KENNEDY: First, eat the spinach

April 19, 2014

Sheila Suess KennedyThere is probably not a parent on the planet who hasn’t delivered the time-honored dinner lecture, “No dessert unless you eat your vegetables.” We want our children to understand that first things come first—that consuming healthy food has to come before sugary treats, no matter how tempting.

I thought about that basic life lesson during a recent roundtable at IUPUI. Dubbed Grand Challenges, the idea was to gather faculty around tables devoted to the urban challenges facing Indianapolis, to get a sense of how the resources of a major urban research university might be marshaled to help meet those challenges.

My table’s assignment was quality of life, and the first question posed by our facilitator was definitional: How do you define quality of life? What does a city require in order to have a good quality of life?

The responses were mostly predictable: Public safety was first on the list, since—as one participant noted—if you don’t feel safe, you probably aren’t going to enjoy that park down the street. Good schools ranked high. Clean air and water, excellent public transportation, good parks, healthy neighborhoods and amenities like bike lanes, libraries and museums all received mention.

Mentioned, too, were less-tangible aspects of high-performing cities: equity (Do potholes in poor neighborhoods get filled as promptly as those in the high-rent areas? Does the city play favorites with snow removal?), access (Can you call your city-county councilor and get a prompt response? Does a call to the Mayor’s Action Center actually promote action?), a vibrant arts community, and attention to the esthetics and maintenance of the built environment.

Several people mentioned the quality of public services. Do the potholes even get filled? Are abandoned houses secured and, when unsafe, demolished? Does the garbage get collected? Are streetlights adequate? When a street gets repaved, is the work done properly?

There were debates about the relative importance of some of these elements. But it was well into the session before anyone mentioned major-league sports, despite the fact that the Indiana Pacers’ $160 million deal with the city had just been front-page news.

Here’s the thing: I see the advantages of having the Indianapolis Colts and Pacers and other high-profile teams calling Indianapolis home. Although the economic impact is far less than the impact of the arts—research finds the dollar impact pretty negligible—the intangible benefits are very real.

The visibility sport generates might not be quantifiable in dollars, but it’s clearly valuable. So is the esprit de corps, the civic pride when “our teams” do well. I get that.

But it’s dessert.

Recently, two Indianapolis ZIP codes were identified as among the 10 least-safe in the country. The performance of too many of our schools is seriously substandard. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our public transportation is embarrassing. We have trouble maintaining our parks and public spaces—go look at the deterioration along the Central Canal, one of our most significant and well-used urban amenities.

If Indianapolis were rolling in money—if we had the will and wherewithal to provide adequate police protection, to improve our schools, to light and pave our streets, and maintain our public spaces—I’d be all for providing venues for sporting events.

When you’ve eaten your meat and vegetables, a little cake is an acceptable treat. When you haven’t even bought the vegetables because you’ve spent all your money on the cake, that’s a problem.•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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