Designing with Community in Mind

February 20, 2020, Feature, by Anna Cawrse, PLA, ASLA, and Joshua Brooks, PLA, ASLA

2020 March Feature Designing with Community in Mind 410

Flipping the script on the master planning process in North Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Within East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana sits the neighborhood of North Baton Rouge. This predominantly African American community has long seen less investment than other areas within the parish. This fact, along with long-term demographic shifts due to out-migration and loss of area institutions, has left the North Baton Rouge area under-performing in key socioeconomic indicators compared to the rest of the parish. Despite decades of disinvestment, these trends are starting to be reversed through a thriving culture and incredible community leadership. One of the more visual manifestations of these efforts has been playing out in the recent redesign of the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (BREC) Greenwood Park and the Baton Rouge Zoo.

North Baton Rouge has seen a decades-long pattern of cultural assets and public investments moving south. This migration has left North Baton Rouge starved for amenities. BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, one of North Baton Rouge’s cultural icons located in Greenwood Park, was one of the amenities on the cusp of relocating to a southern part of the parish. The recommendation to move the zoo was due in part to an increase in annual visitors, but largely came at the behest of the zoo’s core philanthropic community members, who indicated that they would be more willing to fund the building of a new zoo in a more “sustainable location” than to fund new improvements at its current location.

As a result of local outcry across the parish and with pressure of community leadership from the northern part of the parish, the proposed relocation of the zoo ultimately did not come to pass. Instead, BREC decided it was time for a big change. The zoo and park provided the perfect opportunity to reinvest in the neighborhood by reimagining these incredible public spaces.

BREC set out to create a nationally renowned park and public space that would demonstrate its commitment to the North Baton Rouge community and the parish as a whole. In late 2018, BREC hired Sasaki and Torre Design Consortium to lead the effort to reimagine Greenwood Park and the Baton Rouge Zoo as a cohesive community asset of which everyone could be proud. Now, at 660 acres, Greenwood Park is the largest park in BREC’s system, and it provides a chance to address the contentious issues around disinvestment. Through an intensive engagement process, the new master plan created broad consensus and support around a design that includes roughly $35 million in publicly funded improvements for the park and zoo — work currently underway as part of Phase 1 implementation.

Flipping the Script
After several years of discussions, including recommendations to move the zoo and to redesign the space left behind, both the local community and larger parish were a bit on edge. Local media and frustrated citizens came to the table with skepticism at the project’s outset. The planning and design teams took a purposefully broad and blank-slate approach to the engagement process, focusing on education and listening before offering any solutions. In order to invite as many voices into the process as possible, the team designed engagement methods accessible to a range of preferences, locations and capacities for participation. The team’s attention toward stimulating true two-way dialogue, along with documenting the process through rigorous quantitative and qualitative summaries of these efforts, started to build trust between the design team, BREC, the public and community leaders.

Open houses that enabled direct interactions with members of the community became the primary format for engaging the public. The team hosted these open houses within different neighborhoods and scheduled them at multiple times throughout the day to ensure that residents could attend. Presentations were kept to a minimum, offering the community ample opportunities to make themselves heard.

To broaden engagement further, the design team created online experiences that went far beyond a traditional survey to accompany each step of the process. These tools, such as Sasaki’s digital Co-Map, which visually maps user experience to collect data, provided a quantitative view of the way people perceive the area and used the park.

The team conducted a statistically representative door-to-door survey across the entire parish. This information was used to validate the demographic makeup of sample participants, as well as gather more responses to a number of questions.

Across all forms of public engagement, the team aggregated the anonymous input to identify trends, ensuring the feedback was directly informing the park’s master plan.

Once the master plan process concluded, BREC and the design team demonstrated their commitment to the project by hosting a large “Party-in-the-Park” event, which nearly 1,000 people attended. People engaged with the unveiled master plan and heard words of support from community leaders at the event. This was branded as the “kick-off” to the implementation phase, framing a continuum of planning and design for a built outcome. The master plan laid out a series of programs and ideas that will be rolled out during the detailed design and construction phase to continue demonstrating progress at intervals.

