The White River offers clues on how to reuse golf courses in Indianapolis.

By Zach Mortice

The long, sculpted view corridors of golf courses are ideal for scenic vistas in public parks. Photo by Zach Mortice.Just a few years ago, Keri VanVlymen, a landscape designer with Ratio in Indianapolis, had never driven a golf cart, but now she’s an expert. Over five months in 2018, she surveyed each of Indianapolis’s 13 public golf courses, trekking “every mile of every trail of every course,” she says, 49 miles in all. She’s watched colleagues get stuck on icy hills and has clawed her way up a snowy, arched footbridge, one foot on the accelerator, one hand pulling herself along the railing while the wheels spun.

In late 2017, Indianapolis hired Ratio to re-evaluate the city’s public golf courses, with an eye toward converting some into parks. Whereas most cities of its size would have one to four public courses, Indianapolis’s baker’s dozen stretches across 1,800 acres. With VanVlymen’s colleague John Jackson, ASLA, a principal and the director of landscape architecture and urban design at Ratio, the firm is proposing supplanting green fees in favor of multipurpose recreation and letting everyone onto the land.

“Golf courses are very large-scale designed landscapes,” Jackson says. “You’re playing the game through these very large corridors.” Golf courses are often designed as “18 very large rooms. If you apply that to today’s recreational trends, there’s a lot of interesting places you can go,” he says.

Nationally, demand for golf courses is projected to drop 20 percent by 2025, and 40 to 60 percent after 2035. In Indianapolis, rounds of golf played declined by 21 percent in the past seven years. The majority of Indianapolis’s golf revenue comes from only four courses, and the parks department’s Broad Ripple dog park (at less than two acres) pulls in more money than the South Grove course.

“Just about every single community in the United States, if they don’t realize they have too many golf courses now, they’re going to very soon,” Jackson says. Ratio completed the Indy Parks Golf Facilities Study on the city’s municipal golf courses to assess courses’ viability as potential park spaces. They focused on the golf courses in Riverside Regional Park, one of Indianapolis’s oldest parks, which traces the White River, the city’s defining natural feature, across the west side of the city. In 2017, Riverside Regional Park was the subject of a wide-ranging master plan from Ratio. The park contains three golf courses—South Grove, Coffin, and Riverside Golf Course—and a golf academy that, by themselves, take up several hundred acres, dwarfing the 90 acres of publicly accessible parkland within the park’s bounds.

With their carefully engineered topography, often on riparian corridors, and stage-managed vistas, urban golf courses are ripe for conversion to ecological adventure parks. Ratio’s proposals offer wetland boardwalks and hills for sledding, zip lines, and canopy walks through groves of mature trees. These plans alternately tame golf courses’ flowing landscapes into discrete park programs or accentuate their wildness, channeling the backstage energy of the city’s forgotten rivers and streams into new venues for exploration.

Linda Broadfoot, the director of Indy Parks and Recreation, says the city’s parks have been underfunded and “maybe a little underappreciated.” Ratio’s plan would convert two golf courses in Riverside Regional Park into parks, which are among the most dramatic changes in the firm’s master plan. Nearby, Marian University has been on a path of steady expansion, so from the outset, Broadfoot wanted to reassure neighbors that changes would mean more access to parkland, not less. “Our primary motivation with the master plan was to, frankly, help the community understand how important the park is to us in city government,” she says. “It’s not up for auction.”

It’s easy to see why the parks department wants to reaffirm the importance of this parkland to adjacent neighborhoods. Along east Riverside Drive, bordering Riverside Regional Park’s South Grove Golf Course, a fence topped by barbed wire looks back at a neighborhood of modest wood-framed houses, separating residents from the park. With a median household income of $28,000, this neighborhood does not get much use from the golf course.

Don Colvin, the deputy director of Indy Parks and Recreation, says that while parks department staff would guide neighbors through the courses during public input phases, they would hear the same thing: “[These were] people that lived their entire life and raised their families there. They’d never been on those golf courses.”

While golf courses serve a narrow market, they have wide ecological footprints, likely with carbon-intensive maintenance regimens. So it’s vital to convert these places into an “environmental asset,” Broadfoot says. And that means dealing with flooding.

Riverside Golf Course is prone to flooding, and is typically inundated and rendered unplayable several times a year. Photo by Keri VanVlymen.

As Indianapolis has expanded, more impervious surfaces have meant more runoff in creeks and rivers. Levees built after a 1913 flood have contained the White River in Riverside Regional Park, but tributary creeks are regularly inundated, rendering fairways unplayable and damaged. Riverside Golf Course, which closed at the end of 2019, floods four times per year on average, Jackson says.

Here, the Midwest horizon is gray and the light is flat, much like Indianapolis’s White River, which runs through it: 24 inches deep, hundreds of feet wide, its mirror finish still and silent. The river is too shallow for the industrial shipping that powered the rise of neighboring cities such as Cincinnati and Chicago, and thus it was never completely disfigured and entombed in concrete. It’s remained relatively unhurried and wild, making it clear that bulking up its wetlands won’t require imposing a new system on what’s always existed.

