Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana with approximately 800,000 residents, is a city that is spatially stratified by race and income. Some describe it as a tale of “two cities” with higher quality housing, amenities and transportation in white areas and a lack of these amenities in black areas. Many of the city’s social and economic challenges are concentrated along the Plank Road corridor, one of the most blighted areas in all of Baton Rouge. The corridor is bordered by mostly commercial land uses, with residential uses in the intersecting side streets and extending for several blocks in either direction. Its four mile length is populated by a mixture of struggling or abandoned businesses, vacant lots and dilapidated buildings. Though a few sections of this commercial road have managed to remain viable, it still faces difficult social and economic challenges given the extent of the existing blight, the high number of violent crimes, and the widespread impoverishment in this area. However, the area also serves as a significant anchor for the neighborhoods that surround it and thus presents an opportunity for inclusive urban revitalization using the co-city approach.
The Co-City project will start by focusing on the Plank Road corridor, working with the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority (EBRRA). The EBRRA has an ambitious plan to revitalize the Plank Road corridor primarily through transit-oriented projects. This is, in part, due to the fact that the area around Plank Road has the highest concentration of zero car households and the second highest public transit ridership. LabGov and the Marron Institute have proposed to use the co-city approach as an entry point into the EBRRA’s comprehensive planning process. This approach would carefully guide the EBRRA through the co-city cycle – cheap talking, mapping, practicing, prototyping, testing, and modeling – used successfully in other cities. The first phase of the project will complete the cycle on a neighborhood scale before implementing the it on a broader scale and wider geographical area.
One of the core aims of the co-city approach is to promote and encourage community engagement in the planning process, which will help to ensure that whatever plan is adopted, doesn’t further or deepen the social inequalities that already exist. On the contrary, involving the community in the planning process, which the co-city method requires and facilitates, is focused on helping the various stakeholders involved in the revitalization effort to lessen the existing inequalities and to enhance the participation of underrepresented social groups. By focusing on prototyping a neighborhood scale co-governance project, such as a Neighborhood Improvement District or a Community Land Bank, the Co-City methodology will, it is hoped, ensure that the project outcome is clearly centered on the inhabitants of the district, the various stakeholders and their varying needs.
The Co-City approach, which has been applied in a variety of cities throughout the world, including Amsterdam, Bologna, Turin, New York, Sao Paolo, and San Jose, is based on a flexible but structured open source methodology, which centers on the “Co- City cycle.” This cycle is intended to create an environment conducive for participants and stakeholders to arrive at locally adaptive, experimental and co-produced institutions, policies or practices.
The first phase of the cycle, Cheap Talk, involves face-to-face, informal and pressures- free communication among key local actors (experts, practitioners, activists, residents) to activate the community of stakeholders that will be involved in the collaborative project. These discussions or sessions are organized in informal settings with significant outreach done in the local community, often through anchor organizations.
The second phase, Mapping, involves understanding the characteristics of the urban or neighborhood context through surveys and exploratory interviews, fieldwork activities, and ethnographic work. The goal in this phase to select an area of focus and begin to design and prototype the kinds of tools and processes necessary for the experimentation or collaborative project. This phase it is sometimes necessary to create a digital platform as a tool for disseminating information and engaging various communities and stakeholders.
The third phase, Practicing, is designed to identify and create possible synergies and alignment between projects and relevant actors. At heart of this phase are co-working sessions with identified actors who are willing to participate in putting ideas into practice. This phase might culminate in a collaboration day or collaboration camp that takes the form of placemaking events—i.e., micro-regeneration interventions using vacant or available land or structure such as the creation of a neighborhood community garden, for example— to prepare the actions for start of the co-design process.
In the next phase, Prototyping, participants and policymakers (local officials) reflect on the mapping and practicing phases and begin to extract the specific characteristics and needs of the community that will be served. It is in this phase that the specific policy, legal, or institutional mechanism is co-designed to solve the issues and problems identified in the previous phases.
In the Testing phase, the prototype is tested and evaluated through implementation, monitoring, and assessment. Both qualitative and quantitative metrics are employed to assess whether implementation is consistent with the design principles, objectives and outcomes identified in earlier stages. This phase is often performed working with one or more knowledge/academic partners to design appropriate indicators and metrics to capture the desired outcomes and impacts from the project.
The final phase, Modeling, focuses on adapting and tailoring the prototype and nesting it within the legal and institutional framework of the city or local government. This phase is realized through the study of relevant legal laws, regulations and administrative acts and through dialogue with civil servants and policy makers. This is an experimental phase involving perhaps the suspension of previous regulatory rules, the altering of bureaucratic processes, and the drafting of new policies which might also have a sunset clause and then a re-evaluation period. It can also involve the establishment of external or internal offices or support infrastructure in the city to support the new policies.
The Co-City methodology, and specifically the cycle described above, will be adapted to the particular features and circumstances of the Plank Road project. In order for the project to be successful, it will be essential for the team organized by LabGov/Marron Institute to build trust and confidence within the Baton Rouge community generally and the Plank Road community specifically. As such, this phase of the project will largely be devoted to creating feedback mechanisms and assurances among the community that we are attempting to facilitate development in accordance with their specific desires and needs, and not to impose “solutions” on them. Implementation of the co-city methodology in Baton Rouge is expected to begin in the fall of 2019, be carried out by a combined task force jointly appointed by LabGov and the Marron Institute, and take approximately three years to complete.
Chrystie F. Swiney and Sheila Foster