This year’s Smart Growth Summit is all about co-designing the future of our neighborhoods

Back in 2013, Center for Planning Excellence wanted to show people what a redesigned Government Street might look like. So the organization turned to a guy whose radical idea was simply to take over the street … temporarily.

Jason Roberts launched the Better Block project in Dallas in 2010 to demonstrate how blighted streets might appear if they were turned into walkable districts with bike lanes, seating and landscaping.

CPEX’s Camille Manning Broome reached out to Roberts for advice on hosting a similar event for Government Street. What resulted was unheard of in Baton Rouge at that point: a weekend street party between Bedford and Beverly drives that created temporary bike lanes, crosswalks and landscaped medians on Government.

And what’s better, the city was in on it. Then-Mayor Kip Holden even led a bike ride down the makeshift bike lanes.

“That event really was the tipping point in getting things going,” Broome says. “That demonstration allowed people to visualize it and be part of it. How could you not get behind the project after that?”

Now that the Government Street road diet is well underway, CPEX is looking at other ways to get citizens involved in and excited about planning future projects.

And they are again turning to Roberts—this time, to speak at this month’s Smart Growth Summit about the Better Block movement he created and how that community-driven approach impacts urban design.

The summit, now in its 13th year, brings urban designers, planners, architects and other experts from all over the country to Baton Rouge to talk about issues facing Louisiana communities. That includes everything from interstate traffic woes to protecting coastal communities.

But with the spirit of the Better Block movement in mind, the Smart Growth Summit this year isn’t just panels and presentations. Broome, who became CPEX’s president and CEO this summer, wants it to be a little more hands-on.

Much of the panels and workshops will revolve around developing a written plan of action and white papers CPEX could then bring to the powers that be, such as the Louisiana Municipal Association, as a roadmap for future projects.

“We were wondering what we could do to create something that lives on beyond just these two days, so the summit itself isn’t so static,” Broome says. “The panels aren’t typical Powerpoint presentations, but more of a conversation.”

Those documents would also live on through CPEX’s website so people unable to attend the summit can still use it as a resource.

Topics for this year’s summit include resilience in the face of climate change, community-driven redevelopment, fighting blight, the future of transit and more.

Besides Roberts, other speakers include Smart Growth America CEO Calvin Gladney, Gov. John Bel Edwards and Joyce Coffee, one of the leading consultants on climate resilience.

Much of the content for this year’s summit is geared toward involving residents in the planning process, similar to how the Better Block project on Government Street forced residents and city officials alike to examine new ways to make the street better. Broome says that DIY mindset is more important than ever.

“There’s just not enough resources and money for cities to build the proper infrastructure,” she says. “So we’re trying to come up with creative ways to make public/private partnerships happen. A lot of where we see ourselves now with CPEX is working at the neighborhood level and starting the process there.”

The Smart Growth Summit is set for Nov. 13-14 at the Shaw Center for the Arts. summit.cpex.org

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of 225 Magazine.