Thursday, May 20th, 2010

New Grass Roots: People for Urban Progress

I’m starting a new feature on the blog today in which I’ll periodically profile great examples of positive urban change coming from the new grass roots. Today I’m featuring People for Urban Progress (PUP) from Indianapolis. In case you don’t read this entire post, please be sure to click over to their Pepsi Refresh challenge page and vote for them to get a $250,000 grant.

One day back when I had an apartment in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood, I popped into the local bike shop, Joe’s Cycles, and saw two people having a conversation with Joe about a project they were working on to make bicycle bags out of reused fabric from the roof of the RCA Dome. I was intrigued and so introduced myself and asked about their project.

The two people turned out to be Maryanne O’Malley and Michael Bricker. They were unhappy that Indianapolis was nowhere on sustainability, had a lousy public transit system, and had a limited design consciousness. They had decided to do something about this by forming an organization called People for Urban Progress (a 501(c)3 non-profit) to try to make real change on all those fronts.

Their first project was super-ambitious. Indianapolis had built the RCA Dome stadium in 1983. Like several others from that era, including the Silverdome in Detroit and the Metrodome in Minneapolis, it featured an inflated roof made out of teflon fabric. The RCA Dome was going to be demolished after a new stadium was built and this roof fabric was destined for the landfill.

PUP saw the opportunity to do something better with this. The Indianapolis parks department had, and has, a nine figure backlog of unfunded maintenance and other capital needs. PUP’s idea was to take the roof fabric from the Dome and repurpose it for items such as shade umbrellas in the parks as low cost upgrades. They wrote up a nine page proposal and showed it to the parks department and others. Fortunately, it was accepted and the demolition contractor, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, and PUP saved the vast majority of the fabric for the parks department.

But PUP wasn’t done yet. They arranged to get some of the fabric for themselves. They cleaned it and worked with local artists in their studio to use the fabric to create super-cool design pursues, wallets, and messenger bags.

Not only are these absolutely first class in design, they are true art objects. Every one of them is hand made and features a totally unique design created by the artist who made it. They are all one of a kinds.

All of the net proceeds from the sale of these products are being used to help pay for repurposing the rescued fabric for parks purposes. This is an innovative way to use part of a reclaimed building to generate funds to reuse the rest of it. This is particularly needed in an era of ultra-tight funding. The bags proved extremely popular, and nearly 1,000 have been sold to date. PUP has used the money to produce a prototype lifeguard stand shade and are awaiting feedback from the parks department before moving forward on production of as much of this and other items as funds allow.

But there is still something more with this project – something important. The RCA Dome wasn’t just another building. It was the building that enabled the city to lure the Colts from Baltimore. It was a venue for gymnastics at more at the Pan Am Games. It played an integral role in the revitalization of downtown. That building meant something to Indianapolis. By buying a Dome wallet or purse, Indy residents can carry around a piece of that history with them. (I have one of the wallets in my pocket now). It’s a spiritual artifact. It’s a memento of that journey and in a very real sense represents the coming of age of the city. The parks part of the project will also spread these reminders throughout the city, almost like the relics of a saint.

So this Dome bag project is:

Sustainability +
Cost effective capital improvements for the parks +
First rate design quality and uniqueness +
Innovative non-profit financing and a public-private partnership +
Creating objects with spiritual meaning

That’s called a Win-Win-Win-Win-Win. It doesn’t get much better than that. How often to you get to stack up that many wins at once? This is an all around incredible project.

If you didn’t know that PUP was the originator of the idea to recycle the Dome roof fabric, don’t feel bad. The city didn’t exactly go out of its way to give them credit for it. That’s disappointing.

What’s more, this should have been a big story. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Minneapolis or Vancouver had done a project like this they would have gotten national coverage for it, in sustainability or design publications if nowhere else.

With some limited exceptions like the art museum – which is run by a New Yorker who actually knows what he’s doing – Indianapolis doesn’t manage to pick up much favorable national coverage. But it’s not because they are Indianapolis and nobody likes them, or because they aren’t cool enough, or because they are located in the Midwest. It’s because the city’s PR is flat out terrible. It isn’t realistic to think a couple of grass roots advocates like Michael and Maryanne can conjure up national press, but the city is spending $275 million on the project of which the Dome replacement is part. You would think they’d make sure they got some nice coverage out of it at least.

