Own Reward.

A new kind of garage, fit for a modern city (image credit: unknown)

A new kind of residential garage, fit for a modern city (image credit: unknown)

Portland's bike lockers remind us that some bicyclists demand higher levels of protection (image credit: H. Simmons)

Portland’s bike lockers remind us that some bicyclists demand higher levels of protection (image credit: H. Simmons)

New York's bike lanes next to the Flatiron remind us that bicyclists are part of the city too and deserve space on main routes

New York’s bike lanes next to the Flatiron remind us that bicyclists are part of the city too and deserve space on main routes

Munich reminds us that multi-modal commuters need a place to store bikes, or people will make their own

Munich reminds us that multi-modal commuters need a place to store bikes, or people will create their own

Milwaukee's "Marsupial" bridge reminds us that there is always room for innovation in bicycle infrastructure

Milwaukee’s “Marsupial” bridge reminds us that there is always room for innovation in bicycle infrastructure

Just because Milwaukee is known for gas-fired two-wheel monsters, there is always room for new technology

Just because Milwaukee is known for gas-fired, two-wheeled monsters, there is always room for new technology

Black Rock City reminds us that bicycling can be a joyful shared experience

Black Rock City reminds us that bicycling can be a joyful shared experience

Bicycles, and their smaller parking requirements, allow us to create the cities that people like to inhabit. Bicycle parking holds the power to invigorate our local economies and unleash the power of our local architects.
Support for bicycle infrastructure is support for a city of humans, rather than a city of vehicles.

Option #1: Cede the city to parking spaces, Detroit style (image credit: Sean Doerr/

Option #1: Cede the city to parking spaces, Detroit style (image credit: Sean Doerr/

Option #2: Help people build a better city with bicycle parking, as in Amsterdam (image credit: Airbete/Wikimedia)

Option #2: Help people build a better city with bicycle parking, as in Amsterdam (image credit: Airbete/Wikimedia)

Better Blocks (recap)


Thanks again to everyone who arranged, volunteered, or attended the Better Blocks event on East Washington last weekend.  It was great fun to see so many people there and even more fun to see the result – Indianapolis’ Main Street full of life, activity, and happy citizens.

I was only a spectator myself, but was happy to see so many friends actively engaged with the event.  That afternoon I met up with Kevin and we explored, chatted with friends, and had a good time imagining what Indianapolis could become if we embraced policies that prioritized healthy communities instead of merely traffic flow.

I took a short video if anyone wants to see how these small changes can completely change the streetscape and traffic dynamics.

Watch how the cars treat pedestrians.  Listen to how the festive atmosphere encourages community and conversations between neighbors.  Notice how the street acted as a single address instead of a strict division between the North and South sides.  This was just one afternoon, but it was truly a great event and a testament to Indy’s untapped urban potential.

Better Blocks - East Washington Street A fine day for a promenade Taking in the sights A temporary but well-respected crosswalk Traffic was slow and steady, and curious Streetside dining next to Washington Street?  Only after traffic calming Tlaolli opened, and served some great Tamales A restored storefront building hosted URBN DSGN and other community groups I wish every median in Indy could host a party Once again, only possible with traffic calming Calm traffic makes a safer street for everyone Hanging at the Indy Connect bus stop Dedicated transit lanes? A new member of the community The old Carnegie Library received many new visitors A planted median with balloon trees Plentiful bike parking and well-used

UI Archive – Cover Photos


We were updating our social media and produced some of our favorite images in wide format.  Find the whole collection on this Flickr set or see some favorites in the gallery below.  I wanted to share these photos because I thought they showed many sides of the city, its people and its places.

It will be fun to see how the city continues to change over the next few years.  Indianapolis did not always have a canal district, a cultural trail, or even Monument Circle.  What big thing will Indianapolis take on next?

These images are free for any personal or non-commercial, unmodified use (some rights reserved, so please contact us if you need permission to use them for something else).