Separation from the river came from its reputation as a backdoor sewer, and from the levees that lined it after the 1913 flood. Pollution concerns were both a perception and a reality, but one change over the years was unmistakable. The White River was originally named for Indiana’s famous limestone. “The water was so clear that you could see the white limestone at the bottom of the river,” says VanVlymen. “It’s not so much anymore.” At Crooked Creek near the river confluence, the parks department was regrading the earth to make a place for machinery to pick up trash washed downstream in the wake of flooding. Of course, some locals, often people of color, still fish and recreate there. But for much of the city, the White River is a blank space.

At the Riverside Golf Course, Jackson and VanVlymen’s main idea is to install landscapes that celebrate flood conditions and move the action off the ground. Canopy walks and zip lines weave through dense thickets of mature trees, and visitors get a bird’s-eye view of the confluence of the White River and Crooked Creek, especially prone to deluge. The course’s trees cease to be scenographic obstacles to putt around, and instead become a new place in which to enmesh yourself. Boardwalks farther south would reach across marshy lagoons. The modest clubhouse (which sold Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for $3.00) would become a nature center. Farther west, away from the river, the landscape becomes more rugged. Adjacent to an existing Soap Box Derby hill, there are plans for a toboggan run, a mountain bike course, and a cyclo-cross course. Here, the scrubby brown November foliage makes this transition seem eminently credible, as the manicured fairways give way to late fall decay fit for a more naturalistic park.

Ratio estimates it would cost $18 million to redevelop what is essentially found park space in Indianapolis’s urban core. Another team of landscape architects from Green 3 Studio and V3 is starting to take a more granular look at how this new park might function, though any definitive new design commission would require firms to compete for the work.

Also part of the Riverside Regional Park master plan, the South Grove Golf Course takes advantage of flatter topography to install less ecologically specific landscape uses such as sports fields, a great lawn, and a pedestrian promenade (to be designed by the Indianapolis design firm Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf) that will replace the current barbed-wire-topped fence. For the Whispering Hills Golf Course on the city’s suburban fringe, Ratio suggests some new dramatic topography paired with the site’s already verdant trees and ponds.

At the Whispering Hills Golf Course, the oak savannas and wetlands suggested by Ratio are already present. Photo by Zach Mortice.

Some of Whispering Hills sits on a former landfill, so Ratio proposed a new earthen mound between the buried refuse and visitors. Sculptures and restored prairie radiate outward. Elsewhere, the oak savanna nature areas and wetlands Ratio indicates are essentially already there. Even as a functioning golf course, there’s an easily legible park logic to the landscape, gradually alternating wooded glens with duck-filled ponds as the site slopes downward to the west. “It’s absolutely beautiful out here,” says Jackson, marveling at how little might need to be done. “You could just say, ‘It’s a park’ today, and it would be a beautiful park.”

The observatory earthen mound could be a hill for sledding, or a vantage point for a drone racing course to the east, and flanked by an archery range to the west. If that sounds particularly eclectic, they’re not activities chosen at random. The 261-page golf facilities study examines all the ways golf courses connect to their communities and economies, across zoning borders, demographics, transit patterns, and environmental features. The real estate brokerage and consulting firm Greenstreet mapped “demand methodology” for open-space programs, estimating customer bases and revenue for archery ranges and drone racing, but also for hay farming. “They looked at the switchgrass crop market,” Jackson says. “Nobody had ever done anything like this before.”

The preferred concept for Whispering Hills Golf Course included less common amenities, such as areas for drone racing and archery. Image courtesy Ratio.

Many of Ratio’s ideas, especially the installation of wetland buffer zones, have been popular in Indianapolis at different points in time and at different scales. The landscape architect George Kessler, who designed the city’s park and boulevard system in the early 20th century, suggested a series of lagoons for flood control on the east bank of the White River. And as a team member for the White River Vision Plan led by Agency Landscape + Planning, Ratio has seen how these kinds of interventions could benefit the entire river watershed.

Applying these principles to Indianapolis’s golf courses would mean an opportunity to test-drive their viability in more controlled circumstances, before the city starts debating the form the river’s landscape should take. “A lot of the [golf course] ideas at a smaller scale—access to the river and ecology, and valuing it as a resource—just got expanded by the White River plan, and it post-mandated a lot of the conclusions we had come to,” Jackson says.

The White River Vision Plan traces a familiar story of reconnecting a riparian corridor to urban people through its ecology, and the golf course effort in Indianapolis differs in that the barriers to the landscape aren’t so much infrastructural as they are economic and programmatic. “We want to have parkland that’s open to everyone,” says Broadfoot, the parks director, “not just anyone that can afford to rent a golf cart and golf clubs to play golf.” It’s a rare opportunity, accompanying an even rarer expansion of the public realm. “Where [else],” she says, “do you get 130 acres right outside of downtown along the river?”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture.

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