Midtown Oasis: Pocket Parks

IMM Photo

By Chris Bavender

Stroll through Midtown and you’re likely to happen upon a small slice of heaven—a greenspace with benches and plants, maybe a picnic table or two, or even a thriving garden—a little oasis in the midst of a hectic life. Such pocket parks or mini-parks can usually be found on small lots and are open to the community.

The Historic Meridian Park Pocket Park (HMP), at 215 E. 33rd St., is one such inviting space. Conceived five years ago, the park was based on a five-year plan consisting of finding and buying a multi-use lot, developing partnerships with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB) and Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corporation (MFCDC), fundraising, grant writing, and construction on the park.

“Although grants and partnerships aided the effort, a team of five committed and visionary neighbors did the bulk of the work and raised the vast majority of dollars from inside the neighborhood,” said Cassie Mehlman-Rhys, HMP Pocket Park chairperson. “What started as a desire for greenspace and a much-needed walking destination turned into something so much more.”

READ MORE: Pocket Park FAQs

It has become a neighborhood gathering space and a safe place for kids to play. “Neighbors and friends can come together in the beauty of nature to socialize, enjoy the outdoors, read, relax, and play,” Mehlman-Rhys said. “It has become the hub and the heart of the neighborhood.”

Ruckle Street Pocket Park. IMM Photo

A PLACE TO MEET AND GREET

Another such greenspace is the Ruckle Street Pocket Park, 3023 N. Ruckle St., built in 2012 with the neighborhood and MFCDC. “It was part of a broader approach looking to connect several parks together—this one, Fall Creek Gardens [3001 N. Central Ave.], and Park Garden [3002 N. Park Ave.]—all connected by a trail that was painted with maple leaves,” said Joseph Jarzen, vice president of program strategy for KIB. “We wanted to help provide access to greenspace and parks for neighbors in recognition of the investment going into homes there.”

While KIB is typically associated with tree planting and not park creation, the organization does have a pocket park initiative: Project GreenSpace, a partnership between KIB, Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL), and the City of Indianapolis. IPL provides money for the program, which is all driven by neighborhoods, Jarzen said.

“We receive applications from neighborhoods across the city to do some sort of work on a vacant lot—pocket park, gateway, greenspace, et cetera,” he said. “We work with them to define exactly what we’ll create so we can make the vision of the neighborhood a reality. Then we continue to learn with them how to maintain that space. That way they can take care of it long after we are finished installing plants and hardscape.”

Doug Day, Destination Fall Creek (DFC) champion, was among the supporters of HMP, and previously lived across the street from the pocket park. DFC works to improve mid-North neighborhoods along Fall Creek to draw residents. Day believes pocket parks are an important facet of a neighborhood, providing a place to “meet and greet with your kids.”

“The HMP park is used for social functions, like the chili cook-off, the summer BBQ,” he said. “Good schools are critical but the pocket park helps bring families to our area. One of my friends brought his daughter to my house because she loved the pocket park across the street.”

Pocket parks are also a community-building exercise. “These are grassroots-driven projects that fill a need the community is looking for,” Jarzen said. “For us, we can teach neighbors about the importance of planting native plants and trees and educate neighbors why that’s important for native birds and butterflies to thrive. That’s a key part to our greenspace work.”

Pocket parks are also good for home values, according to Mehlman-Rhys. “Research shows that having a park in a four-mile radius of your home can greatly increase your home value,” she said. “Parks also make the neighborhood more marketable as a whole. Many new residents over the past couple of years say one of the reasons they picked Historic Meridian Park was because it had a pocket park to enjoy.”

PRIDE OF OWNERSHIP

In 2006, Historic Meridian Park partnered with Ball State’s College of Architecture and Planning, Indianapolis Center, on a community design charrette to craft a beautification vision for the neighborhood. The strategy sessions identified pocket parks as one way to transform undesirable vacant lots into community assets. The strategy has clearly been effective; Mehlman-Rhys points out that pocket parks increase urban living quality of life by extending outdoor living space, offering relaxation and providing neighborhood kids a safe place to be active.

“Parks also provide common ground where residents of all walks of life can come together to meet one another, share common interests, enjoy an outdoor movie, or take part in a planned event,” Mehlman-Rhys said. “Residents may be too shy to go to an event that is planned at a neighbor’s home that they do not know. It’s much easier getting introduced to other neighbors at a neighborhood-owned place.”

Residents can find different offerings at each park in the Mapleton-Fall Creek area. An afternoon stroll or bike ride can provide an opportunity to explore all each has to offer. “The Historic Meridian Park pocket park offers a shelter area with picnic tables, a Little Free Library, a kids imagination station play area, a kids log course, an outdoor amphitheater with movie screen, and benches for reading and relaxation,” Mehlman-Rhys said, along with “greenspace for throwing a Frisbee, tossing a football, or putting down a blanket and having a picnic.”

And while some neighborhood pocket parks have had issues ranging from vandalism to litter, Mehlman-Rhys and Day say they’ve not seen that. “Sure, I picked up a little trash, raked some leaves,” Day said, but he saw “no after-hours drinking. No trouble. I made it widely known I would have a zero-tolerance policy. Dawn to dusk. Period. It is a huge asset and I give Cassie all the credit. She drove this to success. My property value doubled, at least partially due to the pocket park across the street.”

“HMP has had zero problems with vandalism, excess trash in the park, or teens overwhelming the park,” Mehlman-Rhys said. “Pocket parks actually deter crime because they signal pride of ownership in the neighborhood, resident cohesion, and care.”

Chris Bavender is a freelance writer in SoBro with more than 20 years’ experience as a print and broadcast journalist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @chris_bavender

HMP is currently seeking donations to provide some upgrades and finishes to the pocket park in 2018. info@historicmeridianpark.org

READ MORE: National Recreation and Park Association Pocket Park Guide [PDF]

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