Indianapolis has flubbed one opportunity after another to get a positive message out about itself, and this one’s no exception. Of course, it doesn’t help that the community itself far too often doesn’t even recognize the significance of what’s going on. Something important happen right under its nose and it didn’t even register. In this case, even the local media botched the story badly.

PUP has raised some money for the parks, but there’s still a lot more needed to put that fabric to work. In case you didn’t know, Pepsi is giving away a bunch of money every month to various urban projects based on a popular vote. PUP is seeking $250,000 to help with repurposing more of the Dome fabric for parks purposes. So go over to the site and vote for them now. Also, tell your friends. And if you run an Indianapolis based email distribution list, send out a note telling everyone on it to vote too. Ordinarily I wouldn’t pick favorites among my many acquaintances who are trying to get money for cool projects through this, but for my friends Maryanne and Michael, I’ll make an exception.

Here’s a cool video with more information about the project. (If it doesn’t display, click here).

PUP has got many more ideas too. They have been advocating for better public transit, such as by co-hosting an event in their studio with the folks from Indycog. Here’s a video from that event. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

And they are talking with people about trying to get a car share program launched in Indy.

We’ll have to see what PUP thinks up next. Regardless, this small and young but bold organization has already had a major and tangible impact in Indianapolis – and likely beyond. They’ve talked to people in other cities with similar teflon roof domes, so when these stadiums are replaced, I’d be very surprised if the roof isn’t reused. You can thank PUP in Indianapolis for that.

If you are interested in purchasing one of PUP’s Dome products (and new ones like a notebook are on the way), please contact PUP at Their products are available in Indianapolis at Silver in the City, IndySwank, the Indiana State Museum, and at their Murphy Building studio on First Fridays.

Oh, and by the way, that meeting I had with the PUP folks at Joe’s Cycles? That’s one of those serendipitous encounters that supposedly don’t happen in cities like Indianapolis…..

Topics: Architecture and Design, Sustainability, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

14 Responses to “New Grass Roots: People for Urban Progress”

  1. jdb says:

    I’ve got one of the Dome wallets, and it’s the best wallet I’ve ever had. Ridiculously durable, washable and looks awesome to boot. Like you said, being able to have a piece of history in my pocket is pretty cool as well.

  2. Kevin says:

    I love PUP and my PUP wallet. I did make a tiny post about them last year, but they deserve better than that. Thank you.

  3. Carl Wohlt says:

    Wow… what a magnificent effort. My hat is off to the founders, leaders, artists and supporters who made this happen. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. AmericanDirt says:

    Michael and Maryanne’s work is commendable, no question. They found an uncontroversial approach to sustainability that elicited a minor wave and saved lord-knows-how-many tons of fabric. Over 95% of discarded textiles end up in landfills, and it’s amazing the opportunities for reuse that they can afford, with just a little ingenuity. PUP has that in spades. And M & M are great for an afternoon conversation, in addition to the usual First Fridays. You may have provided them with the strongest free promo yet, U-phile.

    But methinks thou dost protest too much in the simultaneous bashing of the city. While the Indy PR campaign may let things like the dome recycle swim right through the fishnet, there is a tendency in most urban blogs such as this (I’m guilty of it too) to overlook occasionally where Indianapolis’ PR machine succeeds brilliantly: in offering a highly affordable (#1 in Forbes time and again), economically diversified, family friendly job market with a number of institutional amenities. SustainIndy may be the biggest blunder for letting the PUP Dome initiative slip by, but the aforementioned traits are nothing to sniff at. A city that cannot market itself as being good for children will likely struggle time and again, no matter what other distinctive features it has to offer. Just look at New Orleans. And keep in mind, the majority of the 1000 or so buyers of the recycled wallets/purses are locals–so clearly some of the community recognizes the significance, and they’re showing appreciation through their wallets and purses, new or recycled.

    All said, I’m glad you’ve given PUP the recognition it deserves. Perhaps others like me often took this project for granted because we falsely assumed something better would be done with the material from the dome. How refreshing it is to think this might be a trailblazer.

  5. Dirt, it’s not just little projects like this. I was really struck by how San Jose got huge press for its new airport concourse – including big writeups in super-high end international publications like Monocle. They did it by making claims that weren’t even true, like saying it was the first post-9/11 design (even though it opened a year after the new IND). The new IND was is the best airport the US and arguably the most environmentally friendly in the world, yet got very little major press when it opened. Compare San Jose to Indy on this one and see the huge difference. I could cite more examples if needed.

