Eagle Creek Park is one of Indianapolis’ most popular attractions, drawing crowds of locals and tourists year-round into its urban oasis. When you enter the park, it’s easy to forget that you are in a city of almost 900,000 people, and that’s exactly the point. Natural spaces like Eagle Creek Park provide a place of relief in even the most built-up environments. 

Consisting of 3,900 acres of land containing forests, prairie, and open space, and 1,400 acres of water, the park ranks as the 20th largest city park in the United States. Eagle Creek Park is a known birding hotspot, where observers can watch cormorants, American white pelicans, and other fascinating bird species. There are also several recreational opportunities available at the park, including fishing, hiking, boating, and a Go Ape obstacle course. The park is a place where people can come together and enjoy nature, providing valuable recreational and leisure opportunities for residents and tourists alike.

But aside from being a popular destination to relax and unwind, the park quietly provides critical services and benefits to the Indianapolis community. The parks’ large reservoir provides the city with clean drinking water, and it also serves as a large water storage basin to reduce and mitigate flooding. The reservoir was initially designed for flood control in 1960 and required the purchase of hundreds of parcels of land, including 1,000 acres donated to Purdue University by J.K. Lilly, Jr. 

Google satellite image showing an aerial view of Eagle Creek Park.

Without clean drinking water and flood protection, Indianapolis probably would not be very hospitable. The natural landscapes found within the park are responsible for performing these critical services, and they do good at their job because they are protected from development. However, natural landscapes still exist outside and connect to the park boundaries, many providing the very same benefits. These landscapes are constantly threatened by new development and a lack of good environmental policy to protect them. City and county laws and environmental regulations are permissive in Indiana, and there is no comprehensive city or state policy preserving networks of natural spaces, leaving the environment that could be constantly threatened.

Introduce landscape-scale green infrastructure (GI). Landscape-scale GI can be defined as “a strategically planned and managed network of wilderness, parks, greenways, conservation easements, and working lands with conservation value that supports native species, maintains natural ecological process, sustains air and water resources, and contributes to the health and quality of life for America’s communities and people.”[1] It is a concept that has been emerging in the policy and planning space to address the lack of comprehensive, protected ecosystems.

Eagle Creek Park serves as an example of landscape-scale GI. But even more broadly, because the park is connected to Eagle Creek and other natural landscapes, the park itself truly only represents a subset of the network of natural spaces that are serving as landscape-scale GI. The only problem is that not all the land within this network is protected. (Scroll down to the map at bottom to explore the network of streams that make up Eagle Creek).

The park, with its combination of forest, wetland, prairie, and open water ecosystems, provides many important services beyond drinking water protection and flood storage. These “ecosystem services” are the benefits that natural spaces can deliver to the environment, the economy, and a community’s culture. 

Ecosystem services provided by Eagle Creek Park

  • Absorbs stormwater, which reduces flooding, erosion, and improves water quality 
  • Modulates climate and improves air quality
  • Provides wildlife habitat and biodiversity protection
  • Provides recreational and leisure opportunities
  • Creates green jobs and volunteer opportunities
  • Stimulates the economy through tourism

Unfortunately, these benefits do not always translate over to policies, plans, and decisions that are responsible for shaping the environment. Part of the reason for this is because politicians, planners, developers, and other involved in the decision-making process do not always understand the benefits and services provided by places like Eagle Creek Park, and that is why advocating and educating about the benefits of natural spaces is so important. Whether you are an educator, a stormwater or floodplain manager, a surveyor, a developer, a builder, an environmental consultant, an engineer, or a student, you play a role through the knowledge you accumulate and share with others. Protecting and expanding natural ecosystems like Eagle Creek Park as a form of landscape-scale GI can prove hugely beneficial, but only if people’s voices are heard. 

The concept of landscape-scale green infrastructure is a way to equip people with the knowledge needed to educate and advocate for these spaces that we cherish. Because the term comes from a planning, policy, and water management perspective, it’s useful to use in advocacy efforts directed towards city and state governments as a way to demonstrate the environmental, economic, and cultural benefits of these spaces.

Community values arguably play one of the most critical roles in the protection of Eagle Creek Park. Because so many people share stories, memories, and look forward to future events at the park, a greater connection between the people and the land is fostered, and the park becomes a place that people value. And when more people care about spaces like these, the greater the likelihood of their survival. Even if a natural landscape does not carry a park designation or other legal protective measure, it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth protecting. Utilizing the concept of landscape-scale green infrastructure, we can and should begin to advocate for the protection and expansion of natural spaces like Eagle Creek Park, and develop robust local and state green infrastructure policy. Learn more about green infrastructure.

Current & potential threats to the Eagle Creek ecosystem

  • Pike Township Rezone Proposal: Earlier this year, a group of local citizens, advocates, scientists, and environmental groups formed an opposition to a development that would have impacted nearly 200 acres of forests, wetlands, and open space northeast of the park. The developers eventually withdrew their petition that would have allowed for the development of the 200 acres. So, the land is not at risk of development for now, but it also does not have any legal protections in place that would prevent development in the future. 
  • LEAP Lebanon Innovation District: The proposed LEAP development in Lebanon, Indiana, whose current aim is to build a water pipeline with an estimated capacity of 100 million gallons per day near the Wabash River to support chip and other high-tech advanced manufacturing industries, is speculating whether to discharge water to the reservoir within the Eagle Creek Park. At present, the impact of the wastewater discharge from LEAP is not well understood and defined. Wastewater discharge is currently regulated under the Clean Water Act, and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management issues permits to approve these discharges. The number of pollutants and the impact of increasing the volume of the flood storage reservoir are important considerations that could have the potential to impact the health of Eagle Creek Park and downstream ecosystems. 

[1] Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach. American Planning Association. 

The map below shows the location of Eagle Creek Park, and the network of streams that make up Eagle Creek. Protecting and preserving the riparian area surrounding larger streams is a common approach to landscape-scale GI policy.