Teaching Spotlight: Indianapolis Urban Design

During the summer of 2016 I worked with a handful of graduate students in Ball State University’s Master of Urban Design program advising their graduate theses.  Taken together, they all tackled different sites in the Indianapolis-area that could better capitalize on existing yet underutilized waterways to accomplish the following tasks: drive job development, provide housing and social services, improve hydrological function, and create new, environmentally-sustainable urban green spaces.

Mud 2016 cover_image

From our first week to the last, these urban designers improved immensely in communicating and organizing their ideas. These projects are organized with the flow of the White River and its tributaries:

Mud 2016 table of contents_image

Each project begins by addressing the plethora of current problems plaguing the Indianapolis area, including vacancy, pollution, demand for housing, green-area development, and more. Each urban designer offers a cohesive, sourced, and detailed argument as to why their project is the best fit for their chosen site, providing expertly-crafted visuals to demonstrate how their designs will be experienced by Hoosiers on the ground.

2016 Ball State University alums of the Masters in Urban Design program are (left to right): Mohammad Alabbasi, Loaei Thabet, Ellen Forthofer, Sara Weber, Taylor Firestine, Jacob Sanders, Austin Roy, and Kevin Sweetland.

I am so proud – so excited – to share their final works collected in this text and hope to work with them on publishing in academic and professional journals in the near future! Join me in congratulating these urban design professionals on graduating!  Well done, team!

It’s a hefty file (linked below), so here are a few snapshots with their authors and abstracts.

An excerpt of Jacob Sanders’s MA thesis in Urban Design, Ball State University (2016).

Jacob Sanders, “The Exchange at Keystone: A Holistic Approach to Economically Successful Malls”

Abstract: “The mall has long been a key suburban destination and economic driver due to its historic consideration as a place you can hang out, shop for a variety of goods and services, and attend movies. Their stability has wavered in the last 15-20 years as malls have begun losing their customer base due to online shopping increase, cultural and social changes, and an overall feeling that malls do not offer an exciting experience. This study uses Indianapolis’s Fashion Mall at Keystone as a case study for redeveloping malls using a holistically sustainable framework. By redesigning and transforming malls to be environmentally sustainable, economically successful, and socially integrative, these sites will be protected from future downfall.”

An excerpt of Loaei Thabet’s MA thesis in Urban Design, Ball State University (2016).

Loaei Thabet, “Beyond GM Stamping Plant: A Conceptual Masterplan to Redevelop Post-Industrial Waterfronts on the White River”

Abstract: “As many American cities, Indianapolis has turned its back to its waterways. Along with the disengagement and privatization, heavy industrial activities have contaminated the waterfronts while the combined Sewer overflow (CSO) have remarkably degraded the water quality of the White River. In addition to that, current levees capacity fails to contain frequent flooding conditions from reaching to brownfields which factor in degrading quality of water by increasing toxic pollutants levels in the White River. The loss of industry created an opportunity for Indianapolis to rethink its waterfronts by focusing its resources on creating catalyst sites for resilient and successful waterfronts. New sites will include new water-infrastructure to adapt with flooding as well as to build a basis for a unique community and new models of the economy. This multi-layer strategy would not only contribute to improving the water quality of the White River but would transform the future of waterways in Indianapolis.”

An excerpt of Mohammad Alabbasi’s MA thesis in Urban Design, Ball State University (2016)

Mohammad Alabbasi, “Smart Indy: Using a Net Zero Energy Approach to minimize carbon footprint at the Indianapolis GM Stamping Plant”

