Greg Bright walked out into the field, his boots crunching into the fresh snow. Grimly, he pointed toward a clump of trees.
“All those trees will be cut down,” he said, looking over more than a dozen forested acres soon to be transformed into a mixed-use development of more than 900,000 square feet near the intersection of Bridgeport and Rockville roads.
Bright, who’s lived in his house across from this field for 37 years, is one of many long-time Indianapolis residents who have watched their neighborhoods change to make way for city growth and development.
Much of that development is encroaching on what remains of Indianapolis’ forested space. And environmentalists say there aren’t enough safeguards in place to stop it.
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Indianapolis falls behind other cities when it comes to public green space. About 4% of land in Indianapolis is park space, compared to the national median of 15%. Just over a third of residents are within a 10-minute walk from a park, while on average nationwide more than half of residents in other cities are within that distance.
The city’s own sustainability plan, Thrive Indianapolis, sets a goal for increasing green space and tree cover throughout the city, recognizing its usefulness in mitigating flooding, pollution and heat, and generally improving quality of life.
But that’s a challenge because the vast majority of urban forests in Marion County are privately owned. According to an unreleased report from the Indiana Forest Alliance obtained by IndyStar, 30,000 of 35,000 acres of forested land in the county are unprotected and, thus, subject to private development.
That scenario — urban forestland on developable private property — means oftentimes the city agency with final say over whether the forests will be protected is the same one that oversees and approves plans to build on top of them.
Environmentalists have lambasted the city’s Metropolitan Development Commission, the group in charge of giving the green light to development projects in the city, for approving projects they say are carving away necessary natural resources in the county.
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“The reality is that Indianapolis has an increasingly rare number of open spaces,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. “To truly realize the spirit of the Thrive Plan, we ought to preserve rare woodlands.”
But when it comes to private property, there’s only so much that the city can do.
The city’s agencies, such as the parks department and Office of Sustainability, can work with landowners and conservation trusts to buy land or encourage donations when possible. But when the landowner has bigger plans, the development commission, a group of volunteers from the general population that operate outside of the city staff, steps in.
In a statement, the city said the development team analyzes project petitions based on policies that ensure “environmental sustainability is at the forefront of development.”
“Recommendations to our boards, commissions, and the City County Council are always viewed in a context that emphasizes the vitality and legacy of neighborhoods and their residents,” the statement said.
The city has made headway since the Thrive Indianapolis sustainability plan was released in 2019, adding 248 acres of green space around the county.
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Even so, environmentalists point out that recent developments approved by the city’s development team have resulted in losses of dozens of forested acres.
In a recent case, 18 acres were carved out of a 60-acre forest the alliance deems a high-priority area. In another, a developer cleared six acres of trees only for a judge to ban their project based partially on environmental grounds. And about a dozen more will soon be developed near Greg Bright’s house off of Rockville Road, despite the Department of Metropolitan Development’s own planning team’s opposition.
“The city has given a lot of lip service to the idea that we need to have more tree canopy and protect the tree canopy that we have,” said Rae Schnapp, director of conservation for the Indiana Forest Alliance. “But then when the rubber meets the road, they’re not necessarily implementing it.”
It’s important to note that in many cases, the same development flattening forests is also providing needed housing and space for businesses as the city grows.
Experts estimate the number of residents in Indianapolis will grow 10% to 30% by 2050, and some surrounding counties will see even more influx. Some of the aforementioned recently-approved developments will provide affordable housing or mixed-use living space often touted by environmentalists as greener solutions for city living.
The balance will be a difficult one to strike, but crucial, environmentalists say: How will Indianapolis weigh progress in a growing city, while also protecting what natural resources are left?
Where Indianapolis stands
Indianapolis falls behind comparable cities when it comes to public green space.
According to The Trust for Public Land, which annually ranks the park space in America’s largest cities, 35% of Indianapolis residents live within a 10-minute walk from a park. Residents from other similar cities, such as Columbus and Detroit, have far more access, at 68% and 80%, respectively. Even in Oklahoma City, which ranks last on the Trust’s 2020 list, residents have better access to parks.
Indianapolis was ranked last out of 98 cities in the Trust’s 2017 report for park space. Since then, the city has declined to be included in rankings.
Although tree canopy coverage is about 33% over Marion County, it’s spotty. According to Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, in some neighborhoods as much as 65% of the land is sheltered by the canopy of trees. In others, it falls below 10%.
Many of the neighborhoods lacking in tree cover, such as the Near Westside and some parts of Fountain Square, are the same that experience the highest levels of social vulnerability. They are also some of the hottest neighborhoods, some reaching maximum summer temperatures of more than 100 degrees.
The city defines social vulnerability based on the number of people in the area below 200% of the federal poverty level, the number of children and adults over 65, as well as other social factors.
Trees could help these communities, especially as climate change increases the number of hot days and causes heavier rains. Trees cool neighborhoods, improve energy conservation and absorb water. They capture pollutants, too — and 60% of Indianapolis residents are vulnerable to poor air quality. Research has shown Indianapolis’ trees sequester more than 283,000 pounds of pollutants and 45 million pounds of carbon each year.
The estimated financial benefit Indianapolis’ trees provide amounts to almost $10 million each year, according to the Alliance. Losing more trees, Schnapp said, wouldn’t just hurt residents. It would be costly, too.
Balancing trees and building
The City of Indianapolis can protect or acquire forested plots of land through multiple channels.
