Because he is from Pittsburgh and was mayor of that center of the coal and steel industries, Tom Murphy naturally used the image of a coal mine to convey a big point about the future of Louisiana and Baton Rouge.
But he corrected himself and made it more relevant to his audience here when he talked about the LSU research that could fuel the state’s future growth.
“Think of that (research) as coal in the mine, or oil in the well,” Murphy said. “You have to have the infrastructure to mine that for economic development.”
That oil well image is more than appropriate, particularly coming in Murphy’s keynote to the annual smart growth summit in Baton Rouge.
What sort of city do we want Baton Rouge to become?
Will it be the kind of city that can pump that research knowledge to the surface and make it into economic progress?
Or shall we continue to hire a researcher at LSU, only to see him depart because the city cannot provide a high quality of life, a good education for his children or a fertile environment for him to start a company with his innovative ideas?
Those questions are still open for debate.
Smart growth, Murphy said, is more than about the proper arrangement of streets and sidewalks, more than improving the efficiency of traffic or providing mass transit.
It’s about building a city that is beautiful instead of ordinary and one that, as smart-growth advocates argue, provides a welcoming place for people of varying ages, backgrounds and temperaments to interact.
It is that overarching vision that can make Baton Rouge a city that researchers want to live and work in, that makes their students want to stay in and invent their own companies — the intellectual and social infrastructure, as Murphy said, that can take research out of the ground and generate wealth in the 21st century the same way we took crude oil out of the ground in the 20th century.
A city is not just a collection of poorly connected subdivisions, but an expression of the aspirations of its citizens. The smart growth concepts pushed by Murphy and other experts from around the country are more than ways to save money or deal with traffic congestion.
The first principle of smart growth is urbanity, expressing in the buildings and streets and public spaces of a city the possibilities of the future.
We believe there is a fundamental debate in Baton Rouge’s leadership today, as so many people think in narrow and parochial terms.
Cities in the parish squabble, parishes squabble within the region; basic public services are cut back; our treasured institutions, such as LSU and Southern University, are cut back.
Something as relatively simple as public bus service struggles to survive; a new library downtown is a flashpoint of political controversy instead of an opportunity to build a high-quality institution that serves the larger community, not just one neighborhood.
There is a bigger picture.
“You are like a jigsaw puzzle,” Murphy said of Baton Rouge. “You have the pieces on the table to be a 21st-century city. You have a choice to make. Do you put them together in the right way?”
Murphy challenged the city’s leadership to think big and not fall victim to naysayers.
“Whatever it is you want to do that’s progressive,” Murphy said from personal experience in politics, “there are a hundred people who’ll tell you why it can’t be done, or why you can’t afford it.”
Murphy’s talk was held at the Shaw Center for the Arts, which he described as an example of Baton Rouge’s capacity to “do something special.”
“You have clearly made some remarkable decisions in the last few years,” Murphy said. “I have seen it firsthand.”
But he added that when a hundred critics say something is too expensive or “it’ll do” if the city’s ambitions are scaled back, another question should be asked:
“Do they set your agenda?”