Merritt Chase transforms Monument Circle in Indianapolis into a pedestrian-focused node

Circle in the Square

Merritt Chase transforms Monument Circle in Indianapolis into a pedestrian-focused node

The Indianapolis-based landscape firm Merritt Chase designed temporary quarters on top of the roundabout at Monuments Circle. (Hadley Fruits)

The city of Indianapolis is based on a no-fuss colonial grid plan. The masterplan by Alexander Ralston and Elias Pym Fordham from 1821 prescribed a near-perfect 20-by-20-mile square, smack dab in the middle of the Hoosier state. 

For years, Monument Circle’s Soldiers and Sailors obelisk, located at Indianapolis’s geographic center, and thus the state’s, was strangled by a multi-lane roundabout where cars made it difficult for pedestrians to see the military statue up close. This summer, the Indianapolis-based landscape architecture firm Merritt Chase got creative alongside business leaders and city officials, opting to shut down traffic at the roundabout and building a new experimental public space there, SPARK on the Circle

Monument Circle in Indianapolis is at the city’s geographic center. The landscape architecture firm Merritt Chase worked with city and business leaders to make it a pedestrian plaza. (Courtesy Merritt Chase)
Merritt Chase’s proposal for Monument Circle in Indianapolis features temporary seating for public enjoyment. (Courtesy Merritt Chase)

In early July, the city rolled out faux grass implants on top of the roundabout for parkgoers to enjoy temporary quarters. SPARK on the Circle is a collaborative, two-year effort between the city of Indianapolis, Merritt Chase, Downtown Indy, Big Car Collaborative, Capital Improvement Board, and the Indiana War Memorials Commission.

“We were inspired by the Circle as the center of the state and heart of the city. The design uses a series of green circles to provide different spaces for play, relaxation, social connection, shade, art, food and drink, and performance,” Chris Merritt, cofounder of Merritt Chase, who also serves as a 2023 Exhibit Columbus curatorial partner, told AN. “The temporary park is part of a decades-long conversation in Indianapolis on how to prioritize the Circle as a place for people, not just cars. The SPARK on the Circle initiative brought together downtown stakeholders to test these ideas.”

The urban design strategy was made in partnership with HR&A Advisors. (Courtesy Merritt Chase)

Over 5,000 visitors came to Monument Circle the first weekend it opened. Pedestrians were greeted by a beer garden, a mobile restaurant, a “listening booth” for music, ping pong tables, Adirondack chairs, and a “wagon of wonders” for the younger crowd. As part of the city’s South Downtown Connectivity Vision Plan, Monument Circle in Indianapolis will stay car-free until October. Due to this July’s success, city officials have already begun planning another closure for sometime next year, Briggs noted.

Today, city officials are also thinking seriously about prohibiting vehicle access from Monument Circle for good. Some proposals would close off parts of the Circle while others wouldn’t allow cars on the four orthogonal streets leading up it. In the latter’s scheme, there would be pedestrian esplanades with street furniture outside restaurants for the public to enjoy.

Aerial view of Merritt Chase’s pedestrian-focused proposal for Monuments Circle (Hadley Fruits)

The economic benefits yielded by shutting off streets from cars are significant. Between July 11 and July 22, foot traffic in the Circle went up by 18 percent, paying dividends for local business owners. Meanwhile, industry leaders in Indiana are chomping at the bit to see Monument Circle permanently closed down from traffic. “We urge the city—and its partners—to expand this year’s temporary effort into something permanent, a move that could require other changes,” editors for the Indiana Business Journal wrote recently. “For example, closing the Circle to traffic long term might mean making some downtown streets—Illinois and Pennsylvania, in particular—into two-way streets to make navigating downtown easier.”

“The public feedback for our downtown plan overwhelmingly showed a desire for enjoyable, safe and comfortable, active, and green public spaces,” Merritt added. The new vegetation allows Circle visitors “to feel like they are in a series of garden rooms,” he described.

Rendering by Merritt Chase showing Georgia Street blocked off from traffic (Courtesy Merritt Chase)

Through the end of this year and into next year Merritt Chase and the other involved entities will continue to study the public space and determine what could still be improved.

Georgia Street West blocked off from traffic (Courtesy Merritt Chase)

SPARK on the Circle will stay open for the next two months. For more information about events and public programming, visit Downtown Indy’s website.