CICF News / 2013 / September / News Post
September 17, 2013
Reconnecting To Our Waterways…Past is Prologue

by Brian Payne

When people ask me about Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW) and what it’s all about, here’s what I’d really like to say:

George Kessler
Historic waterway images are provided by the Indiana Historical Society.
ROW has mobilized volunteers to think and act in support of waterways and is supported by CICF's Inspiring Places Initiative.

“The re-creation of a beautiful Indianapolis is based upon the existence of the streams flowing through the city.”

But those words are already taken…by George Kessler, the landscape architect the Indianapolis Parks Department hired back in 1908 to make the city, well, more beautiful.

After he got to town, Kessler took a thorough trip around the city and after raving about its streets and layout, found little else about the city he liked (particularly our hands-off attitude toward growth and green-space). Except for its waterways.

Kessler believed that White River, Fall Creek, Pleasant Run and Pogue’s Run should all be connected via scenic boulevards, and that the ribbons of water and roadways would serve as a visual bow that tied the city together.

Of course, Kessler went on to redesign Garfield Park (think: sunken garden) and create incredible parks (Riverside among them), communities (Brendonwood) and was working on a boulevard that connected Fort Benjamin Harrison to the northwest side of the city at the time of his death. Though the city has seen its share of visionaries, I’d be hard pressed to name one that was more important.

Reconnecting To Our Waterways is a project supported by CICF’s Inspiring Places Initiative, and includes corporate, city government, not-for-profit and other partners, each interested in helping neighbors strengthen waterways, and in turn, helping waterways strengthen neighborhoods. ROW is focused on transforming these same waterways as Kessler (along with the Central Canal) but with some significant differences.

Naturally we’re interested in the waterways’ health and visual beauty, much as Kessler was. But we’re also interested in transforming them so that they drive economic opportunity and neighborhood vibrancy. Our goals are to create the following using waterways as the core component:

  • Connectivity
  • Aestheticism
  • Economic activity
  • Wellness and recreation
  • Education
  • Ecology

Current projects that CICF is working on include connecting the Pleasant Run Trail from Prospect Street to Twin Aire Drive to encourage more traffic along the trail, and bring more people into the neighborhood and community in an effort to stimulate economic activity.

We’re also working on ways to bring the trail and its users “through” the now defunct Indianapolis Coke Plant on Prospect Street. After meeting with residents to learn more about how they want to revitalize their community, we’re now exploring proposals that would make it viable to travel through the plant’s remaining “footprint” along with innovative attractions that would also stimulate economic activity in the area by bringing in visitors from around the city.

Kessler, along with other similar architects and planners, was a key proponent of the City Beautiful movement, and believed that better planning could positively alter unhealthy urban environments, including overcrowding and pollution.

Part of what makes ROW so exciting to me is that there is no modern-day model for us to follow, only the opportunity for us to learn from the past, work together as a community, and create something very special that is unique to who, and where, we are. At the heart of what came to be known as “The Kessler Plan” was an astute use of our community’s natural features and assets as the cornerstone for building not just a more beautiful place to live, but a better place to live.

Like Kessler, we see the waterways as catalysts to change, and as they become healthier, as assets that afford everyone recreational opportunities, and ideally, access to art, nature and beauty every day for everybody. We also see them as connectors, economic drivers and ecological and educational opportunities for everyone who lives here, too. But no matter how you see them, Kessler was right: Our waterways are things of beauty and utility. It’s up to us not to let either go to waste.

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