Smart growth stories: Local planning for global competitiveness in Carmel, IN

A snapshot of Carmel’s City Center. Photos courtesy of the Mayor’s office.

Carmel, IN wasn’t always the best place to live. As a suburb contiguous to Indianapolis, it faced the same challenges to development that many suburbs near large cities confront.

However, under the leadership of Mayor Jim Brainard, Carmel has managed to become the kind of place that appeals to families and businesses alike. By anchoring its redevelopment efforts around an Arts & Business District and a City Center, Carmel has found a way to boost economic development while bettering quality of life.

“We had to figure out how we were going to compete,” Brainard says. “We realized that if we wanted to succeed, we had to make Carmel a place that the best and brightest – from around the country and around the world – would want to live in. And we had to do it through the built environment.”

The entrance to Carmel’s Arts & Design District.

The population of Carmel has more than tripled since 1990 – the town is now home to about 80,000 residents – but it’s not just families that are moving to Carmel. Businesses are also drawn to the city, which in recent years has become a hub for the knowledge and service economy, particularly in the bioscience and medical sectors. A full third of Carmel’s tax base is from commercial sources – a much larger percentage than most towns in the U.S. – illustrating its intense concentration of business activity and showing what accessible downtown development can do for local economies.

But how did Carmel become this way? The answer lies in focused and thoughtful smart growth planning. The Arts & Design District was first, giving residents a taste for the kind of concentrated development that characterizes Carmel today. With hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment, born from a robust public-private partnership, the city created a thriving arts area, focusing on walkability with a keen eye for architecture.

But planners quickly realized that the area was not big enough to be Carmel’s main downtown, so the city began to buy up land through another public-private partnership for a planned downtown area, eventually accumulating 88 acres of space to develop. Today, this area constitutes Carmel’s City Center, anchored by the Palladium theater. In addition, the city put in an extensive system of bike and pedestrian paths, set apart from the street.

The interior of the Palladium.

“People were yearning for what we realized was a ‘traditional’ town: being able to walk almost everywhere, not needing a car,” Brainard says. “So we thought, ‘Why can’t we build that?’ It’s what the community wanted and the financial benefits were great too, because developing in a cluster significantly brings down costs, especially compared to less concentrated development.”

By taking a proactive approach to attracting and managing growth, Carmel has not only raised the quality of life for all its residents, but also ensured a bright future for its people and its businesses. It’s a great example of how smart growth can bring together human concerns with economic concerns to create better places.

“We’re trying to do what big cities do,” Brainard says, “but just a little better.”