    Indy does get some periodic kudos from various lists. But most cities manage to get a “36 hours in XX” NYT piece or something every once in a while. I haven’t seen anything that distinguishes the city.

    For one thing: who is responsible for publicizing the city? A: lots of people and no one.

  6. Mary Beth Brown says:

    Thank you for bringing more great information to all of us on PUP—the ideas and initiatives these folks have are truly for the benefit of the city and its people—
    hopefully this idea will come to the East Coast-we live in NJ and could use some of this talent

  7. Curt says:

    Aaron, you are a good person for putting this post up. As you said, there are so many good things happening in towns like Indy that simply dont get the press that they deserve to be getting. The world needs more people like Maryanne & Michael, and the rest of the world should know about the good things that they are doing.

  8. Davis M says:

    Aaron–once again you “step up tp the plate” to inform and educate—Thank you for bringing this phenomenal non-profit to our attention–PUP certainly is doing great work and so are you

  9. cdc guy says:

    Kudos to PUP. There’s also a big hunk of that fabric covering the deteriorated roof of one of the former IU Herron School of Art (now Herron HS) buildings. Herron HS is raising funds for a renovation, and the covering is in place to preserve the building interior until they can start the project. Another double-sustainablility win.

  10. Thanks for getting back to me, Aaron. I’m not begrudging you your criticism of Indy PR for this initiative, by any means. I’m just saying that, for a city that trumpets its affordability and amateur sports (something San Jose will never be able to do), it is less surprising that green initiatives such as the Recycled Dome and IND fall by the wayside. An ideal PR machine would be good at pointing out all of these selling points, and many more overlooked ones. I just don’t want to cut off the nose to spite the face. Indy’s PR is at least on top of a few things, and the city reaps the benefits from it.

  11. Davis M says:

    Maybe American Dirt should think about putting in a “plug”
    for PUP on his blog as well—-especially since he initially thought “something else better ” would be done with the material from the dome. Maybe he should give PUP some of the recognition they deserve as well.

  12. Wad says:

    If PUP advocates for better transit, I’d buy the wares if it helps to get IndyGo going.

    My advice to PUP: When you say “better” transit, outline it in numbers. Better doesn’t just mean getting more money for a system. It must mean showing riders benefits in numbers.

    For instance, on MetroRiderLA, I defined a mediocre transit system as:
    *Routes no more than 1 mile apart (riders are at most 1/2 mile from the nearest bus stop);
    *A minimum of 30-minute frequency; make half-hourly, not hourly service, the floor;
    *Service spanning at least 16 hours a day. Indianapolis, being 11th largest U.S. city with universities and sports teams, must have a minimum of 20 hour service.
    *A “showcase” grid of high-frequency (15 minutes or better) routes a maximum of 2 miles apart (riders are no more than one mile from a busy line), or a backbone network of lines that riders need only one transfer to get to.

  13. Jeffrey C says:

    We got a 36 hours piece in the NYC a few years back, so save your tears.

    Could be time for another one, but given the # of cities to spotlight, getting one every 6 or 7 years is probably about right.

  14. pupster says:

    wad – we here you loud and clear and could not agree more (except Indy is perhaps 15th and not 11th). We are actually advocating for a grid transit system that completely serves the need. The city of Indianapolis has never committed to transit and because of this not only is it severely underfunded at the local level, but people don’t even understand the purpose of the only transit system we have. Most believe that IndyGo’s purpose is to serve the economi ally poor and handicapped of this city. Obviously this sector has a greater need and deserve a better system, but a genuine system serves the entire populous of a city and enhances and improves the lives of all. Unfortunately IndyGo is not able to do the job, because they do not have the tools or resources to do so. Do you realize that Madison WI has 1/4 the population of Indianapolis and their % of local share $ for their bus system is on par with that of Indianapolis? Yes, we attended the Public Hearing last week – it was unfortunate that IndyGo took the criticism for the City. There is a solution, but we at PUP believe that the entire IndyGo System needs to dissolve and start over and be rolled into the IndyConnect master plan. We have and will continue to give input to MPO and Indyconnect

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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