Powering Community Participation in Planning for Indianapolis' Future

Author: G. Thomas Kingsley
Date Posted: December 20, 2017

Thanks to IndyVitals – an award-winning online data tool – residents and organizations can actively contribute to continued planning to achieve Marion County’s vision for 2020. The NNIP Partner, the Polis Center at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, leveraged their years of experience in providing actionable data through their Social Assets and Vulnerabilities Indicators (SAVI) to create this new resource for the county.

IndyVitals supports Plan 2020: the initiative of the City of Indianapolis, the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee and others to revitalize the city’s plans and planning processes in recognition of its 2020 bicentennial. These groups decided to give neighborhood data a considerably more pivotal role in their approach than it has typically played in local planning efforts in the past.

SAVI was one of the first comprehensive online and interactive neighborhood indicators systems ever developed for any city. But IndyVitals incorporates three notable changes to past practice. First is a new configuration of neighborhood geographies for the city. Indianapolis has nearly 500 self-defined neighborhood associations registered with the City, with many overlapping boundaries. Neighborhoods defined at that level would be too small and fragmented to motivate coherent action. Accordingly, the City defined a set of 99 larger “neighborhood areas” that all actors who influence neighborhood change – community groups, public agencies, nonprofit service providers, private businesses – could understand, build their own plans around, and use as a basis for coordinating with each other to achieve progress. The City intends to use the new neighborhood areas as building blocks for revising the boundaries of its police districts, public works areas and other internal administrative units.

The second change pertains to the indicators selected and the tools developed to make use of them. A set of over 50 indicators for IndyVitals was selected to be regularly updated and monitored in the future (drawn from the literally hundreds of possible indicators that could be created with SAVI data). SAVI staff suggested a list of candidates which was then vetted and modified by an advisory committee made up of representatives of community and other stakeholder organizations. The 50 include measures that help explain the forces causing neighborhood change as well as those considered to be markers of goal achievement. They include well known indicators on population characteristics, but also a number of metrics that have powerful implications: for example, percent of families with access to a quality preschool or percent of residents employed in their own neighborhood; percent of students graduating from high school on time, neighborhood “walkability” ratings, crimes committed by minors per 1,000 population, demolitions ordered due to hazardous building conditions.

IndyVitals also offers a variety of tools that allow users to view the indicators in different ways for different uses – again a rarity in neighborhood planning where the approach is too often monolithic. Residents and leaders can see in a simple dashboard how a neighborhood area has changed and how it compares to other areas and the metropolitan area. For those who want to dive deeper, such as policy analysts and decisionmakers, the tool provides charts and maps that review trends and disparities by race, age, income, and education levels.

The third, and probably most important change in practice, is the type of data-informed planning and implementation process envisaged. Traditionally, neighborhood planning in most cities has been a fairly static endeavor. A description of presumably desirable land use and housing conditions 10-20 years hence is put forth by the planners (with some community input) and is intended to guide community development decisions in between. Plan 2020, supposes a broader and more dynamic process. Like the collective impact initiatives being implemented in many cities today, the neighborhood work in Plan 2020 starts with relevant stakeholders jointly examining the data that define their situation, and IndyVitals serves as the catalyst for that. Interactive reviews of the facts themselves first motivate a reasonably unified vision of where the trends are going, the problems and opportunities they imply and, thereby, what the priorities for action ought to be, across topics. With regular updates to the data, IndyVitals shows the collaboration how the facts have been changing, prompting a reexamination of the implications and adjustments to the action programs as appropriate.

Not all the neighborhood areas will jump into this process at the same time or with the same intensity. But several are now well along the way in doing so. One example is King Park Development Corporation, which regularly uses IndyVitals for a broad range of applications. Probably the most important so far have been in strategic planning and performance monitoring. King Park uses IndyVitals to recognize trends, identify opportunities for strategic investment, and ensure that the organization’s resources are closely tied to leading indicators of neighborhood health. IndyVitals also allows it to track performance over time. The ability to compare data during and after strategic initiatives to evaluate the efficacy of its programs and determine whether the programmatic goals were achieved. Steven Meyer, King Park’s Executive Director notes, “IndyVitals gives access to more and better information than we’ve ever had before, which is critical as funding for community development continues to dwindle. With IndyVitals, our Board of Directors, funders, and residents are assured that our resources are targeted intentionally, deployed thoughtfully, and impactful to the community.”

The American Planning Association awarded Plan 2020 its Silver 2017 National Planning Achievement Award for a Best Practice for its decentralized approach to planning for the city’s growth, and URISA awarded IndyVitals its 2017 Exemplary Systems in Government Awards.

This story was written by staff at the Urban Institute. The Polis Center at Indiana University-Purdue University is the Indianapolis partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods.