Saturday, September 13th, 2008
An ad-hoc group of leaders in downtown Indianapolis is considering the idea of permanently closing Monument Circle to traffic as part of an overall plan to improve the space as a civic gathering spot.
Let me be direct: Permanently closing the Circle to cars would be a big mistake.
Having said that, considering that idea, as well as the others that are being floated, is a great move. The group considering it says their goal is to transform the Circle “into a public gathering space without equal in the United States”. That’s exactly the type of worthy and lofty goal I can endorse. In fact, I would argue that Monument Circle is already one of America’s great urban spaces, and is already a great gathering spot that sees extensive use. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Great cities are always trying to figure out ways to make themselves better. As I noted previously, sometimes the city creates a wonderful amenity, then basically ignores it, letting it decay over time. But cities and civic spaces have to constantly renew and reinvent themselves for the future. The best time to do this is when you are ahead of the game and in a position of strength, not when you are under the gun. And there’s no reason not to at least consider any idea out there that might help in that cause. Too often the big problem is a lack of imagination and an unwillingness to consider ideas that might seem radical. So I certainly applaud putting this one on the table for consideration, even if I don’t support it.
Why do I believe closing the Circle would be a bad idea? Many reasons:
1. The Circle is already a paragon of pedestrian and bicycle friendliness. Every day large numbers of cars and pedestrians navigate this roadway and it is extremely safe. It is, in fact, an embodiment of the latest traffic engineering research and the pioneering work of Dutch engineer Hans Monderman, which I’ve written about before. To summarize, excessive signage and safety features actually render roads less safe because they provide an illusion of safety and cause drivers to let their guards down. By removing visual cues, you force drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists to really think about what they are doing and to pay attention, leading to greater througput and improved safety. The Circle is already like this. There is no sign telling you to yield to pedestrians when you approach in a car, but drivers invariably do. In fact, there is no where in the city I’ve been where drivers are so courteous and drive so cautiously. No improvements are necessary here. The Circle is what the rest of Indy should be trying to get to, not get away from.
2. Pedestrianization of streets has been tried before in the United States, and it has almost invariably been a massive failure. Louisville pedestrianized 4th St. and it was a disaster. Chicago narrowed State St. to provide bus lanes only and included very broad pedestrian walkways in its attempt to make things more friendly. Again, the result was a total failure and had to be ripped out. Even sophisticated, hard core urbanites like Tyler Brûlé, of Wallpaper and Monocle fame, rail against schemes to pedestrianize streets, knowing that it almost inevitably backfires. Fortunately, Tamara Zahn of IDI appears to be aware of this.
3. There is a long tradition of cars on the Circle, and things like newlyweds making a ritual circuit around it. This would kill those traditions.
4. It reduces the opportunities for visitors to see it. When I had friends come into town to see the Colts-Bengals pre-game, I sent them down Meridian so they could drive around the Circle and see it. If the Circle were closed, I probably would have chosen West St. Which of these do you think leaves a better impression of the city? Many people are simply not going to park their cars somewhere else and walk there to see it. This is not Paris or some European burg with huge pedestrian traffic already, subways, etc. Effectively everyone on the Circle has to drive there to get there.
5. The Circle is a great gathering place for things like motorcyclists and others. Even when MotoGP is not in town, it isn’t unusual to see bikers hanging out there on a Friday night, etc. Cars backed up in the Circle trying to get to the Wholesale District and such is a sign of great urban health, not something to be avoided.
Having said all of that, there is certainly plenty of room to close the Circle more often. It is routinely at least partially shut down during lunch hour for various festivals. There is no reason not to continue doing this and look for more ways to utilize the space. Ideas that have been successful elsewhere could be applied. For example, some cities close select streets on Sundays to give them over to cyclists. There’s no reason why Monument Circle couldn’t be closed every non-football Sunday or something. There is plenty of scope to increase the amount of time when the Circle is closed without permanently closing it to cars. There is plenty of opportunity to make greater use of the space as a civic gathering ground. Though care should be taken not to render it so special-eventish that, for example, people can’t routinely eat lunch on the steps or just pay the Monument and museum there a visit without paying admission or wading through a giant festival crowd. And there should always be room for the unplanned, spontaneous celebration or gathering.
