Jim Hodapp is a Strong Towns member who has formed his own local Strong Towns group in Indianapolis. In this guest article, he talks about how he made that happen and what the group has worked on so far.
Are you hoping to make a tangible impact on your town using Strong Towns principles, but you don’t quite know where to begin? Let me see if I can inspire you by telling you how I started Strong Indy - a local group focused on applying Strong Towns principles in my hometown of Indianapolis.
HOW WE GOT STARTED
Frustration, furiously write up comments online, more frustration, more comments online. That was my pattern... until I’d had enough. It was time to take action and do something, anything! I was already a huge Strong Towns fan and had my aha! moment when Chuck Marohn first visited Indianapolis in the fall of 2014 to give a Curbside Chat. I had moved into a new apartment building in downtown Indy where I could walk to everything and experience my city primarily as a pedestrian; I was frustrated about our built environment and very concerned about the state of our finances for maintaining it.
After endlessly talking with a good friend of mine about some ideas I’d been tossing about in my head, I landed on the idea of starting a local group, inspired by Strong Towns. I’d take the naming cue right from them and called it "Strong Indy." In June of 2016, we had our first meetup. Amazingly, 15 people showed up and I only knew three of them ahead of time. Who were these people and where did they come from!? I was ecstatic! I still had no idea what we’d do beyond sitting and staring at each other and talking about geeky urban things. At the next month's meetup, we all watched a recording of the Curbside Chat Chuck had given in Indianapolis. As we sat together watching, I could see other people having similar aha! moments to my own.
TIME TO DO SOMETHING
It became very clear to me that the regular attenders who kept coming back each month were hungry to do something. They cared about so many issues, ranging from from effective public transit improvements to food deserts to sustainable infrastructure patterns like bike infrastructure instead of more roads, etc. But where would we dive in? The scale and the magnitude of the need in Indy felt overwhelming. This has been a lesson that I’d pass on to anybody wanting to start a group: discover what your focus should be and then stick to that.
This is where the guidance of my fellow group members was absolutely key. I had the idea to come up with a list of projects that we’d like to work on together and then vote to pick the top two. Voting was done via a poll on our very active Facebook group where we narrowed the options down to two clear winners: We’d do a tax revenue value-per-acre analysis much like the classic Taco John’s analysis from the early days of Strong Towns, and we’d also do some traffic calming and placemaking experiments around town.
PATIENCE, YOUNG GRASSHOPPER
When the need is great—as it is in so many American cities—it can be difficult to believe anything will ever change for the better. Our group has been learning so much by being patient and letting opportunities come to us. Both of our voted-on projects have morphed, unexpectedly, into completely new things.
When we started the traffic calming and placemaking project, we thought we were going to do something from scratch in a location that we would choose. Instead, we’ve had two chances to partner with the Harrison Center for the Arts! on their Pre-Enactment, and Big Car on their Shelby Street traffic calming and placemaking efforts. We’ve simply made ourselves available by offering to help with these projects that already have great momentum. I can’t stress how important it is to form relationships and partnerships with other local people and organizations. It’s very difficult to accomplish much of anything on your own and the end result is much likelier to succeed when you have a team working together.
When starting a new group like this, keeping things as well defined and structured as possible while still remaining flexible is crucial. Without the structure and definition, you’ll have a hard time keeping members coming back. They’ll struggle to see the vision for making your city better. Without flexibility, you won't be able to adequately respond to new opportunities and members who join you.
A good example of keeping a tight vision is our other project, which has morphed from doing our own value per acre tax analysis into getting a project bid from Urban3. We hope to raise the funds from local organizations to pay for this. We’ve already received verbal interest in sponsoring this from Indy’s local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) since they’ll find this data quite useful for their work in the region.
One of the most exciting things that our group has accomplished is supporting a quality local development one mile from the center of our city in a historic neighborhood. It’s a site that has sat vacant and has been used as a makeshift dog park for about a decade. After having lunch with the developer and learning what his values and goals are for the project, it became clear that he understood the importance of good land use and the direct impact this will have in making the city more resilient.
We started attending the hearings from which the development had to get the approval of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission. There was very fierce organized opposition from single family homeowners who live near the project site. They saw this as a development that was out of scale, too dense and a threat to their neighborhood. At these hearings, we recognized the way that cities bring together different types of people with different types of values within close proximity to each other. Our group is much stronger as a result of getting involved in this project approval process. It forced us to examine the Strong Towns message of honoring the traditional style of development juxtaposed with the opposition’s fears that this was inappropriate for their neighborhood.
Ultimately, we pushed forward to get this project approved and created a groundswell of support during the final hearing. I had the pleasure of speaking in front of the commission twice. On the final hearing, I asked all in favor of the project to stand up. There were over 40 people who stood up. Previous hearings typically only had a couple people in favor. Getting this small win has done wonders for our group, showing us that it’s not hard to dive right in to begin making a difference in our city.
WHERE TO NOW?
Strong Indy is currently in the process of formalizing our organization. We have not yet decided whether we’ll apply to become a traditional 501c3 nonprofit or if we should form into a social enterprise organization. Either way, members of this group and I have unlocked passions within ourselves to help shape Indy into the financially, socially, ethically and relationally strong city that we desire. Our goal is to turn the organization into something that several of us might even be able to make a living off of, doing diverse types of work to make our city better.
I’d like to encourage anyone who thinks that they don’t know how to do something for their city to start by just creating your own Strong [Insert City Name Here] group. Call people together and just start meeting. If you have real passion for your city and the people in it, you will figure out ways to apply the Strong Towns message to it. Always keep people in mind as you embark on your new journey. After all, cities are about enabling people to be better together than they would be as individuals.
You won’t figure it out all overnight and it's important to accept that. The best ideas for your city will come by meeting people and getting out there. Don’t be afraid to try and fail. One of the best things that I’ve realized about Strong Indy is our ability to push for change and be a consistent presence in a city with frequent political turnover. I know that if we keep showing up, eventually we will help affect change. There does need to be a sense of urgency but we've also found value in being patient and simply outlasting the ways of thinking that weakened our cities in the first place.
If you’d like to learn more about how Strong Indy got started and our plans for the future please get in contact with me. I’m very happy to discuss and help you start your own local local group. You can find me via email (james [dot] hodapp [at] gmail [dot] com), on Slack (@jhodapp), on Facebook, or on Twitter.
(Top photo source: Daniel Swen)
About the Author
Jim Hodapp develops and manages free software development projects by day while seeking to make Indy one of the strongest cities in the country to live and work in basing his work largely on Strong Towns principles. He’s based in downtown Indy but grew up in the great state of Wisconsin (yay cheese!). When not working to change his great city for the better, he enjoys taking his yellow labrador retriever Lucy on walks around the city and spending time with friends biking and making homebrew.