Downtown from the West Bank of White River (image:  Art Malito) Cultural Trail Lighting Exhibit (image:  Curt Ailes) Construction of JW Marriott Hotel (image:  Curt Ailes) Jogging along Canal (image:  Curt Ailes) Indiana State Capitol at Night (image:  Curt Ailes) Cultural Trail Iconography Pressed into Crosswalk (image:  Curt Ailes) Snowing in Broadripple (image:  Curt Ailes) Duckpin Bowling signage in Fountain Square (image:  Graeme Sharpe) Metallic Script Lettering on Historic Coca-Cola Bottling Plant (image:  Graeme Sharpe) The Pyramid Buildings on Indy's Northwest Side (image:  Graeme Sharpe) View of Downtown Indy from the Nature Conservancy Greenroof (image:  Graeme Sharpe) Warming Up for Cataracts Festival (image:  Graeme Sharpe)

What does a Complete Bridge look like?


What is a Complete Bridge?  Well, if you are familiar with transportation issues, you have probably heard of the phrase “Complete Street.”  A Complete Bridge takes this concept of a Complete Street and applies the same standards of safe accessibility for non-motorized transportation.

Complete Streets policies are an excellent way to ensure that our streetscapes reflect our social values, by giving designers a mandate for roadway user inclusion but not tying their hands with any mandated geometries.  It is also a satisfying vindication of basic rights for anyone who gets honked at or has snow plowed into their path just because they use the public right-of-way without an accelerator pedal.

This is 38th Street - a good example of why Complete Streets are a necessary policy

This is 38th Street in Indianapolis where it joins I-65 – a design for only 1 type of user, and a good example of why Complete Streets are a necessary policy (image:  Graeme Sharpe)

People should be able to use a street safely whether they decide to walk, ride a bike, or drive a car. After all, we call it a “public right-of-way” instead of “private automobile right-of-way” for good reason.  This concept is the essence of public owned space in a democracy.  Our streets are “city property” as a legal convenience, but in reality they are public space – everyone has a right to safely access it using whatever travel modes we can accommodate.

When a Complete Streets bill came to a vote in the Indianapolis City Council, it was a slam dunk.  A policy can’t get more popular than unanimous. Our representatives agreed with public opinion that designing a road for automotive users should never be done at the expense of vulnerable road users like bicyclists and pedestrians.

But that policy has a loophole – if the costs are considered excessive then the policy could be ignored.  This is often an issue when it comes to bridges, because they are such expensive pieces of infrastructure.  While a complete street can usually be designed for a similar price, a Complete Bridge will always be much more expensive than one carrying a single type of traffic.

But bridges are where safe access is needed more than anywhere else, because there aren’t side streets or scenic alternatives.

The Ravenel Bridge is exercise path, nature trail, bike lane, and community link - but the design could have been more than merely functional

The Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, SC functions as exercise path, nature trail, bike path, and community link – but the design did not address future growth of non-automobile use (image: Graeme Sharpe)

Fifth Street Bridge in Atlanta spans 16 lanes of interstate traffic with a very complete street (image:  National Transportation Alternatives Clearinghouse /

Fifth Street Bridge in Atlanta spans 16 lanes of interstate traffic with a very complete street that includes bike/ped access and park space – if we want to actually link communities together, this is what our bridges should look like (image: National Transportation Alternatives Clearinghouse /

I find it interesting that even though we recognize our need for Complete Streets in spite of higher costs, we fail to apply the same principles for new bridges.  It seems like current practice for bridge planning is plan a bridge with forecasted traffic conditions of 25 years into the future but plan for ped/bike access with data from 25 years ago.  This is a false economy, because we already know that active transportation is growing by huge amounts every year, and bad bridge plans could restrict this growth and its beneficial consequences.

The Kessler bridge on Meridian St at Fall Creek

The renovated Kessler bridge in Indianapolis clearly prioritizes rush hour commuting over the comfort of vulnerable road users (image: Graeme Sharpe)

But we can choose to build better bridges.  If we did, what would a Complete Bridge look like?

  1. Follows Complete Street principles
  2. Meets current and anticipated long-range uses by alternative transportation modes
  3. Uses low-impact design and accounts for mitigation of harmful effects on local residents
  4. Provides for public engagement whenever appropriate with scenic viewpoint stations, history centers, or public parks

Our awareness of these issues will force us to redefine what makes a revolutionary bridge, just as the Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate did for their eras.  But what about the smaller bridges – the ones that don’t demand special treatment or receive special funding?  These are bridges that people cross over every day without much notice, but it is the ones that carry people to local jobs and kids to local schools that might deserve our closest attention.

