As many Urban Indy readers are well aware by now, the 2010 Census information for Indiana was released, giving the general public a statistical snapshot of the state’s economic and demographic standing. Indiana is one of the first states to have their 2010 numbers released, with many other states coming online throughout the duration of 2011. Certainly, this is an exciting time for urban planners, geographers, economists, and any other data junkie who gets as excited to study and sift through new Census data as others do the Super Bowl. The reason for excitement surrounding new Census information lies behind the significance and political ramifications the ‘event’ brings. As an added bonus, the Census shows us micro and macroeconomic trends, migration shifts and gives us insight into population growers and showers.
For Indiana, the 2010 Census information delivers on excitement, teaching us a number of lessons that are sure to have political and monetary ramifications for the next ten years. One lesson that planners in particular are sure to be excited about is the revelation that people increasingly desire walkable urban neighborhoods.
When you begin to analyze the population trends in Indiana and zero in on the Indianapolis Metropolitan region, you can’t help but notice a sea of red census tracts in the center of the region surrounded by a sea of blue tracts. This color pattern indicates the region’s urban core continues to bleed population out to suburban and exurban areas in the form of sprawl. But look a little closer and two glimmers of hope, census tracts 354200 and 351600, prove that all is not lost in the fight against suburban sprawl. Tract 354200 encompasses the Northeast Quadrant of downtown Indianapolis, an area centralized around Mass Ave, a mixed-use corridor known for its art scene, restaurants, and walkable neighborhoods. The other glimmer of hope, Census tract 351600 includes the Fall Creek Place neighborhood, an area that has seen dramatic gentrification, investment and densification in recent years.
Interestingly, these two census tracts make up arguably the city’s most walkable, densely populated neighborhoods and offer quality of life characteristics not found elsewhere. Amidst a sea of red, these two neighborhoods have managed to buck the trend and grow (quite substantially) in population over the past ten years. So why are these areas growing while the rest of Indianapolis’s urban core loses population? The answers seem to be characteristics that Mass Ave and Fall Creek Place have in common (of course) which are: walkability, access to cultural institutions, unique sense of place and the ability to offer a truly urban way of life. When looking at other census releases across the country similar trends have been identified, indicating that Indianapolis is seeing what the rest of the nation is seeing: the continued rise in popularity of walkable areas that offer urban lifestyle opportunities.
Marion County as a whole (the central core county of Indianapolis) has grown over the past ten years, most of which occurring on the County fringe areas outside of the urban core. And when compared to the region’s collar, suburban counties, Marion County is a growth laggard, seeing an increase less than 5% while growth leader Hamilton County saw a greater than 50% population increase. With suburban sprawl continuing unabated and Marion County lacking the greenfields necessary for suburban expansion, central Indiana’s core county has to start taking proactive measures to curb the outward population growth trends in Central Indiana.
Since suburban development is not a substantial or legitimate option in Marion County, a differing product has to be offered that is a proven competitor with the suburban model. This is where the 2010 Census and its associated ‘exciting’ lessons come into play. The Indiana Census has revealed that walkable, urban neighborhoods like Mass Ave and Fall Creek Place are the product that people increasingly desire. This is the urban form that needs to be replicated if Marion County wants to stand a chance at curbing the current population trends that favor collar counties.
A more ‘urban product’ features an improved mass transit system, urban land use planning, increased density, heightened urban design regulations, and neighborhood identity. Pushing these types of initiatives will prove difficult, as dramatic change is almost always met with hesitation and fear. But to do nothing will prove detrimental in the long run and the urban core’s population will continue to hemorrhage. Excitement aside, we must learn from the Census, see the successes around Mass Ave and Fall Creek Place and begin developing and offering similar quality of life characteristics Countywide.