COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Ready to Ride? Come Explore the Legendary Indianapolis Cultural Trail 

Annah MacKenzie
Feb 28, 2020
Mar 2, 2020

It has been called a “masterpiece of bike-friendly design,” a “bike path to progress,” and a “public space stimulus package,” and we’re here to tell you why the Cultural Trail in Indianapolis is worthy of every bit of this praise, and then some.

In fact, it’s one of the key reasons we selected Indianapolis as the host city for this year’s Walk/Bike/Places conference, which will be held August 4–7, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Since the project’s conception in 2001, the eight-mile (soon to be ten!) bike path and pedestrian greenway has transformed this historically car-loving home of the Indy 500 into a haven for bicycles and pedestrians and a paragon of urban placemaking. We even included the trail as a case study in our recent Placemaker’s Primer on Road Diets.

From Urban Escape to Urban Exploration

Attracting more that 1 million users annually, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail was the brainchild of Brian Payne, former theater major turned fundraising guru, and now President and CEO of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF). Payne had big ideas about how focusing on people, place, and connectivity in downtown Indianapolis could bring enormous returns for a city that had endured decades of disillusionment due to failed urban renewal projects, middle-class flight, and economic stagnation.

He was right.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail in action. Image courtesy of Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc.

A brief history: In 1999, Indianapolis designated the city’s five central neighborhoods “cultural districts,” each of which included major arts, cultural, and heritage sites, as well as major sports and entertainment venues. While the city had a number of attractive destinations and cultural assets, however, there was little interconnectivity between people and these soon-to-be districts. To address this issue, the city enlisted Cultural Development Commissioners to find creative ways of celebrating these assets and nurturing the city’s evolving identity. Once appointed as a Commissioner, Bryan Payne’s vision of connecting the cultural districts through an urban version of the Monon Trail began to take hold. 

"Most bike trails are greenways; they’re a way to escape the urban environment and experience nature. The Cultural Trail is actually an urban trail that connects you to everything that’s good in the city center. What makes it unique is that it’s an urban exploration trail, as opposed to an urban escape trail." — Brian Payne

The trail took 12 full years to plan and six more to build. Funding for the $63 million dollar project came from local Indianapolis philanthropy and federal transportation grants. This public-private funding model is a feat unto itself, as public spaces had generally not attracted this kind of private investment, particularly in car-dominated heartland cities. As we wrote back in 2008, this “ bold vision and strong leadership at a community foundation has now raised the bar for other cities.”

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail has not only succeeded in connecting people to the places they love—it has also had measurable impacts on the physical, social, and economic health of Indy and its residents. In a state which, at the time, registered the eighth highest obesity rate in the country, the trail encouraged physical activity and offered opportunities for social connection that many residents had previously lacked. Beyond this, the public art on display throughout the trail has generated conversations about public art and local culture. In tandem with the progress of the trail, the city’s downtown also saw a dramatic surge in commercial and residential development.

The Cultural Trail connects the towers of downtown Indy to the city's cultural districts and a broader network of greenways that stretch out into the suburbs.

As an early partner on the Trail, Project for Public Spaces worked with landscape architects Rundell Ernstberger Associates to research best practices and integrate a placemaking approach into the planning process for the trail. Through a scan of national and international precedents, we encouraged project stakeholders to connect the trail into a broader downtown cycling network, to calm traffic and introduce placemaking onto adjacent streets, and to integrate design strategies for safer intersections. We also helped facilitate workshops with cultural institutions and over 100 citywide stakeholders to build consensus around the Cultural Trail vision, and to gather input about amenities, treatments, and infrastructure.

Since then, Project for Public Spaces has been eagerly following the life and success of the Cultural Trail since the very beginning. Back in 2007, while the greenway was still being built, we asserted that Indianapolis was “taking what may be the boldest step of any American city towards supporting bicyclists and pedestrians.” Then, five years later, when ground was officially broken on the trail, we spoke one-on-one with Brian Payne about how it had already begun to change the cultural conversation in (and about) Indianapolis.

“One of the big benefits of this project is that it’s changing what we value in Indianapolis,” he told us.

"We value beautiful design more since the trail came up; we value bicycle culture; we value sustainability. It’s also a major amenity that the tourism and convention industry is selling and appreciating. It’s a unique experience that makes Indianapolis different or better than it was as a destination. Even in these tough economic times, it’s actually been a catalyst for over a hundred million dollars of new real estate development. People are even moving their offices in order to be on the trail. We’ve had three major nonprofits relocate so that they can connect to the vibrancy this project is generating."

Today, the Cultural Trail has become a global model of how cities can magnify the impact of their public spaces and cultural assets by focusing on the journey and the destination when connecting people to the places they love most. 

We invite you to come experience the magic of this place yourself! At this year’s Walk/Bike/Places conference this August, attendees can explore the exciting programs and public art along the Cultural Trail firsthand, while exploring many of downtown Indy’s most vibrant public spaces and learning from the city’s most inspiring placemaking visionaries. With nearly 100 breakout sessions and locally-led workshops planned, this world-renowned convening of walking, biking, and placemaking professionals from the public and private sectors is not to be missed. 

Registration is now open!

Early registration closes March 31st for Walk Bike Places, Indianapolis, August 4-7, 2020.

Walk/Bike/Places strives to be the most informative and progressive active transportation conference in North America. Since its founding in 1980 we have focused on leaving a positive legacy in our host city, tackling the most important and challenging issues of our day—climate change, resource scarcity, intolerance, and economic inequality—and making the conference a place where new and diverse voices are heard.

Annah MacKenzie
Annah MacKenzie
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space