Portland is currently building a bridge that might be a good model for planning a bridge of this type, with their Sellwood Bridge project. They are addressing each of the issues listed above in appropriate ways for their community.

The existing 2-lane bridge is being moved to allow construction of a new bridge (image H. Simmons)

The existing 2-lane bridge is moved onto temporary piers to allow continued use until construction of the new bridge is finished (image H. Simmons)

Rendering of steel arch bridge that will replace the existing multispan truss (image:  Multnomah County)

Rendering of steel arch bridge that will replace the existing multispan truss (image: Multnomah County)

The existing bridge is narrow and makes little accommodation for alternate modes compared to the new lane configuration on the new bridge (image: left - H. Simmons, right - Multnomah County)

The existing bridge is narrow and makes little accommodation for alternate modes compared to the lane configuration on the new bridge (image: left – H. Simmons, right – Multnomah County)

The public engagement process is critical, but often overlooked for small bridges.  The new bridge features a pretty good public website too.  Bridges are important in ways that streets aren’t, as they represent the physical location of a mental transition.  Communities rally around bridges and they can become powerful symbols.  Engaging the public early and often means that people begin to care about the bridge and understand the importance of tax money spent on its construction and maintenance.

Portland’s strategy was to create a festival celebrating the bridge closing and the start of new bridge construction.  This 1-time expense helps the local community learn to accept and take  ownership of the bridge building process.

Community involvement included an outreach program featuring music and an event booth (image H. Simmons)

Community involvement included an outreach program featuring music and an event booth (image H. Simmons)

People in a community are naturally interested in their nearby bridges and transportation agencies - we must learn to take advantage of this interest (image:  H. Simmons)

People in a community are naturally interested in their nearby bridges – transportation agencies must learn to take advantage of this interest (image: H. Simmons)

The Sellwood Bridge project is notable because it used the principles of Complete Streets during the planning stage, and also because it planned ahead for the growth of alternative modes.  At the same time, it did not expand the number of automotive lanes because increasing traffic would have negative effects on the local communities that this bridge was meant to serve.  Finally, the planning agency worked hard to engage stakeholders and communicate the reasons for these decisions.

Here in Indianapolis, the citizens are making progress in their quest for Complete Streets.  But we shouldn’t forget that Complete Streets need Complete Bridges.

The Genius of Traditional Buildings


Have you ever been to an old downtown and marveled at the historic buildings? Have you ever wondered how they could create such beautiful buildings on such small budgets, compared to the placeless architecture we are told is barely affordable today?

Graeme Street in Pittsburgh

Graeme Street (Pittsburgh, PA)

The truth is that those multi-story, mixed-use buildings lining the street were built by a different culture.  We are a different people now, and we demand different things from our built environment.

Buildings along Washington Street in Downtown Indianapolis

Buildings along Washington Street in Downtown Indianapolis

Take a few steps back to remember what changed

Take a few steps back to remember what changed

But that old American culture was a very clever one, and we can profit from studying what they did right, and how they did it.  So here is their basic recipe:

1.  Leverage small investments

The typical traditional urban building is between 20 to 40 feet wide, and between 60 to 200 feet deep.  This small width was a product of structural engineering limitations.  A traditional building with masonry walls and wooden floors could not span further without significant cost increases, and tax policies often charged by street frontage instead of square footage.  The result was small frontages and deep buildings.

Traditional Buildings start small (Indianapolis, IN)

Traditional Buildings start small (Indianapolis, IN)

The overall effect of a traditional streetscape is like walking through a well-curated art exhibit, where people can admire the buildings or the products in the glass storefronts.  The density of different buildings and stores satisfies the pedestrian’s need for visual interest.  It is a key part of what we call “walkability”.

Perhaps even more importantly, the small sizes encouraged ordinary citizens to become developers.  Many buildings were financed directly by business owners or residents, who would offset building costs with lease income from unused spaces.  These self-developing streetscapes ensured that no single developer or architect controlled the evolution of the city.  It would reflect a social, shared history instead.

