The White River, as seen aboard the famed Millennial Falcon. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)
The White River, as seen aboard the famed Millennial Falcon. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)

OXFORD, England  – The White River flows between two unappealing banks. The first is neglect. We don’t talk much about this largest waterway in Central Indiana, which indulges in serpentine bends on its southwesterly flow through farmland and suburb and city, in no hurry. The river is not so much Indy’s best-kept secret as it’s one we don’t even know we’re keeping.

The second is contempt. The butt of countless jokes, the White River is synonymous with pollution, and for good reason: pesticides, industrial runoff, and sewage have long flowed into it. And then there was the fish kill of 1999, when millions of fish were killed by chemical discharge, their bloated bodies floating belly-up across 50 miles between Anderson and Indy.

Not a great reputation.

Thankfully, that is changing. An alliance among the City of Indianapolis, Visit Indy, and Hamilton County Tourism is spearheading a new effort called the White River Vision Plan. After holding community hearings, the group hopes to release a master plan next summer that will “chart a course for how to sustainably develop the river in support of attracting residents and visitors alike,” Chris Gahl, Visit Indy’s senior VP, told me.

In parallel, legislators have organized a White River Caucus in the General Assembly to consider river renewal. (And, per the Department of Natural Resources, the fish are back.)

We should celebrate these efforts, and we should push city and state leaders to think boldly about developing the White River. It’s surely our most undervalued asset, and it’s my wager that Indy’s chances of reaching the next tier of great cities depends on getting this right, for reasons of economic competitiveness, regional cooperation, and quality of life.

When it comes to strategic thinking about the natural environment, central Indiana is way behind the curve. American cities have entered a new era of competition for provision of public amenities, with nothing less than their economies’ competitiveness at stake.

Public spaces have become “economic development magnets,” notes Adrian Benepe, former commissioner of New York City Parks. As he told the New York Times, “there is a peacetime arms race as cities compete with each other” to develop their natural resources. Jobs and investment follow parks.

The roster of cities that have recently made serious, deliberative investments in their waterfronts includes Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Buffalo. These cities, our rivals, understand the importance of their rivers, and their investments in waterfront parks, retail, and housing reflect a commitment to strategic thinking about the underpinnings of long-term growth. Indiana can ill afford not to develop our natural resources.

Every year we leave our waterway idle is doubly detrimental: Our loss is another city’s gain. That’s why every business recruitment and economic development plan for central Indiana must include the White River.

Another reason to think boldly about developing the White River stems from the question of regional cooperation.

Over the past few years, state leaders have begun paying more attention to the merits of thinking regionally than at any time since, perhaps, Mayor Lugar’s Unigov scheme almost 40 years ago. One product is the Regional Cities Initiative (RCI), which matches funding given for regionally-conceived development projects. Like Unigov, the RCI was motivated in part by a recognition that the best community planning happens when all the players sit at the same table. Too often, the division of political authority into little fiefdoms stifles cross-jurisdictional innovation.

And the demand for regionalism will only grow, as the economic landscape rewards what urban experts Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak call “collaborative governance networks.” As their term suggests, Katz and Nowak encourage us to broaden the scope of regional governance to include formalized collaborations with civic and philanthropic groups. 

The White River illustrates well both the challenges and opportunities of this broad regionalism. Its watershed is vast and the needs of its various populations diverse. The project must be sensitive to these differences.

In practice, what we need is for every stakeholder to be on board from the beginning. The fact that the White River Vision Plan is a collaboration between Indianapolis and Hamilton County is an excellent start. 
And the momentum from this initiative can be used to catalyze transformative regional cooperation on other initiatives (e.g., mass transit). There’s something beautiful about using watershed rejuvenation as a template for regional thinking: A confluence of ideas makes us all stronger.

Of course, few who encounter the White River of tomorrow will marvel at its shores as a paradigm of economic development and innovative governance. The third reason to be visionary about the river stems from how it makes people feel.

Just picture Hoosiers of all kinds communing with nature rather than their smartphones, as their sense of wonder and fun grounds a heightened civic pride for our city.

Talk of feelings may sound sentimental or whimsical for an urban planning project, but it’s precisely those qualities that underlie something very serious, the ability of public spaces to manifest civic ideals. We must remember the contribution public spaces make to what political theorist Martha Nussbaum calls our “public emotion culture.” The built environment structures the way we interact with fellow citizens, opening or foreclosing avenues of connection. As the Cultural Trail ably demonstrates, sometimes the only way to feel connected to different parts of the city is to actually knit them together.

Done right, a new riverfront with equality of access can help cultivate a renewed respect for Indy’s diversity and help soften divisions.

How public spaces make us feel and relate to our neighbors are key indicators in assessing cities, and they’re a core reason to do something inspiring with the White River.

What exactly that “something” is will depend, as it should, on long-term planning and community engagement. The principles I’ve proposed suggest a mixed approach would be best – recreational, commercial, residential.

Overhauling our riverfront won’t be easy. We’ll likely need controversial zoning changes, intelligent development incentives, robust environmental safeguards, and an unshakeable commitment to inclusivity.

But we’ve been asleep at the helm for too long; now is the time. Let’s make the White River our next great project. 

Jay Ruckelshaus is a Rhodes Scholar from Indianapolis and a graduate student in politics at the University of Oxford.