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Hot Ideas and a Climate-Friendly Republican Remake Indiana Town

Carmel, Indiana City Center
Carmel, Indiana City Center. Photographer: Nancy Heck/City of Carmel, Indiana via Bloomberg

Carmel, Indiana, is just like Paris — uneven weather, no oceans, no mountains — but without the old city part. That’s one way Mayor James Brainard describes the town he has led since 1996 and its future promise. “They did just fine,” he said.

Brainard has earned headlines recently for both overseeing Carmel’s expansion and for his role as one of four Republicans on a White House task force studying how local governments can better manage climate change. The group is expected to submit its report to President Obama this fall.

Just north of Indianapolis, Carmel has grown dramatically over Brainard’s tenure. The mayor’s vision for Carmel was shaped in part by a renaissance in American urban thought that’s been gradually unfolding at least as long as he’s been Carmel’s chief executive.

During Brainard’s first mayoral campaign in 1995 he knocked on thousands of doors in Carmel. “I heard the same thing expressed many different ways,” said Brainard: It would be nice to be able to walk more, drive less and enjoy a more functional downtown.

Newly elected, and guided by his constituents, Brainard basically gave himself an on-the-job education in city planning. “We’ve had thousands of years of experience building walkable cities,” he said. That wisdom has become waylaid in the last century, when the automobile re-sculpted how and where people live.

Brainard, 60, drew on writers who are connecting modern Americans with new takes on old practices. He rattled off the titles five books that have helped him over the years, as readily as if they were sprawled out on a table in front of him. The books offer ways to address the biggest problem bedeviling cities’ design: a lack of good design.

Five books that helped the reinvention of Carmel, Indiana:

Brainard’s motivation isn’t to wow the academics. It’s to draw people and businesses to Carmel. Through annexation and development, its population rose from 37,733 in the 2000 U.S. Census to almost 86,000 today. The town's median household income is $107,505. Geico, insurer Baldwin & Lyons, IT consultancy Allegient and others have brought hundreds of new jobs to town in recent years. Under his leadership, the town has built a new downtown, Carmel City Center, which includes a performing arts center, award-winning greenery and visitors’ amenities. The Arts and Design District, which has cost almost $221 million since 2005, includes a new walkable city core with 462 houses and apartments.

When he was starting out, Brainard said, it was common for young people to look for a job and go wherever it took them. Today, he sees people who are likelier to factor where they want to live into decisions about what they want to do.

“If they don’t want to go to your city, you’re finished,” he said. “We’ve focused on good design as a way to be economically competitive.”

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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