About the Portfolio: The Economics of Waterway Development in Indianapolis

Photo from Flickr User _J_D_R_

Indianapolis Central Canal at Night. Photo from Flickr User _J_D_R_

Continuing the “About the Portfolio” series, today I’d like to talk about another of my projects from my time in Indianapolis. This report, “The Economics of Waterway Development in Indianapolis,” is available for download here on my portfolio page. The report was written in 2013 in conjunction with a great effort that is picking up steam in Indy, Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW). ROW and projects like it are proof that to catalyze economic or community development we don’t always have to create something new; we simply need to start appreciating the assets we already have.

The story goes like this: when Indianapolis was founded, its site was chosen based on its location in the middle of the state and its adjacency to the White River.  The same tale can be told for many cities: early settlers looked for places with convenient geographic features or abundance of a certain natural resource which would provide advantages for the town’s residents and its economy.  However, as technologies and economies have changed over time, many places have distanced themselves from those natural resources which were the cause of their founding.  This is especially true of Indianapolis, a present-day transportation hub that relies much more on rail, roads, and air than the rivers that gave it birth. In such a way, rivers turn into sewers, mountains get strip-mined, and forests are decimated.

What Indianapolis and other cities have begun to recognize is that if they start to reinvest in the assets that made them successful to begin with, these resources can become centerpieces for revitalization in their communities. The purpose of my report was to profile how this has happened in Indianapolis and to encourage city leaders to sit up and take notice of the potential these assets represent, because things have already been turning around. The city for a while has proudly advertised its downtown canal as a selling point for tourism and has been developing its extensive trail system, much of which runs parallel to rivers.  Citizens Energy, the company in charge of the city’s sewer system, is currently implementing a federally mandated sewage storage project which will by 2025 capture 95-97% of the sewage that currently flows into Indianapolis rivers whenever there is a rain event of over 1/4 inch. To accompany this substantial change in the quality of Indy’s waters, ROW and city residents are supporting placemaking initiatives, river cleanup events, and local businesses that offer waterfront views or recreation.

These developments are gradually changing the way Indianapolis residents think about their rivers. The conversation has turned from “We might as well use this river as a sewer,” to, “How can we better utilize this great asset?” That in and of itself is a sign of progress and it has spawned a number of great ideas already. One product of the Reconnecting to Our Waterways initiative is a coming riverside science museum, which won a grant from the National Science Foundation. This project will bring artists and scientists together to create outdoor museum pieces which engage citizens in the places they live and work.  ROW has also partnered with LISC on the brownfield revitalization project described in an earlier post and has sought support and leadership from local residents at every step of the way. In fact, while ROW has been able to secure some grants for their efforts, it is very much an initiative run and supported by everyday people who care about their communities and want to work together to make a difference. This is a long, slow process, but it could have a huge impact on the city, both environmentally and economically.  I intend to dedicate a future post to how other cities across the country have already reaped the benefits of similar waterfront transformations, but for now I’ll leave you with a link for today’s press release on the city’s upcoming waterfront projects and a video that highlights ROW’s efforts around a specific Indianapolis stream.

Thoughts or questions about this post? Hit me up in the comments section below.  


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