Abstract Excerpt: “In today’s world, questions abound about how to generate energy and how to use energy…To combat [the damage of climate change] and alleviate systemic problems in Indianapolis’s post-industrial neighborhoods, this creative project seeks to develop the General Motors Stamping Plant into a net zero energy district called “Smart Indy.” This site would make a smooth transition between downtown Indianapolis and the West Indianapolis community, and between the site and the White River, by activating the water edge. As part of the current smart city movement, as defined by the use of technologies to improve the efficiency of services and creating cities that produce energy rather than just consume energy, Smart Indy seeks to minimize Indianapolis’s carbon footprint through an urban design perspective, which includes a focus on architecture, infrastructure, and the use of renewable energy productions. The goals of Smart Indy are: 1) To provide technologies that make the development area a local and global destination, 2) To reduce the annual consumption of fossil fuels by using green energy production, and 3) To make the development area a smarter place for people to visit, live, work, and play. The implications of being smarter will include utilizing new concepts of sharing, such as Airbnb and Uber, using prototypes like the Google self-driving car, and recycling, in addition to the main concept of taking advantage of green energy productions. This site will be close to downtown Indianapolis, as well as accessible, via monorail (to be constructed as part of Smart Indy’s development)….”

An excerpt of Ellen Forthofer’s MA thesis in Urban Design, Ball State University (2016).

Ellen Forthofer, “The River South District: Building Identity by Daylighting Pogue’s Run”

Abstract: “The area just south of the Wholesale District in downtown Indianapolis has been under-performing for decades. What was once home to the strong Babe Denny neighborhood (a neighborhood named for a Parks Department employee and longtime resident of that area) and a vital piece of the White River watershed now contains rampant vacancy, inaccessible public space, decades of housing and job loss, and a fractured water system. This proposal to transform this site into the River South District aims to create a new and lasting identity for downtown Indianapolis through the daylighting of a currently buried stream, Pogue’s Run. Daylighting, a relatively new practice, refers to the act of exposing a portion or the entirety of the flow of a previously covered waterway, usually in the form of removing a stream from an underground pipe and restoring the waterway to open air. Converting Indianapolis’ buried stream into an above-ground promenade and restored habitat will incorporate a correctly scaled community design focused on ecologically sensitive practices, balanced with housing, employment, and activities to attract a diverse range of users to the site. This River South District proposal accommodates a range of activities and uses through its gradient of destinations: an entertainment district, a revived Pogue’s Run habitat, and a vibrant residential neighborhood. By creating places to live, work, and play around Pogue’s Run, the River South District will create a highly integrated and unique site protected from further disinvestment and disconnection.”

An excerpt of Sara Weber’s MA thesis in Urban Design, Ball State University (2016).

Sara Weber, “Breaching the River Edge: Connecting Indianapolis with the White River”

Abstract: “The White River is not accessible to downtown Indianapolis and not being utilized to its fullest potential. The proposed solution for this site is to address the current barriers preventing access, the lack of development on and around this site, and how this development could enhance downtown Indianapolis. The proposal will include both private and public space along the river edge. These public and private spaces will begin to overlap one another so that the private entity does not overshadow the public entity. There will be trails, light commercial space, and river activities for the public that coexist with privately owned space. This provides the amenities of being close to the river and downtown while still providing a private feel to the residential space. This proposal will help to extend the lively atmosphere of downtown into a developing district to the south.”

An excerpt of Austin Roy’s MA thesis in Urban Design, Ball State University (2016).

Austin Roy, “River Key: Re-Establishing Community Identity in West Indianapolis Through Education and Re-Connection with our Waterways”

Abstract: “Historically, the west Indianapolis neighborhood was developed as a residential community that benefited economically and socially from job opportunities that the surrounding industrial development provided for residents of the neighborhood. In the early half of the twentieth century, the residents of west Indianapolis lived in a community driven neighborhood that provided almost all goods and services to support virtually all human needs. The neighborhood provided a school for children as well as transportation opportunities into the downtown area of Indianapolis via horse and buggy, mule and trolley, and later on, street cars. However in the 1970s, construction of Interstate 70 resulted in dividing west Indianapolis into two different halves. The population of the neighborhood was split and the sense of community within the area was lost. This division not only tore the sense of community in two, it also resulted in less demand for products and services sold locally in the neighborhood, resulting in almost all neighborhood shops to leave for the inner city. As the twentieth century progressed, industry, which had for so long supported west Indianapolis, began to disappear, as industrial jobs moved overseas, property values as well as standard of living also began to diminish. In 2011, the retraction of industrial jobs reached its peak when the GM stamping plant, located directly north of the neighborhood closed its doors.”

