June 14th, the Indianapolis Department of Public Works (DPW) issued a Request-for-Information (RFI) regarding potential uses for and business models that utilize and leverage 89 sites around Indianapolis and Marion County formerly home to the now-defunct BlueIndy car share service.
From DPW’s RFI: “With BlueIndy’s departure comes a unique opportunity for innovative companies, entrepreneurs, and non-profits and community organizations to leverage over $15 million in built infrastructure in City right-of-way (ROW).”
In September 2015, Indy became home to (at-the-time) the world’s largest electric car sharing service with BlueIndy, an electric car sharing company started in collaboration with the City of Indianapolis, local electric utility companies, and the Bolloré Group. However, the timeline of BlueIndy was brought with disappointing usage, problems with access, and civic disapproval, with many clamoring for the original parking spaces back.
Now, the city is seeking proposals for adaptive reuse of the site. Let’s make this clear: it should not return to parking. Over $50 million of investment (with $6 million civic dollars) went into BlueIndy, creating a city-wide grid of electric car-charging stations. Simply throwing that all away would be a massive waste. However, until a new, perhaps smaller, car share startup comes to the table, the City must figure out the best, and most equitable usage for the spots going forward. So what should take their place?
Neighborhood wifi hotspot parklets.
Parklets are an inexpensive neighborhood infrastructure innovation that can increase both neighborhood vitality and economic viability. They usually involve converting 1-3 parking space into an attractive public “third place”, or a place away from home or work. Benches, chairs, and tables can draw in people, and strategic landscaping is added to beautify and allure foot traffic. Now add internet access.
While the city is already struggling with lack of internet access in many of its neighborhoods, and with the rise of e-learning post-COVID-19, wifi access to ensure more equitable access for hundreds of Indianapolitans is a huge must for ensuring access to opportunity, employment, and public resources.
While Wi-Fi hot spots can help solve the problem quickly, they could carry costly ongoing fees. However, while the city is working on a comprehensive internet access plan, these parklets could be the type of incremental step into providing more equitable internet access to perhaps thousands of Hoosiers.
Parklets have been shown to increase economic activity, particularly on retail and mixed-use streets. Atop of this, parklets can often change the look and feel of the urban environment at a low capital cost ($5,000 to $25,000, according to Smart Growth America, figure that typically includes permitting fees which would be probably waived by the City in this instance). Even if all 89 BlueIndy locations were turned into parklets, using a median cost for each one would result in less than $1.3 million in total capital cost for the parklet infrastructure itself. Utilizing low-cost routers and modem infrastructure would keep costs low, and bringing neighborhood associations on board to maintain and clean the structures would further keep costs down.
Parklets help define a sense of place and create new mini-public plazas that attract and cater to all ages. They can also enhance safety by keeping “eyes on the street”.
These parklets could be designed by and built by local artists and organizations and catered to and informed by particular needs of individual neighborhoods. In our day and age, internet access is often a prerequisite for employment opportunity and public information that helps shape Indianapolis.
Furthermore, this plan does not involve tearing out BlueIndy infrastructure, instead leaving it for a potential new car share vendor in the near future, helping to minimize the loss of BlueIndy’s large capital cost. Instead, the spots will be replaced by a vibrant public space that helps school-children, low-income residents, and the elderly find a spot to access much-needed web information.
This opportunity would involve residents in the design and build, and each will be programmed to each neighborhood to win local support. Perhaps local high school industrial arts educators could use the opportunity to have students build parklets while they learn on the job. Nearby businesses could sponsor individual spaces as to defray cost and maintenance.
A key component to great, people-oriented cities is providing a place to sit. Combine this with internet access and you have a home run.
Creating “third places” where all who need internet access can find it is critical to fostering a more equitable society, and even democracy. While many stations are currently downtown, there are hundreds of low-income and homeless downtown without reliable, non-stop access to the web. Let’s make the city for them, too. Local artists and neighborhood associations could help add value to their neighborhoods. Infrastructure would not be thrown away. The cost would be low. The gain could be massive.
This proposal is still coming together and we need your help. While the RFI is due on August 14th, we will be reaching out to community non-profits, neighborhood associations, foundations, and some of the other wonderful organizations here in Indianapolis. We need your help! We need big-thinkers, local artists, neighborhood leaders, and designers to come together to make this thing happen. We need help with procuring funding, writing the proposal, and design ideation.
If you are interested in changing the paradigm of internet access, beautifying neighborhoods, and adding economic vitality in Indianapolis please get in touch. Contact info is at the bottom.
If you don’t think you have much to offer, get in touch anyway. Together, we can do anything. At the very least, share this.
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or (219) 669-6132