A plain street can be more important to people than a capitol building

A plain street can be more important to people than a capitol building (Derby, UK)

This is what made historic downtowns beautiful in a way that no government or philanthropist could recreate today, and why historic preservationists nurse a broken heart with every lost structure.

2.  Share with your neighbors

The party wall style of building, where adjacent buildings used the same structural wall to support their floors, was a very important money saving technique in traditional buildings.  From the dawn of human civilization we have been building cities by slowly adding onto the existing structures.  However, new construction codes that strictly regulate fire safety have eliminated this technique, and for all intents and purposes party walls are no longer in common use.  Every building is now an independent structure.

Traditional Buildings share walls (Derby, UK)

Traditional Buildings with shared walls (Derby, UK)

Party Wall vs Fire Wall

Party Wall vs Fire Wall

The change has been beneficial in terms of life safety, but the effect on older buildings has been onerous as owners were left with a complicated legal situation just when downtowns were under fierce competition from the suburbs.  The results are plain to see in downtown Indy, where adjacent buildings were torn down for new parking lots and the old walls still bear the marks of beam pockets.

A scarred party wall (Indianapolis, IN)

A scarred party wall (Indianapolis, IN)

When we lost party walls, we didn’t just lose an inexpensive way to build.  We lost an inexpensive way to live.  A traditional building with party walls on either side will only have exposed facades on the back alley and the front elevation.  There are two benefits:  reduced heating costs and reduced facade costs.

Street versus Alley materials, but it blends so well (Indianapolis, IN)

Street versus Alley materials, but it blends well (Indianapolis, IN)

The heating and cooling issues are simple enough to explain, because there are fewer pathways for heat transfer (assuming your neighbor is also climate controlled).  This results in a significant savings compared to independent buildings with 4 exposed walls.

The construction costs are also lower, because only 2 facades must be weather-proof.  The owners typically used the savings to invest in attractive architecture with architectural flourishes, since it made business sense.  The corner buildings, with a higher burden of exposed facade costs, would naturally attract more profitable tenants.  The loss of a corner building is the ultimate way to devastate historic districts, because there will never be a profitable way to replace what has been lost.  The economic conditions that created those buildings is gone.

3.  Build up, not out

Traditional buildings, and traditional streetscapes by extension, never happened overnight. They evolved over time, as each small plot was filled in and then raised upwards.  The neat thing about masonry walls is that they can support an incredible amount of weight if they are braced at each floor level, so adding a new floor on top was usually a simple process.  This gave owners the ability to start small and incrementally expand their property as needed.

A nucleating commercial strip

A nucleating commercial center

Here in Indianapolis you can see this evolutionary process frozen in time.  The old streetcar stops were the commercial areas for each neighborhood, and as you travel towards downtown you will be traveling in time.  On the outskirts of the old city limits, you will find buildings that look like 1-story general stores, but maybe just a solitary one or one that was converted from a residence.  A bit closer in and you will find a healthier pocket of commercial buildings, some with 2 stories.  Look closer, you can usually find where the first buildings were upgraded from 1 to 2 stories.  A change of masonry, architectural style, or apparent age will show.  Sometimes it’s easiest to spot in the rain when the masonry takes in water at different rates.

Irvington Terrace historic district (Indianapolis, IN)

Irvington Terrace historic businesses (Indianapolis, IN)

The closest neighborhoods will have fully formed commercial streets with 4 or 5 story buildings, which were the final stage of traditional building evolution until the invention of the safety elevator.  This incremental development paradigm was a very cost-effective way to establish a business district, and also very different from our current style of development.  The “build at once” streetscape phenomenon is a recent invention, and only necessary because of the presence of parking requirements.

A block of traditional buildings wastes no space and can be built up extensively

A block of traditional buildings wastes no space and can be built up extensively

A block of contemporary buildings is a scattered mess that is commonly abandoned rather than upgraded

A block of contemporary buildings is a scattered mess that is commonly abandoned rather than upgraded

Minimum Parking Requirements, whether for permitting compliance or loan approval, have been the single greatest enemy of the traditional building technique.  The need for parking spaces based on square footage means that adding an additional level to a building requires more parking.  And in an urban area, land is a limited resource.  Building a parking garage is far too costly and complex a process when considering the needs of so many varied businesses on a single street, and so the only solution is to close the business and relocate where land is plentiful.

