More than 5 miles of wilderness trails and 210 acres of wildlife habitat hide along the White River waterway in downtown Indianapolis, but remain largely underused by nearby neighborhoods. With improvements to the New York Street Bridge, Reconnecting to Our Waterways aims to boost well-being by connecting Near Westside residents to zones of physical activity and active play.
Most Indianapolis residents would be surprised to learn that a quarter marathon-length waterfront trail exists in the heart of downtown. Red-tailed hawks, deer, beaver, osprey, and great-horned owls all call the Urban Wilderness Trail along the White River home. The trails offer a peaceful break from city life, but also a breathtaking backdrop to stay physically active. Paved bike trails above run parallel to crushed limestone and grass trails below by the river—offering recreation options to cyclists, walkers, runners, with soft surfaces amenable to those with knee problems and limited mobility.
In a 2016 American Fitness Index ranking of the largest 50 cities in the U.S., Indianapolis ranked dead last, falling behind in obesity, exercise and diabetes rates, and accessibility to parks. Collective impact Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW) is committed to challenging this reality through infrastructure improvements to green space and connecting neighborhoods to natural waterways that encourage physical activity including biking, walking, and running.
Well-being is one of ROW’s focus elements, with the guiding principle to improve communities’ health and wellness by developing zones of active play, physical fitness, and spiritual healing along the waterway. One such area includes the often-underrated Near Westside of Indianapolis along the White River. The area boasts assets such as stunning skyline views, 13 miles of paved and natural surface trail options, and walking distance to downtown and anchor institutions such as IUPUI, Eskenazi Hospital, VA Medical Center, and the Indianapolis Zoo.
However, the White River, Indiana’s largest waterway, can serve as a divider as well as an asset, particularly when waterfront is not designed or maintained with pedestrians in mind.
In 2015, the New York Street Bridge connecting the Near Westside to downtown became a focus area to improve connectivity to trails. Previously one-way and unfriendly for bikers and pedestrians alike, in 2016 the Indianapolis Department of Public Works converted the bridge to two-way traffic, added painted bike lanes, and widened sidewalks across the bridge.
The New York Street Bridge is a thoroughfare for Indy’s most famous wellness event, the 500 Festival Mini Marathon, and the bridge and nearby trails also play host to nearly 200,000 participants in other races and events.
“Before the improvements, the bridge was a barrier between the neighborhood and the trails and amenities across the bridge. It wasn’t safe or pedestrian-friendly.”
Sherrie Bossung, Eli Lilly & Co.
The improvements are Phase I in a $580,000 renovation to make the bridge more of a destination and a connector for the neighborhood to encourage walking, biking, and jogging between the neighborhood and the trails and amenities across the river. Phase I funding derives $80,000 from ROW and $500,000 from federal CDBG funding Phase II of the project will include the installation of architectural lighting and planter boxes across the bridge. A local contractor, the Green Team through the Kinney Group, will employ local youth to maintain the planter boxes.
Starting Small with Walking the Neighborhoods
Haughville and Stringtown, bordering the west bank of the White River across from downtown, are traditional blue-collar neighborhoods whose residents tend to stay for life. According to Haughville resident Denise Smith, safety—or at least perceived safety issues—have been a barrier to residents getting out and being physically active in their neighborhood.
“I don’t know that the neighbors really interact with the White River. One of the reasons that I think people don’t want to walk is because people don’t feel safe. When I first was wanting to walk along the White River trail, I felt silly driving there to walk. One of the ways that I keep safe is to make sure to make eye contact with people and speak to them to let you know that you see them.”
Denise Smith, Haughville Resident
By choice, walking is Smith’s primary form of transportation. Late in 2015, she started “Superhero Saturdays,” a weekly walking group to get neighbors out walking and active. The group is part of the national group Girl Trek, whose mission is to encourage black women and girls to take back their lives, bodies, and communities through walking. However, the group is open to everyone.
With the improvements to the New York Street Bridge, she has started traversing the river to make use of the miles of peaceful trails in the Urban Wilderness Trail on the east bank of the river. Beginning in January 2016, she began inviting Near Westside residents to join her through handing out flyers and posting to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Nextdoor. She regularly walks 6-7 miles a day, but has created shorter routes where she can take residents based on what they want to do that day.