Balancing Natural Assets and Site Constraints with Community Desires
The vision for the master plan is, first and foremost, inspired by the ideas and preferences voiced by the community of East Baton Rouge Parish. Four guiding principles for Greenwood Park were created from input received from the community:

  • Celebrate Louisiana’s Nature: Embrace the ecology of Greenwood Park and create sustainable opportunities for people to experience the landscape
  • A Park for Every Day and the Big Day: Provide a balance of everyday neighborhood amenities and destination activities that are a regional draw
  • Open Up and Reach Out: Provide physical connectivity for walkers, bikers and drivers to make the park the heart of the parish
  • Welcome and Grow: Put community at the heart of the park’s design and implementation

To ensure the master plan is grounded in reality and focused on implementation, the design team articulated a number of opportunities and constraints, which were born out of a rigorous site analysis and used to inform the physical design of the site.

The analysis began to drive a design vocabulary that was shaped by the site’s physical beauty as well as its history — ensuring that decisions about what to remove and what to maintain were considered with the site’s context in mind. Economics of the site also were factored into decisions to make certain the design could be implemented. For example, recent improvements to the central waterfront area, along with relatively flat and clear conditions, drove the team to flip the entrance of the zoo to be more integrated with the central waterfront area and to create a new visitor experience that unified the park into one cultural campus.

Thinking About Community Impact Before It Happens
From the outset of the project, BREC and the Sasaki-led design team realized community outreach needed to go beyond design input to achieve true community partnership; the master plan suggestions needed to be baked into decision-making and play an integral role in the implementation strategy to ensure that this future park remained, first and foremost, a park for North Baton Rouge. An entire chapter of the master plan, called “Community Program,” is dedicated to this idea and explores how through strategic investments, the reimagined Greenwood Park and Baton Rouge Zoo can help create future investment in the area without triggering gentrification.

“I believe Greenwood Park is one of the most diverse parks in the BREC park system. It happens to be located in the northwest portion of the parish and serves a wide array of leisure needs for the entire region and surrounding neighborhoods,” says Carolyn McKnight-Fredd, former director of BREC and current NRPA board member. Pointing out that the surrounding neighborhood demographics are predominately African American, she adds, “It is extremely important for the reimagined space to be tailored to both the region and the neighborhood.”

The Plan to Stem Gentrification
The median income in the area surrounding Greenwood Park is 30 percent lower than that of East Baton Rouge Parish, with about 21 percent of individuals living at or below the poverty line. Additionally, there is a higher unemployment rate and greater concentration of renters. These issues are exacerbated by limited access to transportation networks, fewer job opportunities and heightened exposure to environmental stressors, such as reduced air quality. These contextual forces became a core driver in not only the physical layout of the park master plan, but also in the plan’s implementation strategy for the coming decades.

Despite consistent economic and environmental challenges, a number of groups and individuals are working tirelessly to make North Baton Rouge a better place for those who call it home. Organizations and others are creating opportunities and targeting issues, such as health, job access and housing, that have long challenged this area.

The design team aligned Greenwood Park and the Baton Rouge Zoo with the positive progress occurring in this area. The community development strategies presented in the master plan aim to assist BREC in forging partnerships for the betterment of the North Baton Rouge, further solidifying Greenwood Park and the Baton Rouge Zoo as truly catalytic community amenities. The investment in Greenwood Park, which will become an identifiable, signature park for the parish, is a great start. That investment, however, must be supported by other planning initiatives for the surrounding community to bring more people to the park and to ensure that the nearby neighborhoods experience the benefits of the park improvements.

The master plan recommends five community program goals in association with the plan for Greenwood Park:

  • Celebrate the unique community of North Baton Rouge and the surrounding area
  • Provide amenities and opportunities for surrounding neighborhoods
  • Connect people to the park through strategic infrastructure upgrades
  • Grow long-term economic strength and opportunity of the area through physical and community relationships
  • Catalyze growth by supporting broader economic development strategies for North Baton Rouge and beyond

A Plan with Real Solutions
Thoughtful and honest engagement blended with rigorous technical analysis, communicated clearly, can lead to realistic solutions that minimize negative outcomes and benefit community unity, economic vitality and environmental health.

“As I think back to my time at BREC, news reporters and community members asked me about my favorite place to play, and I often told them about Greenwood. It is somewhat of a hidden gem in the park system,” says McKnight-Fredd. “I have faith in the [redesign] and in the future of the park. Greenwood Park will be lifted up as the idea model for excellence in environmental conservation, resiliency, health and wellness, and social cohesion. It will represent what community-building is all about.”

You can read the full Greenwood Community Park and Baton Rouge Zoo Master Plan here.

Anna Cawrse, PLA, ASLAis a Senior Associate at Sasaki. Joshua Brooks, PLA, ASLAis a Senior Associate at Sasaki.