InstaBlog: A (Lonely) Canal Runs in Indy

The Indianapolis Canal Walk, located right near the city's downtown, is often described in glowing terms, not only as one of the city's gems, but as a rare example of rust belt urban regeneration done well.  There is no doubt that it is a pretty place, leaning hard into its image as a faux Venice of the Midwest.  Sadly, however, it seems far less impactful than glossy photos might have you believe.

The waterway itself has an almost hilariously tragic history: planned in the midst of the Erie Canal boom, the Indianapolis Central Canal was designed to help connect the Great Lakes to the Ohio River, traveling some 296 miles (476km).  When the project finally went bankrupt around a decade later, however, only a bare 8 miles (13km) of canal had actually been built—most of that in the city proper.  In fact, the only reason the canal still exists today is that, for many years, it was repurposed as part of the city's water supply system. By the mid-1980s, the southernmost portion of the canal had become redundant—just in time to be sold to the city.  At the time, Indianapolis was in the midst of an expensive attempt at downtown regeneration, spending heavily on a strategy of sports stadiums, convention center space, and recreational facilities.  As part of this, the canal would be extensively rebuilt into an urban destination: a grand park connecting the growing IU Health hospital campus to the north with White River State park in the south.

Walking the canal path in early March of this year, it certainly looks the part.  Extensively landscaped on both banks, it is lined with apartments, hotels, museums, and government offices.  A series of intentionally quaint pedestrian bridges cross the water at regular intervals, and the path is connected to the street grid above at every road crossing.  Visually, the design is very New Urbanist—and that is largely meant as a compliment.

There was just one problem with this scenic vista, however: there was no one there.  Sure, late winter in Indiana is clearly out of season for an outdoor attraction, and the weather was hovering around freezing, with transient flurries.  Plenty of other urban public spaces across the world, however, find ways to attract so many more people even in far worse conditions. While the path is in decent enough shape, a general lack of maintenance only added to the post-apocalyptic ambiance.  Although a lot of money was clearly spent to create this place, it now can often feel uncared for, dotted with the occasional crumbling brick wall or graffitied sign.

This is one of the risks of a one-off regeneration project born from on high and based on hope and money: while they can generate a tremendous amount of energy once, they risk falling flat when the excitement peters out.  Cities need to be a framework that supports ongoing urban life and existence; they can't survive as just a pretty design.

Funnily enough, the only place with people was one of the least pleasant places along the path: near the large, barren, undecorated grounds around some Indiana government buildings.  Here, a motley group of smokers, either employees of or visitors to various government offices, were silently taking refuge outside.

Much could be done to activate the canal year-round, including more businesses, more events, and more seasonable activities such as clearly exist for the summer.  While these would help, however, at some point, activation can become a chicken and egg problem: successful places attract people and generate activity all on their own—they don't need constant hand holding.

That, however, would be a tall order.  Once you rise up out of the sunken canal basin and see the surrounding landscape, you understand the lack of people.  Outside of the strips of development flanking it, the canal is surrounded by a wasteland of wide, pedestrian-hostile roads, parking lots, and barren expanses between suburban-style buildings.  Sadly, one of the nicest perks of being on the canal is that you don't need to see this desolate cityscape. On a larger level, this is one of the biggest urban difficulties Indy faces: while it has a number of promising urban fragments, each functional and healthy in its own way (as I've described before), most are just a little too far apart to mutually reinforce one another and create a continuous urban landscape.  Sadly, the city's size—and the punishing demolitions brought by decades of renewal and disinvestment—have left it in a rough spot.

Interestingly, the canal (and the park it terminates in) were explicitly designed to be a "cultural center" for the city.  This is in many ways reminiscent of the City Beautiful moment, which created many a glorious civic center that sits barren much of the day as the land is dedicated to only a single use.  Perhaps if the canal were less like its Beaux Arts brethren and had more than a handful of businesses along its length, it could more easily attract more people.

Carrying on that Beaux Arts theme, the canal was originally intended to terminate with a massive tower in White River State Park.  A fully decorative structure designed by no less than Cesar Pelli and planned to be some 750 feet (230m) tall, the Indiana Tower was intended to symbolize the "Crossroads of America"—as well as to compete with St. Louis's waterfront arch.  It probably wouldn't have hurt, but it almost certainly wouldn't have helped much, either. 

Of course, there is a lot more that one could say about the canal, from its nice memorial to the battleship USS Indianapolis to its quite functionally executed landscape architecture to its good use of public art to its oddly out-of-place seeming 9/11 memorial, replete with columns from the World Trade Center (New York apparently travels with me wherever I go in more ways than one).

Ultimately, however, the Indy Canal Walk feels a bit to me like a half-hearted (half-assed comes to mind, but is almost certainly too harsh) attempt at New Urbanism—a project that has a lot of the right forms, but seems to miss the larger, functional picture. Perhaps that is too harsh: urban projects in Indy face strong headwinds at best, and the canal does offer a lot of potential that the city could be doing more with.  I will have to return someday and see it in season—although I fear it would only change the picture marginally.

Based on a series of Twitter and Instagram posts.
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