For the last 50 years, citizens of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties have addressed key issues through the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC), a multi-purpose, area-wide regional council of local governments. Issues related to the environment, transportation, economic development and other concerns are at the center of NIRPC’s planning efforts.
Or, as Ty Warner, NIRPC executive director, says, “NIRPC is the place where all 41 municipalities and the three counties in the region come together to talk about common issues that are bigger than any one of them.”
NIRPC is a Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally mandated and funded transportation policy-making organization made up of representatives of local government and governmental transportation authorities. However, NIRPC’s work goes beyond transportation to encompass other key issues affecting the region’s communities.
The organization reflects and shapes a vision for northwest Indiana that includes expanded commuter rail, transit-oriented development, urban reinvestment, and environmental sustainability.
One major example of NIRPC’s work is the 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan, a plan for sustainable growth and revitalization within Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. The plan, which was released in 2011, focuses on supporting urban reinvestment and integrates transportation and use to improve mobility and job accessibility. Other key principles of the plan emphasize environment justice issues for minority and low-income populations; the protection of natural resources; the preservation of environmental corridors; and the enhancement of green infrastructure.
The 2040 Plan won the prestigious Daniel Burnham Award from the American Planning Association, as well as awards from the National Association of Regional Councils and various Indiana entities.
Warner says that issues covered in the plan are often those that extend across jurisdictional boundaries. “Think about the transportation needs of people and communities,” he says. “Everyday commuters don’t care who has jurisdiction over what road. They need to know that they can get to where they want to go in a reliable way.”
One strategy of the 2040 Plan is NIRPC’s Livable Centers Initiative, which focuses on making central locations defined by communities more walkable, more vibrant and more “livable.” Through this initiative, NIRPC provides funding for community planning efforts. In Gary, for example, a NIRPC-funded plan emphasizes creating a medical campus around Methodist Hospital as well as development around the Grand Calumet River. The Gary Transportation Corporation received a NIRPC grant to develop its “Livable Broadway” plan to improve walkability and transit opportunities along a corridor from Gary to Crown Point.
NIRPC often helps identify other federal, state, regional and local funding to support regional priorities.
A grassroots public outreach effort played a major role in development of the 2040 Plan, which was updated last year. “Reaching out to people in northwest Indiana,” says Warner, “had a major impact in aligning communities toward regional goals.”
Last year, NIRPC also updated the Marquette Plan, which identifies land along northwest Indiana’s 45 miles of lakefront that can be feasibly transformed into publicly accessible areas for conservation, recreation, amenities and livable communities. Kathy Luther, NIRPC’s director of environmental programs, says the Marquette Plan is “all about making the lakefront our front yard, not our backyard.”
One of NIRPC’s success stories is the role it has played in trail development across the region. “In the early 1990s, there were only 13 miles of paved trails in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties,” says Warner. “Now there are over 145 miles of paved trails, and the network continues to grow.” A prominent example of bi-state collaboration, he says, is the Pennsy Greenway, a rails-to-trails project which runs from Lansing, Ill. to Crown Point, Ind. The trail, which has the same name in Illinois and Indiana, is a strong example of bi-state cooperation.
“NIRPC and organizations it collaborates with build on an excellent body of work to develop trails that have been put in place by local governments over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Ders Anderson, greenways director for Openlands, a regional conservation organization whose focus includes the greater Chicago area and northwest Indiana.
Whiting, Ind. Mayor Joe Stahura, a former chairman of NIRPC, says that “NIRPC extends open arms to its members, who have an extensive opportunity to participate on transportation, land use, environmental and other issues.” Stahura – who has been mayor of Whiting for 13 years and served in the City Council for 20 years before that – says that “NIRPC helps pull communities together and build support on key issues. When northwest Indiana goes to the state capitol in Indianapolis and there are so many of our communities on board for a project, it means something.”
Collaboration also extends across the state line. Before joining NIRPC, Warner was planning director for Will County in Illinois and served as a principal planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). NIRPC has an inter-agency agreement with CMAP, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission in Milwaukee, and the Southwest Michigan Regional Planning Commission. Through the agreement, these agencies work together on environmental and economic issues in the southern Lake Michigan region.
Warner is currently playing an active role in Millennium Reserve’s evolution into a bi-state nonprofit that is connecting with more Indiana and Illinois organizations. He serves on a transitional board of directors for the emerging organization.
“The boundaries between our states are really permeable,” Warner says. “There’s a connection between the states and great potential to work together. I’m super-excited about what’s happening on a bi-state level.”