Baton Rouge: Sense of Place (part 1)

Baton Rouge is a small town that hardly seems to have the urban energy expected for a state capital. A number of concerned planners, civic organizations, corporate sponsors, and urbanist oriented citizens have a vision though. And I’m appreciating their efforts. Firstly, there are obvious attempts to raise awareness of the distinctive urban character of the downtown through way finding signage, restoration and renovation of historic storefronts, facades, and streetscapes, and using attractive “city-beautiful” era type street furniture to evoke the sense that this is a special place that residents here cherish. And there are other ubiquitous, even invisible attributes of the city which reflect the thoughtful patronage of city leaders: there is a freee municipal wi-fi network which covers the Central Business District. Park yourself and your battery operated wi-fi accessible laptop on a sidewalk bench (yes, they have those here as well), and you can read the local paper online.

After my meeting Thursday morning, instead of sitting on an outdoor sidewalk bench though, I walked over to Coffee Star, a local cafe where I was also hoping to check out whatever free community papers and zines were available, and see what fliers may have been posted on a flier table or community corkboard. Coffee Star is a nice cafe (offering free wi-fi) but to my surprise there were no fliers of local art events or music shows. I did find two free community papers but neither seemed to give too much of a glimpse of the local art, music, or youth culture. (Later, someone I met here showed me that this info is found in a Sunday section, called Fun!, inside the city’s daily paper, The Advocate.) Coffee Star also did not have any vegetarian options: even their tomato soup had a meat stock base! 🙁 But with free wi-fi it feels decidedly spoiled to kvetch.

I couldn’t stay at the cafe too long — anticipating FEMA deployment at any moment, I made certain to make good on my promise to explore Baton Rouge’s levee walk and take some pictures. Levees figure prominently in almost every major American city as most cities were founded as river ports and these rivers naturally overflowed every few years as rivers are wont to. The deposition of sediment from river flooding is the reason why land next to rivers is so fertile. But farming practices in this country have long sought to maximize agricultural land use to the neglect of nature. The essential riparian buffer, the unique vegetated ecosystems that border rivers, is often reduced to only a few meters of scrub. Important trees such as weeping willows, that sunk their roots into the fresh waters of the river, effectively controlling erosion of the riverbanks, were removed. Riverbanks with steeper sides flow faster causing further erosion. This problem was compounded during American industrialization in the 19th and early 20th century when forests east of the Mississippi near cities of any size were clearcut. Without forests to soak up water, the water travels more quickly to creeks, streams, and rivers, carrying soil and other detritus such as farm waste.

There is often no riparian buffer to speak of near the industrialized riverbanks of cities and towns. Add to this, the water poring off of all the impervious surfaces from city parking lots, streets and sidwewalks, driveways, and rooftops, flows directly into stormwater systems getting pumped into nearby rivers and you have the makings for terrific urban floods. Historic urban flooding was rather common place in America until the 1930s and 50s when huge engineering projects accomplished by the US Army Corp of Engineers, effectively created buffers: levees and floodwalls, next to cities saving them from all but the most devastating floods.

Floodwalls and levees provided some solace but there were consequences of course. City residents were cut off from an essential aspect of their environmental habitat by anoter huge layer of urban infrastructure. Obvious recreational uses of rivers and streams diminished, and without concerned and popular usage, rivers and streams became more and more polluted without a large enough constituency to protect and preserve them. Leap ahead to the 1960s and 1970s when rational planning began to be challenged by community oriented planning theories and practices which sought to recognize neighborhood assets for residents to use, and to help rejuvenate city economies. All sorts of wonderful city planning solutions were developed: an increased recognition of arts and culture institutions, restoring public transit systems that had been abandoned in favor of personal automobiles, reusing transit lines for bicycle and pedestrian paths, protecting and promoting historic buildings and residential and business districts, promoting urban art and rethinking public sculpture and wall art (grafitti vs. murals), creating distinctive urban gateways and signage to create a “sense of place”, rethinking public spaces such as streetcorners, plazas, and streets as cultural assets and to enhance an economy oriented to pedestrian use rather than the efficient movement of workers in automobiles into the city by 9am and out of the city to their suburban retreats by 6pm. Urban neighborhoods, some spearated from nearby rivers and tributaries by levees, received renewed attention as these neighborhoods were within pedestrian walking or bicycling distance to the central business district or legacy (or expandable) public transit systems. To keep these neighborhoods attractive, residents had long sought to protect and promote their nearby parks. But for neighborhoods next to rivers the only available greenspace was that dominated by levees and floodwalls. Similarly, for cities looking to leverage the beautiful waterfronts of their central business districts (for perceived enhanced prestige, a more dynamic tourism economy, and taxable waterfront property value increases), planners needed to find some solution to get people to cross the highways, railroads, and levees commonly situated parallel to their urban waterfront.

Examples of these sorts of developments can be found in the American Planning Association’s Plannign magazine. And non-profit groups such as the Project for Public Spaces, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and even conservation groups such as the Trust for Public Land, help to advocate for reusing public open spaces to enhance the pedetrian, and recreational life and economies of cities. Movements such as Smart Growth in the US, sustainable development in Europe and developing countries, and the Healthy Cities movement in Canada and elsewhere, openly encourage these sorts of developments as a strategy which both controls development through thoughtful stewardship of urban open spaces, and brings other values to local economies (health, tourism, direct use, hedonic/property value, commuter transit, and “green” infrastructure).

Other more intangible values, harder to affix an economic/monetary value on: psychological health, aesthetics, spiritual satisfaction, quality and diversity of wildlife habitat, are also enhanced but are harder to advocate for. And to add some frustratin complexity which is oft ignores, the values of once kind of open space development oriented to one tangible value (tourism) may conflict with another (habitat). Part of the planning process is determining priorities, and in creating a recreational use for an abandoned and sullied urban open space, the restoration of the environment will take a backseat to whatever designs are dreamt to drive new users to the space. So, for example, a desire to provide residents a clear view of their river from a levee walk, might inspire planners to cut away the “weeds and brush” growing next to the river, ignoring the essential value of the riparian buffer in controlling riverbank erosion, in providing access to wildlife inhabiting a diverse ecosystem, as well as providing a nurturing habitat for fish that lay their eggs and grow their spawn in the slower, cooler waters of riverbanks shaded by river trees and roots. Public perceptions of safety in urban parks, mediated by nighttime lighting and public 911 kiosks, are often at odds with park designs which benefit wildlife habitat. My own feeling is that an responsibly developed and brilliant landscape designs will respect the use of that space for the other creatures we share our cities with, and will also recognize the value of that space as natural and sustainable green infrastructure.

Baton Rouge’s thinking for urban redevelopment along its riverfront levee has not sought to restore any of the terribly important Mississippi riparian buffer lost in the last three centuries to te industrial use of its port and the creation of its massive levee. But they have created an attractive levee walk that connects the downtown to LSU’s campus with plans for expansion both north and south along the Mississippi. The result is pleasant enough but also a little comical: the repetition of lampost, bench, garbage pail every twenty, could benefit from some diversity in the form of the street furniture. (That would, of course, have cost more money for the project.) A restored train station next to the river was made into an annex of a new museum of natural history and planetarium. The levee connects to a WWII battleship, the USS Kitt, a fantastic piece of modern sculpture and fountain, and a very artistic, if baffling, piece of river architecture… something like a multi-tiered pier with many curvy paper clip shaped piping. I’m looking for information as to who designed the fountain architecture and the river pier tower.

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About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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