The modern method of placemaking

The modern method of placemaking (Columbus, IN)

No way to expand?  Relocate!

No way to expand? Relocate! (Carmel, IN)

Lessons to Learn

As you can see, traditional building developers used their limitations as advantages, making the most out of known technology and social behavior. It is up to us to figure out how to apply these concepts to our modern urban areas.  But the key lessons here are to create a development environment where buildings can start small, expand gradually, and create mutually beneficial relationships with their neighbors.

A Street has 2 Sides


Good urban design recognizes that the street has two sides.  It doesn’t separate people on one side from shops on the other.  Because in a world designed for automotive superiority, streets become barriers much too often.

In short, a good street encourages jaywalking.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

Balconies: The Upside of Outside


Chicago (Wicker Park) – roof deck with view of skyline

The Balcony is one of my favorite architectural inventions.  They are important both in terms of aesthetic character and function, as they can give buildings a special look or a special purpose.  For example, the balconies on the Marina City or Aqua Tower in Chicago become their identity, either by being repetitive or being different, whereas the balconies of the French Quarter buildings in New Orleans become platforms for a street party almost independent of the buildings themselves.

New Orleans (French Quarter) – Balcony as front lawn

Manhattan (Wall St) – architectural setback as intermediate roof deck

Manhattan (Wall St) – the view from above

Milwaukee (Waterfront) – warehouse condos with retrofit balconies


Balconies are a blend of public and private space, giving people spatial separation but maintaining visibility in both directions. They are places where the synergy of shared public space begins to make sense, and a district with good balconies is usually a district worth celebrating. They are a great opportunity for architectural expression.  They can frame a special view of the city skyline.  They are flexible spaces that could be used for a political stage or for hanging laundry.


Brooklyn (Williamsburg) – balconies to maximize viewshed

Indy (Downtown) – flatiron style with balcony on the point

Indy (Dowtown) – A large enough window can be a substitute balcony

Indy (Chatham Arch) – the Riley Towers have prominent balconies on 4 corners (Image: Eric McAfee)


We know that balconies and similar architectural elements are very important in creating a feeling of community, but they began disappearing from American neighborhoods in the 1940s.  Not only were TV and Air Conditioning becoming widespread, but the suburbanization of our cities and streets had begun.  People were not prioritizing outdoor public space after the roads became highways and the sidewalks became barren.  Developers began including fake balconies as a nod to historic character and leaving out the real thing.


Indy (Chatham Arch) – Barton Towers are a stardard brutalist work without balconies (image: Eric McAfee)

Indy (Pyramids) – no balconies

Manhattan residential tower (Madison Square) – no balconies


The frequent omission of balconies from modern buildings means that I’m always excited to see them in new developments.  The demand for balcony space is clearly evident for anyone who pays attention.  I find it interesting when people use other parts of the building as makeshift balconies.   It’s amazing to see people responding naturally to large crowds in the streets (even though as an engineer who frequently designs guardrails, it frightens the hell out of me to see people exposed to risk like that).  It’s my hope that as the city begins to create its own special places we will find ways to restore old balconies and build new ones.  But most importantly, I hope that our city continues to give people a reason to use them.


Indy (Fountain Square) – roof as temporary balcony

Indy (Fountain Square) – roof as temporary balcony

Indy (Fountain Square) – roof as temporary balcony

Indy (Downtown) – parking garage as observation deck

Indy parking garage as temporary balcony


Pre-Columbian Urbanism


On October 12, 1492, the first modern Europeans set foot in the land now known as the Americas.  We tend to think of urbanism arriving with them.  But the truth is that cities rose well before “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”.  I wanted to share a few that exemplified the type of urban design happening in Pre-Columbian North America.

Map of several important Pre-Columbian cities of North America

We don’t always know very much about these places or the people who built them.  But we know enough to give us some important clues about how they lived and what they thought was important.  Many of these sites are now protected from threat and open to visitors.  These are a great opportunity to go study the evolution of urban form in the Americas.



