A collaborative, grassroots initiative calling itself Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW) has launched the first phase of a long-term mission to revitalize Indianapolis waterways. Led by a coalition of steering committee members, public and private organizations, civic leaders and local residents, the initiative is currently seeking community input in developing a pipeline of future projects that benefit both the city's waterways and living standards.
ROW envisions itself as a junction between ecology and civic life, where environmental projects to restore the aesthetic beauty of the city's waterways also impact surrounding neighborhoods.
By inviting local citizens, artists and developers into the conversation, ROW seeks to emphasize both a waterway's source of natural beauty and its capacity to engage, educate and inspire the city's vibrant community.
Inspiration, target areas and elements
While still in the nascent stages of its long-term vision, the idea for ROW arose from discussions during the 2010 Livability Challenge. Organized by the Central Indiana Community Foundation and CEOs for Cities, the Livability Challenge brought together local and national experts to research and recommend "Big Ideas" on how Indianapolis could be a city "where every citizen enjoys beauty in the form of art, good design and nature every day."
Following the Livability Challenge's final report and discussions with several local development groups, a plan to emphasize Indy's waterways took root; by choosing to focus on rivers, streams and the communities that border them, ROW left open the door for a diverse range of projects while maximizing the geographic boundaries of its impact.
"These waterways go through some of our neighborhoods surrounding the city that are essential to keeping Indianapolis strong," said Sherrie Bossung, a ROW steering committee member and director of community outreach and employee engagement at Eli Lilly and Co.
ROW identified six study areas around Indianapolis in which the first phase of their projects will focus: Little Eagle Creek near Lafayette Square, the Canal near Midtown, Mid-North Fall Creek, near Eastside Pogue's Run, Southeast Pleasant Run, and the White River on the near Westside. These target areas not only share a history with some of ROW's key partners, they also boast well-established community engagement programs from which the initiative can leverage participation and feedback.
The contribution of the public was a vital part of a March 9 charrette to underline the initiative's priority areas. Representatives gathered from ROW's steering committee, its partners, and each of the six study areas. Together, the group established The Six Elements most important to ROW's mission: Aesthetics, Connectivity, Ecology, Economics, Education and Well-being. They also decided to make crowd-sourcing a key component of the initiative's future.
Crowd-sourcing pools ideas
The success of Reconnecting to Our Waterways will not rest solely on the individual work of key participants, but in its ability to influence a "collective impact" among its many affiliates and the Indianapolis community. In order to expand the number of those engaged, ROW has integrated software into its website that allows registered users to upload ideas in line with the initiative's mission.
"Crowd-sourcing lets impacted people and parties interested in a project have a voice," said Brad Beaubien, director of Ball State's College of Architecture and Planning Indianapolis Center and ROW steering committee member. "No idea is too big or too small. It doesn't matter if you are an eloquent writer or a gifted artist. We are interested in the idea."
Anyone interested in submitting a proposal should attempt to describe how components of their project would be implemented in the short, medium and long-term, and which of ROW's Six Elements their idea addresses. In an effort to maintain continuity with the past, users are also asked to identify any previous public or private initiatives their design would build upon. The registered community is already growing, and users are choosing to "vote up" and "vote down" pages of proposals.
More than eighty ideas are available. They range from the creation or renovation of trails to the removal of invasive plant species that create obtrusive visual barriers. Others are more whimsical, like a waterwheel-powered outdoor learning center and an art display that reacts to a streams pH levels and flow. Proposals and public voting for the first round of projects must be completed May 1, but ROW insists this is only the beginning.
"Crowd-sourcing is new and it will evolve," said Beaubien. "We are committed over the next few years to several rounds. The idea is that projects inform planning, which informs the metrics of our future projects and planning — emphasizing a cyclical process with measurable impact."
Tributaries: channeling the community's resources
Reconnecting to Our Waterways is the product of over one hundred large and small businesses, universities, organizations and public and private entities. It is a group of diverse knowledge and expertise, with immense potential for collective impact on local waterways. ROW hopes to harness that energy.
"When Eli Lilly came across the Livability Challenge paper, what really resonated with us was the emphasis on art, nature and beauty for everybody, every day," Bossung said, who organizes the company's day of service. "We plan to select a [ROW] project where 8,000 volunteers would be most useful in positively affecting the community."
ROW hopes other implementers do the same with the resources they have to offer. Like Eli Lilly and Co., many other companies have a yearly day of service that could sync up with ROW. Big Car, an art collective in Lafayette Square, will open its facilities for an off-line version of ROW's crowd-sourcing component. This will allow locals without Internet access a platform to share their perspectives. ROW is especially hopeful that Indianapolis schools and their students will participate.
"What really excites me are the interactive art displays that connect science with education for children and their families," Bossung said. "We need to leverage school kids to become waterway ambassadors at their homes."
After the May 1 deadline for public proposals, ROW plans to carefully sift through the website. Public voting will help the steering committee acknowledge popular projects, but there is neither a prize nor a guarantee of implementation.
"When you are trying to implement a waterway project, logistics must be considered," Beaubien said, citing construction of new trail paths as especially problematic this early in the game. "Our crowd-sourcing component will help us gather and evaluate ideas. Depending on who is willing and capable of implementing a project, certain ideas will be more feasible than others."
Projects that fit into the first phase will be stylized, given a story and publicly presented in late May when ROW plans to host another charrette. This time, the group will focus on concrete ways to partner implementers with the projects that can be easily achieved without extensive paperwork and oversight. Later, ROW will address more comprehensive projects that fall in line with their long-term vision.
As crowd-sourcing moves forward, ROW believes it can provide an excellent opportunity for implementers to independently align their resources with innovative ideas. A small company without the time or experience to design a project — but with keen interested in the beauty and function of rain gardens — could find a proposal on the ROW website and offer financial support. It is all part of ROW's collective impact approach to bring Indianapolis back in touch with its network of waterways.
"Indianapolis is an amazing city," Bossung said. "If all of us worked together — to clean up waterways, enhance paths and trails, and create fun, educational destinations for families — the city would really begin respecting what it sees."
[A+E] Festivals + Parties, Local Business, Environment, Social Justice