An excerpt from Taylor Firestine’s MA thesis in Urban Design, Ball State University (2016).

Taylor Firestine, “Theater Blocks: An Urban Design Strategy Modeled on Economic, Social, and Environmental Sustainability”

Abstract: “The Twin Aire neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana has suffered decline over the last generation, resulting from years of waning land value, loss of skilled labor jobs, and stagnant or decreasing income. These issues are intrinsically linked to other problems facing depressed neighborhoods across the U.S., including transit inaccessibility and barriers to educational attainment. Given the availability of urban land ripe for redevelopment, the Theater Blocks will initiate a phased redevelopment plan of the Twin Aire Drive-In Theater site under two guiding objectives: 1: Stabilize the Neighborhood through Accessible Social Services; and 2: Facilitate Growth and Reinvestment for Future Success. While the first objective is a short-term endeavor, the second addresses long-term strategic planning for the community. Both objectives contain various goals addressing a host of issues facing the area, including land use, social services and education, parks and open space, and branding. These objectives and their subsequent goals are directed at bolstering the area’s quality of life through a model of economic, social, and environmental sustainability.”

An excerpt from Kevin Sweetland’s MA thesis in Urban Design, Ball State University (2016).

Kevin Sweetland, “The Burnside District: A New Approach to Post-Industrial Development on Indianapolis’s Eastside”

Abstract: “This creative project explores the practical application of urban design strategies to reverse the effects of deindustrialization on Indianapolis’ eastside. If the problem of de-industrialization is not properly addressed, large numbers of inner city people will remain unemployed and the industrial sites that are decomposing in their backyards will continue to destroy the health of the local environment. In lieu of a future defined by hazardous places for wildlife and people, the Burnside District sets a new vision for the eastside’s vacant industrial sites. This project reimagines these decrepit places as valuable community assets that allow people to live, work, and play in their own neighborhood.”

Read their projects in full here: MUD 2016 Final Book

Teaching: Mind Mapping American Bodies

Untitled mind map
A student in my course “American Bodies” thinks back critically on the class, arguing that American citizens are defined by group-specific stereotypes that create different experiences and further reinforce misconceptions:
“We discussed many different forms of bodies that have all had distinct social associations connected to them.  For the most part, white men have dominated society, always being in power and having authority over others. Those with negative social associations have always been at a disadvantage and often have been restricted, whether that be socially or under very specific laws created by those in power. We discussed how people in power have tried to regulate and restrict those below them often for nothing more than their skin color….”

In my American Studies courses I ask students to construct a mind map with an accompanying essay reflecting back on the course. The assignment aims to secretly get students to think about a structural analysis of power.

For this assignment, students were asked to reimagine the course structure by choosing a few of the course readings, films, lectures, etc. and lumping them into new categories and linking these categories and topics. It might sound a bit confusing, abstract, or a little hippie granola for you, but when executed correctly produces beautiful, thought-provoking images that evidence students reflecting critically on the course material.

First I’m going to give you the assignment basics and then I’ll share some of the best mind maps and their essays from my Spring 2015 course I designed, “Blood, Bones, and Brains: 20th Century History of American Bodies.” (You can see the syllabus for that course on my Academia.edu page.)

Assignment Basics

I show them this mind map as an example and tell them that the center of the mind map should be their overarching argument — each branch shooting out from the center should be a main theme, and then the smaller lines attached to those main theme branches should be their evidence to prove their argument. I use that mind map example because many others that you can find through Google are not intending to evidence an argument and, therefore, tend to be more descriptive brainstorming maps than a tool for visualizing a thesis.