Native American Indians were originally nomadic, but American agriculture began about 5,000 BCE.  Agriculture was a big deal, because it allowed dense human settlements.  These settlements used similar features because the different cultures shared the same set of technologies and concepts of urbanism.  The builders were familiar with other sites and would borrow ideas from the earlier proto-cities.

A typical Mississippian settlement with stockade, mounds, and houses (image: Herbert Roe)

The Puebloan people built their own style of towns in the arid Southwest (image:  National Archive)

The main architectural style used in these cities involves earthworks or mound-building.  You can see in the photos that the earliest mounds were quite small and limited in function.  But over time, the mounds became an opportunity for innovation.  And so the simple earthen mounds became stone platforms for important structures.  In later cities, they became pyramids with stone temples at their top.

Mayan architecture in Chiapas (image: Nicholas Sharpe)

The urban form of these cities also changed over time.  The earliest settlements used the mound or pyramid structures for sacred rites, but not necessarily as a place to live.  But as more energy was invested in the structures, they began to play a larger role in society. And as these sites gained more importance, the builders began formally planning their city centers.

The early Zapotec city (c. 100 BCE) of Monte Alban has a planned ceremonial center (image: Matt Saunders)



Close to the home of Urban Indy is Mounds State Park in Anderson, IN.  The Great Mound is a very well preserved ceremonial site built around 200 BCE by the Adena people living here. It is not a city, but I wanted to share it because it offers a glimpse into the cultural technologies that the people in this area would later use to build their cities and create special places within them.

Aerial view of the Great Mound and the nearby White River (image: Bing Maps)

A site this old (over 2000 years) keeps many of its secrets, but the consensus is that the people were farmers and fishermen and used canoes to travel on the river systems.  The Great Mound is the central place among a larger complex of mounds, one that forms a solar observatory with solar alignments used to track the course of the year. In effect this was their calendar, but maybe it would be more appropriate to think of it like a clock tower in terms of significance to the people.

Wall display at the educational center showing solar alignments (Image: Graeme Sharpe)

There are some key things to be learned from this site.  Even 2,000 years ago in the Midwest region, native American Indians are living in stable communities, they are cooperating and investing energy into their infrastructure, and they know how to plan a site so that it becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Panoramic view of the Great Mound (image: Graeme Sharpe)

Great mound (image: Graeme Sharpe)

The nearby White River as seen from the Summer mound (image: Graeme Sharpe)



Just a quick drive from St. Louis is Cahokia Mounds.  It is one of the most significant archaeological sites in the US, but it sometimes feels as though few people even know of its existence.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 8 cultural sites in our nation designated as being of supreme importance to the story of human civilization.  Estimates suggest that at its peak it was a city of 20,000 residents, and was occupied from the 10th century until the 14th.

Monks Mound in Cahokia (image:  Bing Maps)

Aerial View from the East of Monks Mound in Cahokia (image: Bing Maps)

What we know from excavations is that the residents built houses or ceremonial structures on top of each mound.  Thus the mounds reflected an elevated position in society.  But that wasn’t the only purpose, because the mounds and wooden buildings were also used to organize the city into streets, public places, and defensive structures.

Monks mound at Cahokia (image: Graeme Sharpe)

The scale of the main mound is massive.  It is large enough to pass for a geologic formation, and probably would have been except for its regular shaped sides.  But this mound was indeed built by people moving dirt by hand.  As such, it’s definitely notable as one of the earliest and largest single public works projects in American History.

Cahokia woodhenge site (image: Graeme Sharpe)

A recreated “woodhenge” lies just to the west of the main mound.  Not surprisingly, the Cahokia residents needed a solar observatory to track the passing of the seasons.  A prehistoric farmer would still need to know when to plant and harvest with certainty, as well as timing the important religious ceremonies held here.

St. Louis visible from the top of the mound (image: Graeme Sharpe)

Cahokia is across the river from St. Louis which makes it easily accessible for just about anyone to visit.  I recommend visiting often and treading lightly.

A look down to the main plaza, the center of Midwest urbanism 1000 years ago (image: Graeme Sharpe)

Artistic renderings (artwork: Michael Hampshire & William Iseminger)

There are many mounds in the area, up to 120 special places built for a specific reason that we may never know.  Undoubtedly, some have been lost forever to the plow and bulldozer. The parts that remain are an amazing testament to the dedication of these early American urbanists.