Another idea that should not be pursued is narrowing the traffic lanes. A tiny street circling that big Monument would look out of scale and, frankly, a bit goofy. Monument Circle is indeed a monumental space. I think the current mix of broad sidewalks on the interior and exterior, as well as the larger roadway and parking lanes, is very appropriate, especially as we do not see excessive speed. Again, we typically see the most polite traffic in the city.
A lot of this discussion appears to be driven by plans to bring the Cultural Trail through Monument Circle. There have been various ideas floated, including the “lollipop solution”, but I’ve not seen any final decisions.
While I’m being curmudgeonly today, let me be direct on this point as well: the Cultural Trail has no business being on Monument Circle.
There is no bigger supporter of the Cultural Trail than me. I consider it simply the finest development ongoing in downtown Indianapolis. It has every element that I suggest in what a city can pursue: it is innovative, it is world class, and it is an expression of the local environment. The project is simply a home run.
However, no element of the design of the Cultural Trail is appropriate to Monument Circle. The yellow and blue color scheme, the excessive signage and logos, and the physical arrangements of the elements are all absolutely wrong for the Circle. The red brick with limestone accents, the clean design mostly devoid of signage, and the sense of stately grandeur of the current design are perfect for the setting of what is, after all, a war memorial. When I imagine all that Cultural Trail density of signage and logos, and those colors, on the Circle, I cringe.
The Cultural Trail routing always was awkward for the Circle. In effect, the Circle is the ultimate “inner loop” and the Cultural Trail a type of outer loop. Trying to link two elements that are more or less concentric would end up being contrived no matter what the designers did. A better way is simply to treat Market St. and the Circle as what they really are: components of the Cultural Trail already. That design in effect accomplishes what the Cultural Trail designers wanted. There is already a linkage at Market/Alabama. Find the west side linkage and you are done.
The Cultural Trail does point the way in one respect, however. The group studying this is relying on a report from a group called the Project for Public Spaces in New York. PPP proudly says that they “have worked in more than 2,000 communities in 26 countries around the world, helping people turn their public spaces into vital community places, with programs, uses, and people-friendly settings that build local value and serve community needs.” Frankly, it is unlikely that a group like this is going to help Indianapolis to achieve the ambition it set out of creating “a public gathering space without equal”. From browsing around their site, it appears that PPP is pushing their “school solution” on Indianapolis. Adopting a variation of the same pitch PPP developed for 2,000 other cities isn’t likely to result in anything world class. Quite the opposite in fact. I suspect that the Circle today, as it is, already surpasses as a public space the vast majority of the places that PPP has helped. We’re talking a space that is already on the pro tour, and is now trying to become Tiger Woods. That requires a different type and level of coaching.
The Cultural Trail shows that ultimately world class amenities usually have to be organic. Brian Payne could have hired PPP or any of a number of highly competent consulting firms to come up with the Trail concept. Those firms would dutifully have pulled their standard approaches off the shelf, applied their rendering elements to the Indy street grid, and voilà! But that would not have been nearly as good, or landed Indy in the pages of Dwell or Metropolis. If Indy is going to take the Circle to the next level, then yes, good ideas from elsewhere can be adapted. I myself suggested the Sunday closings for cyclists, for example. But the key ingredients are going to come from inside, not outside.
My suggestion to the group studying this would be to consider the exceptionally high quality and strengths of the Circle as it is, and to figure out a uniquely local way to improve on it. As you can tell, I already believe the built environment there is excellent. It needs to be maintained, certainly. The brick and such is aging and a refresh of sorts may be necessary. The lighting designs are a bit dated, but still not bad or inappropriate. But I don’t believe wholesale design changes in the physical appearance of Monument Circle are warranted. Rather, looking at ways to improve the utilization of the space, and to help citizens and visitors engage with it more creatively, is what is needed.
To summarize: By all means look for ways to improve the Circle and make it more popular and an even better civic gathering space than it already is. But do not leverage off the shelf type recommendations from consultants, don’t route the Cultural Trail through it, and by all means don’t close the Circle permanently to cars.