Smart growth” and its cousin “new urbanism” (the two terms sometimes are used interchangeably) have only been catchphrases in America since the 1980s. But there's nothing new about their founding principles.
Living, working and playing in self-contained, walkable communities describes how much of humanity has lived since the beginning of recorded history. The prevalence of automobiles allowed for the emergence of the single-use, single entrance subdivision, and few cities have embraced that lifestyle more than Baton Rouge.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation and Forum 35 spurred the local conversation about new urbanism in 1997. But the watershed moment may have been the arrival of Andres Duany in 1998. Whatever the attributes of this urban planning rock star, subtlety and modesty are not among them. As the late John LaPlante wrote in an editorial for The Advocate, Duany “pulls no punches.”
“This is the most 'gapped,' empty downtown that I have ever worked with,” Duany was quoted saying. “There have been more demolitions and they are irrational. Individuals just did what they wanted; there was no planning.” For good measure, he added that Baton Rouge's suburbs are “as ugly as any I've seen.”
Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas was the project manager for the Duany-inspired effort that resulted in “Plan Baton Rouge,” a master plan for downtown. Business Report publisher Rolfe McCollister argued in 1998 that the entire community could benefit from the lessons of new urbanism. “Implementation will be up to us,” he noted.
And indeed, most of the specific action items of Plan Baton Rouge have been realized. But smart growth has been slow to catch on throughout the region, and we have the world-class traffic gridlock to prove it.
East Baton Rouge's Horizon Plan, which expired in 2012 after two decades on the books, is by most accounts a solid, smart document. But the lack of political will to stick to the plan led to a parish full of unconnected neighborhoods, shopping centers without pedestrian access, and streets that weren't widened until after they were overdeveloped.
There's also the fact that the proponents of smart growth, while including many of the area's elected and self-appointed leaders, tend to be a fairly narrow slice of the populace. For the most part, we seem to love our cars and our subdivisions.
“If you look at two of the most successful developments in the parish, they're [Country Club of Louisiana] and Santa Maria, and those score low on smart growth,” former East Baton Rouge Public Works Director Pete Newkirk told Business Report in 2009. “So you really need a mix of what people actually want versus what smart growth is, because smart growth is real difficult.”
Plan Baton Rouge has evolved into the Center for Planning Excellence, which has been a smart growth champion throughout the region and beyond, although its help hasn't always been welcomed. Thomas says a planning effort CPEX helped organize in Ascension Parish blew up when a vocal group of residents “convinced the Planning Commission that no one in the parish wanted the plan.”
Louisiana is a strong property rights state, and no one likes to be told what to do with their land. Even the term “smart growth” may be part of the problem, as it smacks of elitism and implies that anyone who doesn't jump on board—regardless of the merits of their concerns—is either dumb or an enemy of progress.
The Horizon Plan's successor, FuturEBR, has been ratified. Once again, top-flight experts have weighed in, and organizers did all the right things as far as involving the public in all of the key discussions. And once again, the key question is this: Will we stick to the plan?
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