The Pueblo group of American Indians have a unique place in American History.  Living in cliff dwellings in the canyons or on top of Mesas in the American Southwest, they maintain the communities they founded over 1,000 years ago. No easy feat considering they live in a very dry ecosystem.  They responded to their environment in different ways than the farmers of the Mississippi River system, and so you don’t see mounds but structures built into the ground for thermal regulation.

At the height of their ancient civilization, they created a sacred urban center at Chaco Canyon (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) with roads radiating from this central place throughout their territory.  What makes their city planning interesting is the amount of thought they put into their buildings.  They could track solar movements as well as lunar movements with precision, a good example of their patience and skill.

The Great Kiva at Chaco Canyon (image: National Park Service)

They developed their own system of civil engineering technology to find ways to store and control the scarce water supplies.  Other Pueblo sites include the sky city of Acoma and the World Heritage Site of Taos Pueblo.  While some sites are open for visitation, a lot of them feature active communities living in the houses their ancestors built hundreds of years ago.  I would have to vote these places as the most sustainable of American communities, by far.

Access to water on top of a Mesa at Acoma (image: National Archives – Ansel Adams)

Taos Pueblo (image: National Archives – Ansel Adams)

The residents appreciate their privacy, so there are not many photos of modern life in a Pueblo.  But you can visit many sites that are no longer inhabited, even some that have been Americanized with the missing handrails and parking lots added.  You’re welcome, ancient Puebloans.

Pueblo site near Colorado Springs (image:



In the areas that are now Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala the people of the Mayan civilization produced many cities, including some that would rival the size of any in Europe at that time.  Mayans had a sophisticated society and their cities reflected it.  They also had some advanced technology not available “north of the border” including a written language, a numeral system, a corbel arch, and the famous long calendar that could track celestial events across thousands of years.

Tikal’s plaza is still hosting celebrations many years later (image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

The El Castillo monument is a Mayan masterpiece and the focal point of the ancient city center of Chichen Itza (image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

At places like El Castillo, the Maya built stone temples on top of pyramids.  This gave their sacred sites a greater sense of permanence.  The stone buildings also have a greater psychological impact, one which is easy to appreciate even a thousand years after original construction.

On the other hand, the Mayans were not as interested in establishing a city plan with grand gestures.  Their cities were never very dense, and they did not create strong axes, regular shaped public spaces, or strong streetwalls, at least based on the limited examples I have seen.  (and yes please correct me in the comments if I misstate anything)

The Tikal city plan (image: Simon Burchell)

Chichen Itza city plan (image: Holger Behr)



 Teotihuacan is one of the most important sites in central Mexico.  This city held over 100,000 residents at its peak circa 600 CE, which made it one of the top 10 population centers in the world at that time.  Teotihuacan is famous for the formal planning of its ceremonial center.  The buildings were laid out on a strict axis and were remarkable displays of engineering technology and political vision (it’s not easy or convenient to build with perfectly straight lines).

Temple of the Moon in Teotihuacan (image:

The main avenue was addressed by several temples, pyramids, and public spaces, which establish a street frontage and setback paradigm.  On a festival day, the wide paved street could hold many thousands of residents (similar to our urban malls) as well as the people visiting from the surrounding “suburban” villages.  The Pyramid of the Sun, halfway along the avenue, is the 3rd largest pyramid in the world.  Looking down the street sightline makes it obvious why they were building this way.  This place is just flat out amazing.

Sun Pyramid and main street in Teotihuacan from the Pyramid of the Moon

Plan of the Teotihuacan ceremonial center

But the real attraction to this city is the plaza and marketplace in front of the Temple of Quetzlcoatl.  It was this marketplace that solidified the city’s significance as the economic and political powerhouse of North America.  Like any good public space, people traveled from all over to trade rare goods and perhaps wonder what life was like in the palaces and mansions surrounding the plaza. Teotihuacan eventually was abandoned for unknown reasons, and like Cahokia we know little about the reasons why.