However, unlike that mind map example linked above, students are asked to build off the main theme branches with evidence from the course. These offshoots from the main themes can be organized in whatever fashion they want. Sometimes you’ll find clear linkages and in other cases huge messy clouds of connections. A brief 1-page explanatory essay accompanies the image in order to articulate the student’s argument and evidence why those themes, offshoots, and connections/linkages were selected. Students can create these mind maps whatever way they’d like — via 3D model, video, Powerpoint, drawn by hand, or using some of these programs.


Student 1:

mind map (1)

“My mind map is divided into the three units (Turn of the Century, World War Era, and Postwar) that made up our semester.  Each unit is then divided into the topics of each class.  Lastly, I added the distinct topics and concepts that we learned in class and discovered in the readings.  In the middle of my mind map I drew a person to represent the common theme of our class, American bodies.  I made him look kind of like a super hero because I feel like everything we learned throughout the semester makes the American body; no matter skin color, shape, class, race, a superhero….”  

Student 2:


“It is not everyday when you think about people and their mindsets/values as “bodies”. When we start to think of bodies and how they are shaped and characterized by society, I realized how we start to perceive them. Bodies such as women, people of color, or those who are poor are seen as “weak”, “disabled”, and even not worth “saving”. These perceptions lead to the image they have on society. They are viewed as these things with the help of racism and sexism. Are these bodies really “free” in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave if they cannot even be seen as equal?

It was interesting to see that the typical “white, middle class male” wasn’t even deemed glorious if they were not muscular and well behaved gentleman of society. The actions that were/are taken on these people include laws, internalized/externalized judgments, and discrimination. Society chose to oppress those who weren’t fit for society. Women, people of color, and even “weak” men were oppressed without question and still are today. The progression of these topics led to dire consequences for society. Society was divided and there was a lack of trust for other groups and the government as a whole. This begs the question: “why?”. Why did we oppress and continue to oppress different groups of bodies?”

Student 3:


“The concept of the ideal body came from the readings: Modified Bodies, Bodies on Display, Regulating Bodies, and Bodies in Crisis. Each of these readings spoke about wanting to achieve the perfect or ideal body or of not having that ideal body (Regulating Bodies). Another strong theme was race. The race factor was in almost every one of our readings. It was what I would almost venture to say the main theme was of our class. It was everywhere which is appropriate since it is everywhere in everyday life….”

Student 4:


“Something that I came to understand is that the theme of Bodies on Display is perpetual, for ‘the gaze’ as you called it, is and will always be present. In this course, I was able to look at bodies from a new perspective. With my mind map I aimed to visualize essentially, how the themes we covered are interconnected. For example, a modified body is equally a body in pain and a body in conflict. Women who would change their images whether through make up, breast implants, or vaginal reconstruction (a topic covered in another class), would initially be bodies in a state of conflict, torn between what they believed to be true beauty and ugliness. Simultaneous they would be a body in pain, for just about all the modification process that we talked about came at some cost or risk….”

Student 5:


This student divided their mind map into quadrants: “When I went to first create my mind map, I knew I definitely wanted there to be certain divisions of demographics and then I wanted to place the readings, that related to that aspect of the body, into that category. I chose to divide the course into four different categories: race, class, gender, and able-bodies. Although these are just a few of many demographics, I feel like the readings fit nicely and evenly into those categories. While I have placed all of these readings into specific categories, they definitely, without question, overlap with one another in more ways than one. After dividing the readings into their corresponding areas of concentration, I then wrote a phrase arrowed off of the reading that explained one prominent aspect of the reading….”


Ultimately, the assignment worked pretty well in getting students to explore the relationship between group identities and intersectionality. Having recently spoken with Julian Chambliss about his use of infographics in the classroom almost as research reports, I’m determined to find new ways of incorporating visual and experiential modes of communication and critical thinking into courses that moves beyond strictly reading and writing. Have other ideas?  Share them with me!