Within East Baton Rouge Parish sits the neighborhood of North Baton Rouge. This predominantly African American community has long seen less investment than other areas. This fact, along with long-term demographic shifts due to out-migration and loss of area institutions, has left the area under-performing in key socioeconomic indicators compared to the rest of the Parish. In 2018, BREC launched an ambitious master planning process for the largest park in the system, the 660-acre Greenwood Park, that set out to reverse the narrative and provide a community centered catalytic project that would serve as a true neighborhood amenity and a regional destination situated in the heart of North Baton Rouge. Through the largest public engagement campaign in BREC’s history, the design team set forth a vision for a multi-year implementation process that would transform the Park, which includes the Baton Rouge Zoo, into a constellation of cultural and recreation programs weaved into a robust ecological network of bayous, forest, and meadows that, for the first time ever, connected seamlessly into the surrounding context.
“It’s Like a Dream…”
Prior to 2018, the East Baton Rouge Parks and Recreation Commission (BREC) had a tremulous few years as some in the public called for the Baton Rouge Zoo to be moved to the southern part of the Parish. As BREC entertained the idea, public outcry came from North Baton Rouge, a lower income, predominantly Black area of the City. After decades of underrepresentation and loss of area institutions, this represented yet another blow that simply went too far. Solidified by support from local and state leadership, BREC decided that not only would the Zoo stay at Greenwood Park, but they would also embark on an ambitious master plan that would demonstrate a reverse of the historical patterns that had harmed that area of the City. As the design team engaged in the project the assignment became twofold – first, build trust with a skeptical public and help mend a divided city, and second create a vision that led to implementation and lived up to the demand of the public. After twelve months of intense community engagement and design the front page of the local paper quoted, “It’s like a dream…” from one of BREC’s previously biggest opponents.
The 660 acre fragmented park consisted of the 100 acre Baton Rouge Zoo, a small playground and community center, an underutilized dog park, a disc golf course, and 27 holes of golf – previously two racially segregated courses – that operated on a $750k annual loss and consumed nearly 50% of the site. Hidden away from public access was also hundreds of acres of cypress swamp and bottomland hardwood forest that was not appreciated by anyone.
From the outset of the project it was deemed paramount that the master plan create a true neighborhood amenity that provided daily life opportunities for the residents of North Baton Rouge while also creating a destination that would draw people throughout the region for cultural, recreational, and ecological enjoyment. Due to the intense political climate that this master plan process was embedded into the community engagement efforts needed to be inclusive, diverse, and robust. The design team employed a methodical approach to building trust, creating project ambassadors and gathering input that formed the project’s guiding principles of:
- Celebrate Louisian’s Nature
- A Park for Everyday & the Big Day
- Open Up and Reach Out
- Welcome and Grow
With the establishment of these principles the design team set out to bring life into the site and weave together a rich tapestry of cultural and recreational programs nestled into a mosaic of ecological zones. Given the site’s scale, existing ecological assets, existing scattered infrastructure, history of segregation, and former use as a military storage yard the design team needed to create a multi-pronged analysis that uncovered the rich layers of the site. This analysis led to critical decisions about how to layer countless new programs on the site while protecting healthy ecosystems, providing new multi-modal connections to regional trails and adjacent neighborhoods, and reducing infrastructure cost across the sprawling site. The result is an elegant layout that utilized previously degraded areas to absorb new programs while restoring hundreds of acres of wetland and upland ecosystems.
A Constellation of Cultural and Recreational Amenities
A key component of the new site was reorienting the entire zoo so that the front entrance opens up into the heart of the park. This, along with a new parkway road creates an armature for new recreational and cultural activities that now forms a campus. The master plan program was derived from both a deep market analysis as well as a robust and measurable set of conversations with the public. Particular attention was paid at establishing both revenue positive activities and completely free program spaces that allow for a more sustainable operating model. The result is a park with a dynamic program including an indoor/outdoor sports and recreation center, an amazing adventure playground, a 6,000 person outdoor music venue, a woodland retreat and conference center with an outdoor team building and adventure course, multi-purpose fields, community gardens, cross-country trails and more. Supporting this active program is a diverse network of passive trails and spaces nestled into the site that support groups of all sizes for picnics or parties or contemplative moments for bird watching, kayaking, horseback riding, and forest bathing.
Embedding Resilience Into the Design
Over the course of time the three Bayous that run through the site had been channelized to facilitate flood waters moving through. This and a large urban watershed directly north of the site contributed to degraded water quality within the site’s water bodies and virtually no flood-time benefits downstream. Given that similar conditions are found at many of BREC’s properties across the Parish and after the 1000-yr storm that Devastated Baton Rouge in 2016, the design team wanted to use this park as a model for up-stream stormwater management. Through a series of new bayou channels that trace the historical patterns that had been filled in, recharging existing bayou meanders that had been cut off, lengthening the run of the bayou channel, and creating bank spillover areas the new park reduces downstream flood waters at all flood stages. Additionally, the park treats 100% of its own stormwater through a series of bioswales and rain gardens.
Greenwood Park sits just under a mile from the Mississippi River and boasts hundreds of acres of Cypress-Tupelo Swamp and Bottomland Hardwood forest. However, over the course of time the site was degraded, clear cut, and overrun with invasive species. The master plan lays out an ambitious restoration plan that utilizes natural processes to manage invasive species while converting nearly 150 acres of managed turf grass back into forest and swamp. This is accomplished by decommissioning eighteen of the twenty-seven holes of golf that existed on site. The planting regime follows the subtle grade changes and soil profiles across the site. The design also brings a series of meadow landscapes that correspond to a series of hills that are created by the spoils of new bayou and flood storage creation. These mounds are designed to symbolize the local Native American Mound Builders while also providing habitat for insects and birds. In addition to the restoration efforts, new infrastructure and programs are laid sensitively into the existing site by utilizing previously disturbed areas and limiting the impacts to existing woodlands.
Putting Community at the Heart of Implementation
Given the vulnerability of the adjacent neighborhoods, one of the goals of the master plan was to ensure positive impacts in the area. This was accomplished by the creation of a Community Benefits program associated with the master plan. This effort outlined a series of policies, projects, and programs that put the community first to ensure that they benefited from investments in the park and that negative impacts are mitigated. Specific ideas include partnerships projects in the surrounding area that would facilitate use of the park, increased partnerships with local schools and other organizations, signature regional projects that would also have positive benefits on the area, and policy mechanisms for the redevelopment of adjacent private lands. This represents a shift in BREC’s engagement with other municipal partners and positions them as a leading partner in the responsible revitalization of the area.
The success of this Community Benefits section is being seen in the Phase 1 Implementation which broke ground in late 2020. In the initial $40M Phase 1, BREC’s largest percentage of SBE/DBE/MBE participation was required for contractor trade partners. Additionally, provisions have been placed for local artists to engage with the site by painting murals on historic munitions bunkers, and for partnerships with local organizations to program the site.
Overall, this ambitious project helped heal a divided community while demonstrating BREC’s commitment to invest in an area that for decades, has seen a lack of investment.