Tenochtitlan was the capital city of the Aztec empire, established on July 18th, 1325 CE.  We know a lot about this place because it was the leading power in Central America when the Spanish arrived, and had a population upwards of 200,000 residents.  The people of Tenochtitlan had developed a way of farming on a lake, or what we might call aquaponics.  This was a very efficient process for growing food, and the dense city became a strong military and economic center.  With aqueducts piping in fresh water, paved streets, and a thriving market economy, the city was a marvel to behold for the first historians who visited.

Tenochtitlan city plan (image: Hanns Prem)

The city is still there and now known as Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City). With a population of 21 million people, it still the largest city in the Americas.  Unfortunately, the war of conquest scraped this city to its foundations so what we see now is a Spanish Colonial layout. Later on the lake was drained to prevent flooding. These facts complicate the study of Tenochtitlan because the historic city center has been built over by modern society.

A model of the old temple and main plaza of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan (image: Wolfgang Sauber)


These examples only scratch the surface of what was going on in Pre-Columbian cities.  I think it’s a fascinating topic because there are so many sites in good condition that can be visited.  It’s a great way to study how people and crowds relate to public spaces and monumental architecture.  I also enjoy seeing how each society has their own style, because they are all revealing a small bit of truth about what we really want in a city.

We are fortunate in Indianapolis to have the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.  It houses a museum of local and regional history as well as contemporary art.  It is downtown next to the White River State Park, conveniently located 50 miles downstream of the Adena Great Mound in Anderson.

Fountain Square Grand Prix


The month of August has spoiled those of us who enjoy awesome things.  Case in point: The inaugural Fountain Square Grand Prix bicycle criterium race held on August 18th, 2012.

Fountain Square Grand Prix (image: Curt Ailes)

Fountain Square Grand Prix (image: Curt Ailes)

I loved the race being held on that day. There was a strong symbolism to the FSGP being held on the same weekend as the MotoGP at the Speedway. Indy is a town that loves to host a good competition.  But it also loves to host a good party, and that’s why the Cataracts 2012 music festival being held at the same time and only 1 block away from the bicycle race made this a perfect Indianapolis blending of Sports & Entertainment.

A competitive race at high speeds on city roads – these races do test people (image: Curt Ailes)

A criterium race is a timed race held on a closed city street.  You can imagine that the street patterns in Fountain Square can provide some interesting course geometries, and indeed the course was set up in an almost-figure eight configuration, which means that you see each rider at least twice on each lap at the main intersection.

Queuing up for the start of the race

The view from Red Lion, a local pub next to the finish line

It was also fun to see people being able to use the streets and sidewalks for a public celebration.  Currently, the square of Fountain Square is being rehabbed and integrated into the cultural trail and cycle-track, which makes for a bit of construction mess, but you can tell that it is shaping up really well.  This new public space is going to be a great rallying point for future events like FSGP.

Construction is progressing well in preparation of the newest fountain

Thanks to everyone who planned, raced, sponsored, or worked at the FSGP or Cataracts.  It was an enormous but greatly appreciated effort.

Well done and congratulations to all the winners of this year’s race

Cataracts 2012


The weekend of August 17-19 was a great one for this Capital City, as documented in the IndyStar.  There were a lot of options available and I hope everyone here took advantage of some.  The Cataracts 2012 music festival was my event of choice, and I’m quite happy I attended.  The music was great, the people were friendly, and the weather was unbelievable.  NUVO wrote an article on the event, or you can get a feel for the experience by watching this:

It was just a lot of fun, as you can see in that video.  I don’t have the equipment to capture such music, but hopefully you get a sense of the dynamic energy that these bands can bring.  Here are some more shots from the music fest Friday and Saturday.

The tent behind the Murphy building is set for the show on Friday There was music all day long in the tent KO on Friday afternoon Pravada took the tent stage on Friday evening Margot and the Nuclear SoSos headlined on Friday night A map of the bands and houses for Saturday 40 live acts but everything ran smoothly the marker for Debbies Palace of Noise and Laundromat A relaxed house-party vibe at times Skull Manor being assembled live on stage The Mutations in front of the Pyramid at Dave Cave rhythm everyone together in the yard beachwear over at Jasona Beach Music (and a bit of theater) all day long an apt understatement for the weekend