One option would be buying that property outright, or accepting it as a donation. To do this, several city agencies work together. The Department of Metropolitan Development may come across a plot of forested land zoned for parks or greenways, for example, and pass it on to the parks department. Indy Parks may then work with the landowner to see if they’d be interested in donating the land or selling it to the city.
When the budget allows, the city may look for land adjacent to parks. Other times, land trusts and conservancies will buy the land.
“The main driver is interest and opportunity,” a city spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Much of the progress comes from zoning cases where developers donate land for the park system.”
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Through this method, the city obtained parkland during the housing boom from developers in key spaces, including Wildwood and Century Park.
But there are several challenges at play: The city needs to find out which plots of land to look for, the landowner has to be willing to donate or sell it, and the city has to find money for the purchase. Another financial block can be maintaining the property — and IndyParks’ budget needs to be taken into consideration.
When a landowner isn’t interested in selling or donating, and instead puts forth a property for development, that project proposal moves through the development commission. Any project must fall under the type of zoning designated in the city’s land use plan.
Notably, it goes through the city’s planning team before it’s up for a final vote from the development commission. During this stage, the planning team evaluates recommended land uses and other environmental factors before passing the proposal on with recommendations regarding tree preservation or outright suggesting the project be denied altogether.
Typically, developers’ plans are adjusted to protect or replace heritage trees, or older, larger trees of 18 inches in diameter.
“This promotes keeping as many trees as possible or replacing them with more trees than what was taken down,” a spokesperson for the city said in an email.
This requirement is high enough, the city asserts, to incentivize keeping more trees on the property and promote replacing them with more trees than have been cut down.
The problem is, environmentalists say, the planning team isn’t always prioritizing the environmental aspects of a project. And even when they do, the development commission is not required to follow through on the planning team’s recommendation.
“The MDC can do what they want,” said Paula Brooks, environmental justice coordinator for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “There’s no accountability.”
Former Indianapolis city planner Clarke Kahlo now spends much of his free time as a citizen advocate for the environment in development cases. He said he’s been “stunned” by how little time is spent on evaluating environmental issues of development near or in woodland during hearings — and he’s attended dozens of them.
It’s no question, he said, that Indianapolis development is encroaching into environmentally sensitive areas.
According to data shared with IndyStar by the Department of Metropolitan Development, dozens of projects — mostly residential — have been built in or next to the city’s environmentally sensitive areas, or sites with high-quality woodlands or other natural resources designated in the Marion County Land Use Plan.
It calls into question, Kahlo said, the point of designating environmentally sensitive areas at all.
“Are we adequately protecting and preserving these areas that we have made a considerable effort to identify?” he asked.
One of the ways the city has been able to increase tree cover without purchasing private property has been through planting street trees. Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, a local nonprofit that does so on behalf of the city, plants about 3,500 trees each year.
That amounts to almost 45,000 new trees in Indianapolis since 2006, said KIB’s President and CEO Jeremy Kranowitz. Not all of these trees are planted by the city, but most are, he said.
And KIB’s focus is on planting them in neighborhoods with a “historic underinvestment in green infrastructure,” Kranowitz said.
“One of the things that we analyze is where trees are most needed,” Kranowitz said. “We actually prefer to go to places that don’t have a healthy or robust tree canopy. … One of the big challenges, truthfully, is in a number of these neighborhoods where there has not been investment over the years, there’s trust building and relationship work that needs to be done.”
‘We don’t invest enough’
The question of how to balance growth and environment is one the City, the City-County Council and environmental groups are all tackling.
The City is in the process of completing a comprehensive parks and recreation open space plan, which will evaluate ways to acquire land for green space. In the meantime, the City-County Council’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability recently issued recommendations regarding preserving open space in the city, which include increasing the Indy Parks budget and evaluating non-traditional incentives such as carbon markets.
Commission chair John Barth said tackling green space was a focus of this commission, and an issue that became even more clear as residents relied on public outdoor space in the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It became so transparently clear that we don’t invest enough in our green space in Indianapolis, and we need to find new and creative ways to do it,” Barth said. “The pandemic revealed the need for it and the value of it beyond what we already knew.”
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A spokesperson for the city noted that Indy Parks’ operational budget has increased by 23% since 2016, and is set to get a boost in funding as a result of Mayor Joe Hogsett’s Circle City Forward Plan.
Planting street trees in neighborhood of need could also be a crucial part of the solution, and one that has already had an impact in some areas. But it can take decades for trees to grow to maturity.
“We’re trying to protect Indianapolis’ tree canopy and forested areas because it really helps make the city more resilient in a lot of ways,” Schnapp said. “We’re losing our forests at a pretty rapid rate, and we’re planting trees, but not nearly so fast.”
When all else fails, Kahlo said, residents can make change by speaking up in development commission meetings and being active during the hearing process. But it’s not feasible for every area, environmentalists acknowledge, especially in smaller or lower income neighborhoods where people aren’t able to take off work and attend midday meetings.
With this in mind, Kahlo said he would like to see members of the development commission go through more training on environmental issues. He points out the commission is a group of volunteers appointed by city leaders.
Progress and growth are often characterized as pitted against the environment, but this doesn’t have to be the case, he argues. Balance can be found, even if it takes some work to get there.
“Property can be owned privately, and carry with it certain rights including development,” he said, “But it also carries, increasingly, as we’re learning, the responsibility of ownership and occupancy, and not doing things that are going to be unduly impactful.”
Contact IndyStar reporter London Gibson at 317-419-1912 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @londongibson.
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IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.