OPINION: Ugly city or walkable city? Indianapolis, take your pick.

Indianapolis has more historic monuments and memorials than any other city in the United States, excluding Washington, D.C., and the most religious sites per capita. However, the last 50 years has seen the city built up for car-dependency around mostly plain, functionalist architecture, both aspects of which take away from the potential beauty of the city.

[RELATED: Indianapolis Religious Centers Guide]

What is Functionalism?

Functionalism is “the doctrine that the design of an object should be determined solely by its function, rather than by aesthetic considerations, and that anything practically designed will be inherently beautiful,” according to Oxford Languages.

Functionalism in practice, however, reflects the often soulless nature of city life. The “inherent beauty” is hard to find in the concrete jungle.

Ugly buildings still make a profit, of course, but that is the only purpose they serve.

The Problem of Car-Dependency

Despite the enduring presence of many historic buildings and monuments interspersed throughout the city, Indianapolis appears to have been put together hastily to accommodate rapid population growth, rather than to ensure long-term sustainability and public health.

Only recently has the city-county government begun to recognize the negative effects of designing the Indianapolis area since the 1970s so that car dependency became a fact of life in the commuter and tourist city. With advances to the cultural trail and the IndyGo bus routes, things are starting to look better.

However, some political figures still avoid the reality of the situation.

“Taxpayer money is wasted every day running a ‘mass transit’ system for a handful of people,” said Jefferson Shreve, the Republican candidate for Indianapolis mayor. “We are a city of cars, and the Hogsett bureaucrats who remain intent on shaming us for that should be replaced.”

Of course, ending the transit system would likely impact low-income residents, who cannot afford a vehicle nor a place to store it, the hardest. The change would also impact students, both in the Indianapolis Public School System and at the numerous universities scattered throughout the city.

Robin Shackleford | Courtesy of Axios

“Indianapolis is a tale of two cities – One with good roads where residents don’t worry about putting food on the table and feel safe in their homes, and another with pothole-ridden streets where residents struggle to get enough to eat and worry that at any moment a stray bullet will travel through their wall and strike their child,” said IUPUI alumnus and State Rep. Robin Shackleford, who ran and lost  against incumbent Joe Hogsett to become the Democratic candidate for Indianapolis mayor.

[RELATED: Indianapolis mayoral candidates trade remarks at 2023 annual Indy Hobnob]

Fewer cars on the road and less overall car-dependency, on the other hand, would mean less money would need to be spent on repairing potholes, which Shreve has emphasized are a problem in Indianapolis.

Indiana War Memorial

The Benefits of Beauty

Architectural and infrastructural beauty may seem like a small matter, but a 2018 study showed these factors have a major effect on human psychology. Meanwhile, another study showed architecture could even serve as a means of crime control.

Disorder and fear are intimately connected, and “physical signs of disorder – typified by the broken window – prompt further crimes,” according to Neal K. Katyal, Professor of National Security Law at Georgetown University. 

Indianapolis certainly has its share of signs of disorder and crime. Along with that, is it not probable that signs of materialism – like functionalist architecture – perpetuate further materialism?

The Problem of Materialism

Materialism is the dreadful philosophy that suggests that matter is all there is. Things like beauty and goodness, then, are relative. It appeals to the “base instincts” of man as a source of truth, which is relative and constantly changing.

Restoring Beauty to the City

Historical architecture, on the other hand, appeals to the inherent dignity of man. It appeals to man’s desire to create beauty and to sustain it, imitating the God in whose image he was made. 

With all the churches being turned into businesses, it suggests perhaps it would be wise for existing churches to partner and form a trust to purchase these old buildings and ensure they remain committed to serving the community.

The ancient cathedral was meant to be enjoyed by all, and to show the glory of God to all. 

Functionalist architecture, on the other hand, suggests the value of man lies solely in his utility and profitability to society. Car-dependency further isolates him from others.

Beauty is more than just function. It is more than relative. It is deeply psychological and reflects the health of the society that creates it.

Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide suggests the end of man is to “cultivate our garden.” God did, after all, put man “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15, ESV).

For the city-dweller, that may mean seeking dominion over the concrete jungle, and encouraging his or her representatives to invest in restoring historical, beautiful architecture, and building walkable cities.

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One thought on “OPINION: Ugly city or walkable city? Indianapolis, take your pick.

  1. Absolutely horrendous quote from Shreve. No wonder the citizens of Indianapolis who have suburbanites clogging up local streets every weekday during rush hour won’t vote for this guy.
    Also, the speed limits near downtown and in the neighboring areas are insanely high. That’s what we get when we have a joint city-county governing system I guess.

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