Ranked At The Bottom For Fitness, Indianapolis Takes Steps Toward Walkability

Jul 6, 2015

Looking across four lanes of traffic on Washington Street in Indianapolis, community planner Brent Aldrich steels himself for a difficult crossing.  “When we do this we're going to have to run, or kind of frogger it across,” he says. Frogger? “You stand in one lane, you wait for the car to go past, and you hope it's not game over.”

Pedestrian-unfriendly streets like this  one are common in Indianapolis, a sprawling city that spans 372 square miles. They are part of the reason the city was recently ranked the least fit of the 50 largest metro areas in the US. The rankings, called the American Fitness Index, assessed walkability (among other factors), based on the Walkscore metric which scores cities on how easy it is to walk from residential areas to retail and public spaces. Indianapolis scored 29 out of 100.  In comparison, Washington D.C., which rated first for overall fitness, scored 74.

A version of this story aired on NPR's Morning Edition. Listen on npr.org

Poor walkability is a problem that plagues many large US cities—and affects their residents’ health. A review of research on urban design and physical activity published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that people in urban communities were 161 percent more physically active than people in suburban areas.

“The healthiest communities are those that are most walkable,” says NiCole Keith, an exercise specialist at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and fellow with the American College of Sports Medicine, the group that publishes the American Fitness Index. “If you have sidewalks, you can see your neighbors,...and hopefully you're able to go to the grocery store, [and] buy fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Indianapolis has plans to fix its pedestrian problems—by widening sidewalks and building more crosswalks, for example, -- but the city’s budget for such improvements is tight. So some community organizations are taking matters into their own hands to make their neighborhoods more pedestrian friendly.

Washington Street, looking east from Rural Street. The Englewood neighborhood was built around factories where residents worked, like the now-vacant P.R. Mallory building.
Credit Emily Metheney

Aldrich’s employer, the Englewood Community Development Corporation, is one of these. His group—a nonprofit developer-- is creating a commercial hub on Washington Street to make it more of a walking destination. Aldrich says his parents grew up nearby and they remember when the street was lined with businesses you could walk to. Today the streetscape includes a couple of churches, a few storefronts and a library, separated by empty lots. Most people who pass through are driving on their way to somewhere else.

The Englewood Community Development Corporation owns two properties on Washington Street: a tamale shop and the future site of a cafe.
Credit Emily Metheney

Englewood is on a path to change that. But it’s a big undertaking.

Transforming a city like Indianapolis into a more walkable place requires reversing the effects of decades of suburban sprawl, explains Bruce Race, a University of Houston architecture professor who used to teach at Ball State University’s urban planning program in Indianapolis.

Race explains that after World War II, members of the middle class started flocking to new developments in the suburbs. This happened all over the nation. “A lot of these areas were built without any sidewalks at all,” says Race. “So they really don't have the type of walking infrastructure that you might see in a traditional community.“

Inner city neighborhoods, like Englewood, also suffered from sprawl, Race says. When the middle class left, businesses closed, and neighborhoods fell into disrepair.

Making matters worse for Indianapolis, property taxes are capped by law and commuters from the surrounding counties pay their income taxes to their hometowns, not to Indianapolis. The city doesn’t have much budget for infrastructure improvements.

2016 Update: Indianapolis Continues To Rank Worst For Fitness, But There Are Healthy Changes Afoot.

So the city government is offering its support to groups of residents, like the Englewood group, that are taking the initiative to make their neighborhoods more livable. Last year, Englewood became part of a public-private initiative that will provide guidance and some financial support for future projects.

A pocket park with a community garden is the latest project completed by the Englewood Community Development Corporation.
Credit Emily Metheney

Three years ago, the group built a floor hockey rink on top of an apartment building. It’s become a community gathering place with teams for men, women and kids. It also recently finished work on a pocket park, and will break ground on a senior housing development this month, with a bike-share.

Aldrich hopes that eventually, Washington Street will look something like it did when his parents were kids. “If that could really be a place that you like to be and cared about, I think that idea motivates me,” he says. “So that you would actually want to walk on it or bike around safely and comfortably. For it to be a really lovable place.”

The hope is that efforts like Englewood’s will attract new residents and businesses, and the city will see building more walkable streets as a worthwhile investment. 

A version of this story aired on NPR's Morning Edition. Listen on npr.org

Andrea Muraskin is a reporter for Side Effects Public Media. She can be reached at amuraskin@wfyi.org or at (317) 614-0444.  Follow Andrea on Twitter: @Andrea_Muraskin.