Momentum to getting the group going has been slow—sometimes it’s just Smith or her and one friend out walking—but she knows attitudes won’t change overnight.
“I’m going to walk no matter what, so it won’t stop me if people aren’t joining me,” said Smith. “I discovered this spring that I have allergies, but that doesn’t stop me. Now that people see me walking, they know me and will ask me where I’m walking or how far I’m walking that day.”
An Innovative Partnership
One unique advocate of well-being in the Near Westside is ROW member Greg Harger, coach of the Indiana Invaders, an elite post-collegiate running team. Coach Harger and his team have been integral in developing more than 5 miles of urban wilderness trails and 210 acres of natural wildlife habitat along the White River over the past decade and a half, including the addition of 1.25 miles of pedestrian-friendly crushed limestone along the White River and Fall Creek, thanks to a National Fish & Wildlife Federation Grant. The Urban Wilderness Trail includes quarter-, half-, and full-marathon routes used for cross-country races and community events. During 2015, more than 3,500 competitors took part in events on the trail, including the 2015 Collegiate Running Association National Trail Championships.
As part of his innovative approach, Coach Harger will require the team’s new roster of 24 athletes to live in the Near Westside community and to dedicate a certain number of service hours to the community. The result will be elite running athletes living and training in the Near Westside, modeling their fitness lifestyles to the neighborhood simply by being present. Embodying this approach, Coach Harger and his wife bought a house as a training center and meeting place for the athletes that sits directly adjacent from the New York Street Bridge.
The modeling of a healthy lifestyle, Coach Harger says, is making a difference. One neighbor, he recounts, started off by asking a lot of questions about where to go to walk and where the team trained. The man now walks regularly and has lost about 50 pounds over time and has reduced diabetes medications. A Vietnam veteran, he regularly crosses the New York Street Bridge by foot to access the VA and other amenities across the river.
Coach Harger likes to tell everyone: “If you can move, that’s all you have to do. Don’t stop moving! People have to see other people doing it to get started.”
One issue preventing use of the trails, he suspects, is that residents simply don’t know that they are there and available for public use. Up at Martin Park, for instance, after providing the city with mowing routes to carve paths through the grass, they noticed an immediate increase in usage simply by having walking trails more clearly marked.
Visions for River West
The Near Westside—or “River West” as it is becoming known— is a Great Places 2020 neighborhood in Indianapolis. Visions for the neighborhood in coming years include IT sector growth and a collaboration between Pattern and Riley Area Development Corporation to create a design and maker space. Central Greens, a development on the site of the former Central State Hospital, has begun the development of 150 acres that will include residential and commercial development in a walkable urban village setting.
“Before, the neighborhood did not have support and advocates,” said Bossung. “The challenge was getting residents to realize the vision and assets that they already had.”
Neighborhood dreams carried by Coach Harger and others include throwing a neighborhood bridge party and Mini-Marathon cheering party each year. Business leaders such as Jim Kinney of the IT business Kinney Group have become early adopters and advocates of River West as a destination, even getting involved to plant flower bulbs along the nearby waterway.
“I tell people that the White River is the best waterfront real estate in the entire state. You would think that businesses and the people who live in Indianapolis would flock there because it’s so awesome, but the reality is that that was not happening. For people who live in the neighborhood, it’s becoming a great place to go hang out. It’s already really beautiful; it’s just barren. We need to transform the river to a magnet, not a border. With ROW’s creative placemaking effort, we believe that’s the way to get that done, and we can get the neighborhood truly invested in the places.”
Jim Kinney, The Kinney Group
The New York Street Bridge renovation is possible thanks to $500,000 from the City of Indianapolis Community Development Block Grant funding and $80,000 from ROW/ Kresge Foundation and Central Indiana Community Foundation to create a maintenance endowment.
Reconnecting to Our Waterways has brought together residents, non-profits and for-profit organizations, and city officials and funders into the neighborhood. Through the collective impact, it has improved access to resources and attention to issues that had gone unseen for years. ROW is focused on reclaiming the benefits of Indianapolis’ waterways and surrounding communities so everyone has access to art, nature, and beauty every day.
For more information on ROW and their work in the community, please visit ourwaterways.org.