David Hoppe

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:: The Livability Challenge

A game-changer for Indianapolis

By David Hoppe


In sports, that's what they call a play that tips the contest's momentum. With a single stroke, the underdog takes the lead.

Indianapolis may have had a game-changer of its own last week. The city was site and subject for a three-day workshop called The Livability Challenge, a national project sponsored by an organization called CEOs For Cities, an alliance of urban leaders from across the country supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, working in collaboration with Brian Payne of the Central Indiana Community Foundation and Tamara Zahn of Indianapolis Downtown, Inc.

The workshop brought a team of nationally-recognized city planning and design gurus together with local business and civic leaders for a sequence of intensive sessions aimed at coming up with principles and projects to enhance Indianapolis' quality of life.

The working premise behind the CEOs For Cities initiative is that the 21 st century is the urban century. A large and ever-growing majority of Americans live in cities. This means that the country's identity is undergoing a transformation from a land of wide open spaces and cowboy individualism to a model that's more like a mosaic: interconnected, blended and dependent on an array of moving parts. According to CEOS For Cities, the American Dream is becoming an urban dream.

An idea like this one packs an extra wallop in Indianapolis. This is a city with a love-hate relationship with urbanity. You see this in our lack of public transit, miles of low-slung sprawl, and penchant for allowing suburban-inspired architecture and windy surface parking lots downtown.

At the same time, though, Indianapolis is poised to become a model for what it means to be a mid-size city in a post-industrial age. As one of the visiting gurus noted last week, this city "has good bones." Our problems with air and water quality and infrastructure, while significant, are not intractable. Our scale is still human-size.

The Livability Challenge sessions revolved around this statement: "Our ambition is to make beauty, in the form of art, good design, and nature, always present."

For those of us who live in Indianapolis, this statement contains several game-changing elements worth unpacking.

In combining "art, good design and nature," this statement emphasizes the extent to which city life is something we humans create and need to manage. In a city, even nature is managed - or it better be. Left untended, it becomes toxic and disruptive, a force that can shatter the web of connections that make city life sustainable.

But we're after more than sustainability. By creating systems enabling nature to thrive and bloom, we also make a place that informs, inspires and can even heal us.

Combining art, good design and nature is also important for Indianapolis because it finally acknowledges the importance - the necessity, really - of including artists, designers and green advocates in the discussion about city planning. This has nothing to do with being artsy-fartsy. It's about finally bringing the kinds of expertise to the table that, throughout history, has moved cities forward, adding value that transforms the lives of individuals, families and communities.

But the biggest game-changer of all is this statement's use of the word "beauty."

Beauty, believe it or not, has been a real bugaboo in the art and design world for over a generation. Somewhere along the line, the culture vultures who determine what's hot and what's not, got it in their scavenging skulls that beauty was too easy, too accessible or somehow unjust. To say that something was beautiful was obvious. And if it was obvious, it couldn't be important.

But for all this highfalutin' theorizing, beauty still gets the last word. Beauty moves us. Unless the game is rigged, beauty wins.

Making beauty the governing principle in how we think about city livability is a bold move. Its practicality is breathtakingly sensible. It begs the question: Where would you rather live, in a beautiful place or an ugly one?

Think about how our city, your neighborhood, might feel if that question were asked every time a decision was being made to build something new or tear something down, widen a street or make way for power lines.

Words matter. The language we use to talk about things makes a difference. Putting a word like beauty at the heart of how we talk about livability creates a space where everyone can feel free to participate.

Of course there's a great distance between the intentions expressed at the Livability Challenge and what might actually occur. Money, as always, is an issue: conferees recommended the city use $400 million from its sale of the waterworks to leverage public private partnerships and fund projects. Mayor Ballard was in the room when this came up. Whatever he was thinking, he kept it to himself.

But as participants talked about what they had experienced and wanted to do, it was hard not to think something different was afoot. It was like watching a pass interception in the fourth quarter, a fresh team taking the field. Could be a game-changer.