Those who have followed my blog for years know that I don’t shy away from the humblest, most seemingly banal topics. I probably indulge myself at the cost of readership that I might otherwise earn through splashier, more provocative subject matter. But I can’t help it. More often than not, these humdrum settings are simply easier to capture by photo, and I’m opportunistic. After all, the conditions lend a reflexive syllogism: the ordinary is ubiquitous and the ubiquitous cannot help but be ordinary. But there’s more than a kernel of truth to the notion that it isn’t the grandiose reinvention of a downtown square or a waterfront park that merits the most attention, even though these big-budget initiatives receive all the recognition. I think the ordinary is often the most indicative of the economics, demographics, and overall values at a specific locale. It’s easy to generate enthusiasm for a fundraising campaign if the money and manpower is going to build or restore a massive civic landmark. But what’s the condition of the parking garage to the Class B office building two blocks away? Or the tired old corner plaza where the building and parking garage meet?
Those subtle indicators revealed a point of convergence a while ago, during an aimless run along busy roads in the southern outskirts of Indianapolis.
It’s the point where the sidewalk along busy Bluff Road ends. As is frequently the case—and as I’ve noted in the past—the majority of Indianapolis’s formidable 368 square miles consists of post-war, auto-oriented, low density development, much of it having taken place in the 1960s through 1980s, when attention to walkability and pedestrian provisions was at an all-time low. Thus, the provision of sidewalks throughout the south side of Indianapolis is spotty and inconsistent at best. It just wasn’t fashionable to build sidewalks with new development at that time; automobile ownership had surged and the demand for walkable subdivisions was low.
However, at the intersection of Bluff Road and busy Southport Road, a cluster of developments sprung up like mushrooms in the 1990s, most featuring the name Murphy’s Landing. This sudden urbanization on the site of former cornfields resulted in a couple hundred single family homes, apartments, duplexes, condos, and the ensuing auto-oriented strip malls. It’s nothing distinctive, appearance-wise (as theintersection’s Google Street View proves), but a reasonable network of sidewalks accompanied the development, giving the Murphy’s Landing area at least the basic assurance of safety for people living in those neighborhoods who wish to walk to the closest supermarket, Mexican restaurant, pizzeria, or dry cleaners. The City footed the bill for an additional few segments of sidewalk along Southport Road (the east-west axis) but none along Bluff Road (north-south). At the very least, the Southport/Bluff commercial node makes pedestrianism not necessarily desirable, but at least it’s feasible. But these sidewalks don’t stretch too far. Per the stipulations of the subdivision, land development, and sidewalk ordinances of the City of Indianapolis, all new development within the city must comply with the stipulations of Complete Streets, encouraging multimodal use, so that bicyclists, pedestrians, and persons with disabilities enjoy as much ease of access as vehicles. However, what constitutes “new development” is often very limited spatially: the installation of a sidewalk need not continue beyond the perimeter of the land developed for the purposes of a residential subdivision. Heading southward along Bluff Road, once the Murphy’s Landing related development ends, the sidewalk just terminates as well—a dead end at a grove of trees, which presumably belongs to a separate landowner unaffiliated with Murphy’s Landing.
It’s a shame, too, because, without sidewalks, Bluff Road isn’t the safest This condition probably isn’t inhibiting very many pedestrians, because they simply choose not to walk in the area. It’s not walkable at its core, so most walkers aren’t even tempted. But recreational runners are more prone to venturing into non-pedestrian areas; they may seek to go a bit further south along Bluff Road to get their miles in.
But, once outside the range of the Murphy’s Landing development, Bluff is essentially still a country road: narrow or non-existent shoulders, trees and other plant life growing immediately adjacent, a big enough change in grade to impede visibility, and of course no sidewalks. But let’s return to that sidewalk termination point.
It leads into that grove of trees, but someone has cleared enough of the shrubs to allow a reasonable path.
Pivoting 180 degrees, it’s cleanly cut and offers straightforward continuity from the end of the sidewalk.
And it continues to an opening along Bluff Road.
Did enough people go renegade, traipsing through what is obviously private land, so that they could continue running alongside Bluff Road, even without the protection of a sidewalk? Yes and no. The desire path may indeed lack plant life because enough runners wear it down. But they received a little help, as this sign indicates, coming from the opposite direction (northward).
The land belongs to the Howard family, and the Howards have cut through about forty feet of an otherwise dense grove, to extend the path afforded by the sidewalk, thereby encouraging people to take the path…all on their private lawn. In doing this, the Howards provide a safer alternative, because, continuing southward along the Howards’ front yard fronting Bluff Road, things aren’t ideal, but at least there’s a shoulder a bit further.
And thus we have an example of the slightest and humblest of gestures: an isolated point in a low-profile district in a large city, most likely unknown to all but a few dozen brave runners, venturing onto a potentially treacherous trajectory along Bluff Road. But the Howards’ efforts to transform a desire path into a real continuation of the sidewalk—or at least the spirit of the sidewalk—reveals not only the underlying need for these provisions but the empathy of landowners with property along busy, dangerous streets, doing what they can to chip in…to promote pedestrianism when the City itself has failed to step up to the plate. Sidewalks are essentially the physical manifestation of a pedestrian easement—the portion alongside a street where a pedestrian is permitted to walk without legal consequence, even though the land that abuts this street is privately owned. The implication of a pedestrian easement generally applies anywhere there’s a public right-of-way: people can walk alongside the road without facing legal trespassing challenges, especially if the road itself is busy and potentially dangerous for pedestrians. Sidewalks offer a physical protection through a impervious or semi-impervious surface that affords some protection from the vehicle-heavy road, through distance from that road, grade separation (the sidewalk is up on a curb), or a combination of the two.
Here along Bluff Road, the imperviousness ends, but the spirit of the pedestrian easement continues, at least for a few more feed, affording runners a better option than traipsing through stickers and poison ivy to continue their workout. The Howard family has given the go-ahead: “We want you to run safely along Bluff Road. You’re not trespassing in our eyes!” It’s the next best thing to…well, to the City investing in the easement to make the increasingly dense, urbanized area safe for active runners and utilitarian pedestrian needs. And it saves well-intentioned property owners like the Howards that extra work.