Alex IhnenBy Alex Ihnen

Alex is the owner and editor of nextSTL.com. He earned a B.A. in Journalism and Masters in Public Affairs at Indiana University and has studied in Adelaide, Australia and Perugia, Italy. Alex can be found on Twitter @alexihnen and reached at alex@nextstl.com.

A longer version of this op-ed, complete with images, is available on nextSTL.com. To see that version, click here.

In 2001 Indianapolis proposed that five central city neighborhoods be designated cultural districts. Taken together, they were home to nearly every significant arts, cultural, heritage, sports, and entertainment venue in the city. The problem? The neighborhoods were poorly connected and lacked an identity. The solution? The Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

Completed in 2012, the $63M 8-mile multi-use trail was funded by $27.5M in private and philanthropic support, and $35.5M from federal transportation grants. A recent study has found that since the project announcement and groundbreaking in 2007, property values within 500ft of the trail have increased by 148%, or more than $1 billion. The trail has increased revenue and traffic for businesses along the route. The average trail user spends $53 at local businesses. 95% of users feel safe using the trail.

The Cultural Trail has been a huge success. Beyond the numbers, it has helped to change the perception of Indianapolis as a city. The trail has put a new face on Indianapolis, encouraging human-scaled exploration of the city by locals and visitors alike. There’s new residential infill, private investment, and a greater awareness of the city’s cultural assets and urban neighborhoods. Planners from Cologne, Germany to Miami, Florida have traveled to Indianapolis to study this success. St. Louis should do this.

St. Louis has nothing like the Cultural Trail. We have the Great Rivers Greenway (GRG) system, the nearest example, but it clearly falls short. The greenways explicitly aim for a different mission – connecting the region with recreational paths, largely using old rail right-of-way, or unused land. What is the return on investment of the Centennial Greenway along I-170? Not a lot. It’s an effective low-cost strategy to build a lot of miles of paths. But a bigger opportunity is being missed.

Here’s what’s missing: the investment in St. Louis is being spent in out-of-the-way places, next to Interstate highways, along old rail lines in residential areas, on side streets and empty land on the edges of successful development, and not as a part of it, in the middle of it, where people want to go. We’re not capitalizing on our investment.

Here’s where the St. Louis Cultural Trail should go: connect the Old Courthouse/Arch, City Garden, Central Library, Grand Center/SLU, Central West End/Cortex/medical campus/Forest Park with off-shoots to Old North, Soulard, and Missouri Botanical Garden. Eight miles of on-street infrastructure connects them all.

The key is building the trail where it will be used, where it will catalyze development and where it can augment the built environment and existing investment. This is more expensive and more difficult than greenways under power lines next to an Interstate, but it also has an exponentially greater impact.

These paths, investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, work best when they act a part of a city’s transportation network, as connective tissue, when they directly address difficult connections. They’re best when not simply a place to walk or ride, but when used to go somewhere, and when, as often as practicable, the path is also a place.

St. Louis has museums, parks, and cultural assets that should make Indianapolis (and Atlanta, and maybe Chicago) blush. The city’s historic neighborhoods are as rich, beautiful, and diverse as any American city, but they’re not connected. Current strategy and plans for bicycle and pedestrian paths won’t address this shortcoming. We need to stop doing what’s easy, and start doing what’s effective.

A St. Louis Cultural trail would not only benefit its immediate environs, it could anchor and give impetus to more basic, affordable, and widespread infrastructure. By planning protected bike lanes, sidewalk replacement, and bike routes to connect with the trail, the network could be effectively prioritized, phased and constructed. The result would be a system much greater than the sum of its parts.

The existing 110-miles of greenways from Dardenne Prairie (37 miles west of the Arch) to the North Riverfront Trail are a great asset to the region. The planned 600-mile network is an important investment, but no organization is yet focused on leveraging what’s best about St. Louis into something greater, on connecting the dots. We are currently doing less with more. It’s time to steal Indy’s Cultural Trail.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri- St. Louis.