The Co-City Baton Rouge Project: Understanding Plank Road, Part II

Over the next few days we will be sharing a series of articles presenting the Co-City Baton Rouge Project, developed by our partners at LabGov Georgetown. The articles were originally published on their website and are available here.

Residents enjoying food and festivities at the Food Truck Round-Up on April 7, 2019 (Photo by LabGov Georgetown)

I made my first visit down to Baton Rouge at the end of my first week on the job in April 2019. I flew down Friday night to attend a community event called Food Truck Round-Up that was put on by BBR. This and other events were put on during the master planning process to inform and educate residents and businesses about the planning process and collected their ideas, hopes and concerns about their community. I was fortunate enough to attend and participate in some of these events where I learned about the community from local residents, businesses and other stakeholders. Through these convenings, events, and informal gatherings I have developed a better understanding of Plank Road and their suspicion of the development of this area. 

Their distrust stems from other efforts in the community that have been the traditional top-down planning processes. More often than not my conversations with residents led down the path of how many have come and gone but never asked us what we needed or wanted. Communities are too often left with little to show for their efforts engaging in these processes. For these reasons, the Co-City team is working closely with BBR’s Community Outreach Director Geno McLaughlin to oversee a highly localized, diverse array of public engagement activities and tools that are not only essential for the planning effort but also for the broader process of community relations and healing. In our efforts to build trust and confidence with the Plank Road community, the early phases of the cycle (cheap talking and mapping) are largely being devoted to developing interpersonal relationships, creating feedback mechanisms and assurances that our goal is to facilitate development in accordance with the capacities and desires of the community, not to impose “solutions” on an unwilling public.

The Co-City Cycle

For these reasons, the Co-City team is working closely with BBR’s Community Outreach Director Geno McLaughlin to oversee a highly localized, diverse array of public engagement activities and tools that are not only essential for the planning effort but also for the broader process of community relations and healing. In our efforts to build trust and confidence with the Plank Road community, the early phases of the Co-City Cycle (cheap talking and mapping) are largely being devoted to developing interpersonal relationships, creating feedback mechanisms and assurances that our goal is to facilitate development in accordance with the capacities and desires of the community, and not to impose “solutions” on an unwilling public.

The “cheap talk” phase of the Co-City Baton Rouge project is a means to re-engage the community, rebuild trust, and re-orient redevelopment away from what that term and process has historically meant for communities like this, and the legacy it has left.  The cheap talk phase is premised on the idea that one has to lay the ground, or rather rebuild the ground, for true collaboration to occur. This is particularly challenging, but crucial, in communities that are chronically under-served and under-represented in traditional local government and planning processes, and even more so in communities with deep distrust of those processes.  

Similarly, in the “mapping” phase it is important to bring or call different communities or sectors to the process as a way to deeply engage the five actors—public authorities, businesses, civil society organizations (NGOs), local social innovators, and academic/knowledge institutions—in the co-creation project.  Given the imbalance of resources, voice, knowledge and capacity among these actors it is important that the community of residents, the unorganized public, emerge as a strong presence before the practicing and prototyping phases begin.

For both phases,  it is necessary to identify pathways to build trust and engage the community beyond the usual community engagement strategies. Outreach to anchor institutions, such as local churches, is a necessary but insufficient step given the distrust and historical relationship between the community and government institutions.  Instead, the Co-City team is applying a highly local, adaptive approach to engagement that includes building on local culture and norms, building capacity among residents, cultivating leaders, and supporting their collaboration with other actors and sectors working on the Plank Road Project. For instance, our participation in various master plan process events where the convening provided an open atmosphere for residents who normally would not be engaged in the development process to participate and be heard. These kinds of events over the course of many months are important to rebuilding trust enough for the community to be a strong presence in the cheap talk and mapping phases.

Chris Tyson, CEO of Build Baton Rouge, speaking to attendees at an event (Photo by LabGov Georgetown)

In addition to building interconnectivity with the local community, Co-City BR is partnering with public authorities, civic organizations, and universities regionally and nationally with experts in the fields of our project concepts. In so doing, Co-City BR aims to create a network of collaborators who can be called upon as the project is scaled up as well as applied in other cities. In the latter phases of the cycle, adaptability is focused on co-designing neighborhood and community level institutions that can enable residents to become stewards in economic revitalization so that they are able to reap the benefits of that revitalization without being displaced. This requires capacity-building and training, a critical part of Co-City Baton Rouge. The next few posts will highlight the partnerships we have made and project concepts that have come out of the process.