December 18, 2019

For over 20 years, this Indiana mayor has been steadily building a world-class city in the Midwest

Carmel, Indiana, Mayor Jim Brainard has been looking to the great cultural centers of the world for inspiration in building up this mid-sized city.

Carmel, Indiana, Mayor Jim Brainard has led his city during a period of tremendous growth, from 38,000 when he took office in 1996, to a community of nearly 95,000 today.

The residents of Carmel, Indiana, have enlisted their local leaders to build their town into a model city for the modern world—replete with safe, walkable neighborhoods, great schools and libraries, ample green space, and access to world-class arts and cultural amenities. No one is more enthusiastic about the future of Carmel than the mayor himself, Jim Brainard, who was recently elected to serve a seventh term that begins next year.

While he was a history major and a lawyer by trade, Brainard is just as much a student of urban planning and design. He takes inspiration from some of history’s greatest cultural centers, turning old ideas into new attractions in this Indianapolis suburb. One of Carmel’s centerpieces, its concert hall, is even modeled after a famous Renaissance-era Italian villa. “There’s really nothing new,” he told me recently. “It’s taking good ideas and adapting them to your city.”

Our conversation touched on a few more of the developments that he’s hoping will attract the best and brightest to come to his city. From traffic circles—Carmel has nearly 130 of them—that he hopes will alleviate congestion and increase public safety, to the array of public amenities that his city offers.

In the course of our conversation about placemaking in America, the mayor also taught me, a fellow Midwesterner, how to properly pronounce his city’s name. (It’s CAR-muhl, not car-MEL. It sounds like how most of the country west of the Mississippi pronounces a certain brown, chewy candy.)

Check out our conversation with Mayor Brainard below and follow him on Twitter @JimBrainard.

This Q&A is edited for length and clarity.

THE RENEWAL PROJECT: In Carmel, you’ve championed changes that address both safety and sustainability—roundabouts come to mind—so what can you tell other local leaders about what you’ve learned after implementing such big changes in your community?

MAYOR JAMES BRAINARD: It’s mainly about safety. The U.S. average fatality rate is [12] per 100,000 population per year. We’ve gotten our average down to 2 per 100,000 per year in the last five years.

It’s all about speed. You’re going 15 to 20 miles per hour, which is a lot better than going 50 or 60. There’s an environmental benefit too, because you’re not idling, and even more importantly you’re not starting from a 0 to 15, which takes multiple times the energy than it does 15 to 30. It’s the law of momentum. We’re saving almost 30 thousand tons of carbon a year. And we don’t need electricity for [traffic] lights.

Carmel has nearly 130 roundabouts, more than any other city in America.

Does the city have a philosophy about using data to inform your decisions?

Of course. And we tend to look at data across the world, not just locally because we can learn a lot from what other people experiment with and succeed at and fail at.

One of the things where we’ve made a huge mistake in this country is we haven’t paid attention to city design and urban sprawl is killing our cities, not just from an environmental standpoint or a quality of life standpoint, but from a financial standpoint as well. That’s why a lot of suburban cities are in financial problems. A brand new two-lane street costs 10 to 12 million dollars a mile to build.

For instance, our Redevelopment Commission just bought a 9-acre 1950 strip mall, single story. Almost all of it’s parking lot with a few buildings on it. We’re getting $60,000 a year in property tax. When it’s redeveloped—like western Europe, it will be no higher than five levels, with the cars underground—we’ll get $3 million a year in property tax.

And that’s just the revenue side of the equation. On the expense side of the equation, we don’t need any new fire or new police patrols because it’s in an area that’s already policed. We don’t need new roads because they’re already there. Water, sewer, all of those things are already in place.

The car has really impacted how we design our cities so there’s a huge move back to how do you design for people, not cars, and that’s what we are trying to do in our city.

What’s your next big goal for Carmel?

Continuing to build a quality of life that will compete with cities across the globe. We’re sitting here in the Midwestern plains—it’s flat. I joke sometimes: I give speeches saying we’re just like Paris, France—lousy weather, no mountains, and no oceans, but they built a beautiful city. We can as well.

Mark Lautman just wrote a book called When the Boomers Bail. His thesis is that we’re going to have 80 to 90 million Baby Boomers retire in the next ten years. Where in the past, economic development has been about incentivizing a company to come to a city—bringing a bunch of jobs, people get higher incomes, then they go out and spend that money, and all of the indirect benefits such as building houses and so on. His thesis is that’s all gonna change because, first of all, Millennials are figuring out where they want to live and then looking for jobs. And secondly, they’re only going to go to places where they want to live. And then employers who need to hire those people are going to follow.

[ Read more: Oklahoma City’s mayor takes the city’s massive revitalization plan into the next era ]

So if we can’t get highly trained, the best and the brightest workers from across the globe to live in our city, we’re not going to get the jobs we need here. So we’re investing a lot into public art and walkable cities, the trails and the parks, and of course great schools, great libraries systems, and all of the things that have been the hallmark of civilized advanced cities throughout history.

What’s the job that prepared you most for being mayor?

Well I’m an attorney by training. As a history major, that’s probably as helpful as anything because it gives you a wider perspective on how to view problems and challenges and opportunities. You don’t just look at what your neighbors’ have done the last ten years. You look back at the last three thousand years and see what’s worked.

I think about when the Medicis were developing Florence in the 1500s. They invested a lot in public art. They get billions from the tourist industry a year in Florence. All those investments 500 years ago paid off!

You have to take a long view and you’ve got to look back and see what has worked.

The Palladium is a state-of-the-art 1,600-seat concert hall in Carmel. It's modeled after a Renaissance-era villa in Vicenza, Italy.

Every city is a bit different in determining how best to advance your city so it can compete for the best and brightest. For someone who’s graduating from Harvard or Stanford or Georgetown, what’s going to make them want to raise their families in Carmel, Indiana? Well a lot of things would, but I have to get them here and I have to publicize it and we have to make sure the product is good, as good as any place in the world.

Do you have a favorite spot of town that you like to visit when you’re not performing official duties?

The concert hall that we built is my favorite building. It was inspired by La Rotonda outside of Venice in Vicenza, Italy. It’s a beautiful, classic concert hall. There are only about 20 true concert halls as opposed to theaters in the U.S. and it’s my favorite place.

We’re lucky, we have an old rail-to-trail line that connects almost all of our city amenities: a number of our parks, our high school, our art and design district, our new downtown, which we built from scratch, where the concert hall theaters are located. And so being on that trail and enjoying everything we built along that trail is probably my favorite place.

Now for the lightning round: First job?

Well I mowed the lawn and then I had a job in a tool and die factory making parts for the auto industry in Detroit and then I worked in a trailer factory making trailers outside of Elkhart, Indiana.

Favorite subject in school?


Can you recommend a favorite book?

Well all my reading right now has to do with city planning. So I think the best book for a perspective mayor or city council member to read would be Suburban Nation, written by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck. The subtitle is The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.

Mayor Brainard thank you so much for letting me interrupt your lunch and I hope you have a great afternoon.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.