Indy's Trail Blazers

Indy's Trail Blazers

A rendering of the new Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which dedicates large swaths of city streets to biking and pedestrians.
Courtesy Rundell Ernstberger

The revitalization of Central Indianapolis created several thriving “cultural districts” in the downtown area, anchored by institutions such as the Indiana Repertory Theatre and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. These districts are disconnected by distance and by gaps in the urban fabric, but the Central Indiana Community Foundation has developed a plan to fix that: the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

A unique urban loop linking the cultural districts together with fully segregated pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists, the trail is to be carved out of 18 to 36 feet of space on eight miles of downtown streets. Beyond pure functionality, the foundation wanted to “create an inspiring space for people,” according to president Brian Payne.

A short teaser segment of the trail opened last year. The major northeast segment recently broke ground. It will connect the Cultural Trail to the Monon Trail, the city’s principal rail-trail. A northwest segment linking to downtown’s Canal District and the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus will also be built this year.

The trail will also feature $2 million worth of public art and a bike-share system modeled on the Paris Vélib. To maintain, market, and improve it over time, $5 million of the $55 million budget is being set aside as an endowment to support the trail, with the non-profit Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc. formed to manage it. The trail is largely being built with $40 million in private funds and $15 million in federal funds. The trail is not costing city taxpayers anything.

“This is bigger, bolder, and more beautiful than any urban trail being built in the world today. In terms of impact, we hope this will be our Millennium Park. Only this is more innovative,” claimed Payne.

Unlike a typical roadway project, the Cultural Trail design team is headed by
a landscape architecture firm, Rundell Ernstberger Associates. As principal Kevin Osburn argued, “Architects don’t think first about cars; we think about everybody.” Osburn’s design features a two-way bicycle trail separated from the street by landscaping and “rain gardens” used for green stormwater management, then another landscaped buffer and a completely separated pedestrian pathway for much of the trail’s length.

The trail makes extensive use of native plantings, and is in effect a linear park. The width is made possible by the city’s wide streets. Indianapolis was laid out as a grand capital city by Alexander Ralston, a one-time assistant to Washington, D.C.’s famed planner Pierre L’Enfant. These wide streets meant lanes could be taken away from cars without reducing the level of service.

Osburn was inspired by the city’s George Kessler–designed greenway network, and the trail is intended to be the downtown hub of that system. He specified high-quality materials such as concrete pavers instead of a plain asphalt path, and dense, low-mast street lighting to make the trail feel safe 24 hours a day.

More important to Osburn is the trail’s effect on the city’s future: “We want to reimagine the streets of our city for the 21st century.”