Carmel: A little bit of western Europe in central Indiana

How roundabouts and other Euro-style urban designs make Carmel more livable

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Jim Brainard, mayor of Carmel. (Courtesy of Carmel, Indiana)

Carmel, Indiana might not be on your map, but Money magazine just named it the best place to live in America (among cities of 30,000 to 300,000 people). It might also be a good place to live in Europe. Carmel’s mayor, Jim Brainard, believed the city needed to become more like a European city to thrive, and has fought for this idea throughout his 17 years in office.

LN. Did ideas you borrowed from elsewhere help you get the Money magazine honor?

JB.I would say yes. One of the things we’ve done in Carmel is create an arts and design district, and we’re building a real downtown. We’ve built dozens of miles of boulevards. We have a public-private partnership for a European-style downtown. We’re putting in underground parking. We put in roundabouts so you don’t have to widen the roads as much – focus on your roads, not your nodes.

LN. Why look to old Europe for inspiration in the New World?

JB. We have to compete harder in this part of the country. We don’t have mountains or oceans, not even a river through the center of town. There’s another place, it’s called Paris, that has the same problem – no mountains, no ocean. If you want to succeed as a city you gotta attract the very best young people out of graduate school. If your city can’t attract those people, you’re done. You can’t compete. So we go on vacation to European cities and marvel at how nice they are. We learned from Europe, how they design beautiful cities. We thought, okay, we’ve kind of ruined many of our cities in this country in the last 50 or 60 years. We need to bring back a lot of those things, a lot of the old rules. We need to quit designing for cars and start designing again for people.

LN. Are there people or cities over there that inspired you?

The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana (Courtesy of Carmel, Indiana)

JB. David Oliver, an architect from Dorset in England. He helped Prince Charles implement Poundbury, a recreation of the way an English village would’ve been built a thousand years ago. He doesn’t work for us, but he’s critiqued our architectural work. Leon Krier, a German architect [Editor’s note: Krier was Poundbury’s architect]. David Schwarz out of Washington DC designed our concert hall, a traditional, beautiful building inspired by Palladio’s Villa Rotunda. We admire Andres Duany and the Congress for the New Urbanism.  Joel Garreau – he wrote Edge Cities – he’s been influential in our thinking. Joe Riley in Charleston, South Carolina is respected across the country as a mayor. The original city planning in Savannah, Georgia. Some of the New England cities. Those older cities in the U.S. in essence were built by Europeans or with European influence. [Starting in the 1950s] we threw out the cumulative knowledge of how to design beautiful cities and tried something entirely new. The pendulum across the U.S. is swinging back.

LN. What about European cities? Have you become friends with any of their leaders?

JB. I love European cities. London Paris, Vienna, Florence, Rome.

LN. Those are all too big for Money’s competition – they all have more than 300,000 people.

JB. Florence would qualify [Editor’s note: it would not, as it has 370,000 people]. You can still find beautifully proportioned plazas in Rome and little neighborhoods. Wandering around these very big international cities, they’re still urban villages.

LN. What was the first thing you tried, and how hard was it to do?

JB. The first one was roundabouts. People said, ‘Kids won’t be able to ride their bikes, they’re not good for old people, there will be more accidents.’ So, we had to educate people, showing that because of slower speeds you’d see an 80 percent reduction in injuries. One to four cars out of a million will crash at any intersection anywhere. It’s just a human thing. The question is what type of accidents. I tell my audiences, ‘Nobody here would ever speed up through a yellow light, but I know some people do.’ My audiences all chuckle. The point is that people do speed up. If you’re jamming on the accelerator going to 50 to get through the yellow light, well, that’s going to be one kind of accident. At a roundabout no one’s going over 15 to 18 miles an hour. Everybody has to slow down.

The roundabout at 131st and Illinois in Carmel, Indiana (Courtesy of Carmel, Indiana)

LN. How many do you have?

JB. We’ve built more roundabouts than any other city in the country. We have 64 on major roads, with four under construction.

LN. How have you been able to maintain this focus as the city has basically tripled in size over the last 12 years?

JB. It’s made it difficult just funding the infrastructure that’s needed so everything isn’t gridlocked. We have water systems and sanitation services, people don’t pay attention to them until they don’t work. We still have a lot of sprawl. We’re 49 square miles, bigger than the island of Manhattan. The center part, four to five square miles, is being built at a European scale, and that’s worked well. Which is why Money paid attention to us, I think.