What Indianapolis Can Teach Us About Parks and Trails Philanthropy

Making a city greener, more walkable, and more bikable is usually a bigger job than private philanthropy can takes on, which leads to tough questions around equality and public good. The reshaping of Indianapolis shows how the smart use of a chunk of funds can create a lasting ripple effect.  

To make one thing clear out of the gate, RebuildIndy is not a story about philanthropy, exactly. While foundations are contributing to what's happening there, Indianapolis was largely able to revamp its car-centric streetscape due to a $500 million windfall derived from selling its water and sewer utility to a public charitable trust. 

But while reading a recent Next City feature on how Indianapolis leveraged that sum to make an outsized impact on the livability of the city (worth a read here), I couldn’t help but think about the lessons philanthropy could learn from the story.

After all, while the new Gilded Age is resulting in a spree of ambitious parks and city trails projects, they’re sometimes of questionable fairness and public benefit. New York City is home to the most blatant of these problems, with a flush Central Park, a billionaire trying to build an island park in the Hudson, but small neighborhood parks languishing.  


We’re still figuring out the right role for high-dollar philanthropy when it comes to city infrastructure, as it sometimes means lavish investments in pet projects. Maybe Indianapolis can point us in the right direction.  

For quick background, Indianapolis was built at a time when America was drunk on the automobile. It’s for cars. Until recently, it didn’t even have many sidewalks. So while a windfall of $500 million is no small amount, it wasn't nearly enough to make needed repairs or retrofit the city for pedestrians and cyclists. 

This is a common scenario when it comes to philanthropy—several million in private gifts is a big deal, but it can rarely translate to widespread change—usually more like a new park or square overhaul. 


But with Indy’s chunk of funds almost cashed out, it's set in motion a shift in the city that looks like it will carry on well beyond the $500 million. Sure, it's done typical public works stuff, fixed a bunch of bridges and streets, but it's also planted 14,400 trees, extended greenways, created pedestrian thoroughfares to revitalize neighborhoods, and started to connect the city with several miles of new trails, walkways, and bike paths. 

Here are two secrets of the city's success:

They asked the people what they wanted, and gave it to them.

This is where a public process can dramatically differ from the closed-door proceedings of some philanthropic projects. In the case of the New York island park project, it seemed to surface out of nowhere, informed by the donor and some handpicked design and entertainment industry people. 

For RebuildIndy, the city held 50(!) public meetings to decide how to use the money. City leaders heard over and over again that people wanted sidewalks, trails, and bike paths, so RebuildIndy prioritized them. 

They used projects to educate residents about what's possible.

The projects from RebuildIndy weren’t seen as the end result, but ways to show a community what having a walkable city is like, and how it improves life for a wide swath of the community. 

City officials described how they are prioritizing projects, especially knowing that the money is running dry. For one, they're focusing on projects that sync together trails, sidewalks, bike paths, and transit, hoping for a transformative effect that benefits many people. The city also focuses on connectivity. By prioritizing projects that link people to retail centers, or public services like libraries, it has a “cascading effect.”

Officials described how, pre-RebuildIndy, people had sort of come to accept the city as it was. After decades of neglect, they just stopped asking for improvements and resigned to driving everywhere. The $500 million was a way to shake the city out of its complacency, and show what’s possible. Now, other foundations and nonprofits are stepping up to keep the ball rolling, people are seeing how property values are rising, and there’s even talk of a 2016 referendum to—gasp—raise taxes. 


So what’s the lesson for philanthropy? I don't mean that foundations should try to take over a city's public works.

But foundations are always talking about getting the most bang for the buck, and making the most impact possible. RebuildIndy shows how a chunk of funding can amount to more than one ribbon cutting. By taking into account what a community needs and providing broadly beneficial demonstrations of how to get there, a relatively small amount of funds can actually begin a larger shift toward a greener, more walkable city.