Planners say look to the past for future growth in Baton Rouge _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- Planners at the Smart Growth Summit said Tuesday that cities like Baton Rouge should continue strengthening downtown and urban areas, making life easier on residents, rather continually building new roads and extending utility services further away from the city core.

The future for land development in the 21st century involves going back to the plans and systems that worked so well for thousands of years, one of the speakers at the 10th annual Louisiana Smart Growth Summit said Tuesday.

Thousands of cities were built across the United States on the simple concept of incremental growth, said Chuck Marohn Jr., a Minnesota engineer and urban planner, during a speech at the Shaw Center for the Arts. The idea was that small businesses would grow and business districts would expand out.

“You don’t build wealth by going to a casino and putting it all on red, you make broad investments over a long period of time,” said Marohn, who has been working on development plans with Lafayette city-parish officials. “Those developments in urban areas outperform things being built today.”

Marohn said the idea of building cities around the automobile, a concept that took off in the U.S. after World War II, is not sustainable because it costs local governments and private developers too much in the long term. Instead of building new roads and extending utility services further and further away from the city core in an effort to attract business, he said the focus needs to be on strengthening downtown and urban areas, making life easier on residents and attracting more people.

“ ‘Build it and they will come’ is a fantastic movie plot, but a horrible strategy,” he said. “Successful places have one thing in common — people.”

Marohn noted in his hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, the value of a 19-acre suburban big-box store was significantly lower than the 19-acre downtown. And while it’s difficult and expensive to find a taker for an empty big-box store, downtown businesses are easily adaptable for a variety of uses by small businesses, from a law office to a restaurant.

Peter Calthorpe, the San Francisco-based architect and urban planner who headed the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s reconstruction planning effort after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, echoed Marohn’s comments. He said the future for development is people living in small towns.

“We have to build in a traditional way, we can’t dedicate everything to a car,” he said.

Calthorpe said too much of the wrong type of housing has been built — large suburban homes that are unaffordable to much of the American middle class because of mortgages, utility and travel costs. Those suburban homes also are undesirable to rising demographic groups, such as millennials, who want to live in walkable cities.

The two-day summit concludes Wednesday.

Ron Sims, the former executive of King County, Washington, and a former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, called Baton Rouge a “walkable, beautiful” city with “lots of green” during his opening speech Tuesday. Sims, who spoke at the first summit in 2003, said he didn’t recognize the Baton Rouge of today.

“It’s a testimony why IBM made Baton Rouge a regional center,” Sims said. “Streets and walkablity tell you everything about what a city is doing to compete with the world.”

Sims discussed the harmful impact of sprawl and the benefits of having parks and green spaces. He said the crime rates in communities with green features are 70 percent lower than in areas that don’t have parks and trails.

“If you want to fight crime, green out a neighborhood,” he said.

The key to smart growth and sustainable development is taking data like what areas have lower crime rates and being smart with it, Sims said.

“Smart growth is the only mechanism powerful enough to reduce crime and improve school opportunities,” he said.