Baton Rouge — A research group studying the city's visual and social environment released its findings this week after a year of researching everything from downtown's riverfront to the landscaping of commercial businesses.
Baton Rouge rates poorly in most categories and this affects the attitudes of all citizens, according to the final report. The city is neither visually stimulating nor people-friendly. Instead it was created out of concrete quickly, cheaply, and with a goal of minimal maintenance.
Bob Omar, head of the WCSL Visual City Research Group (VCRG), thinks thoughtful design of a city with a focus on visually stimulating landscapes is an important part of development and construction, a part that has been severely lacking in Baton Rouge since its inception 190 years ago.
"The outcome of decades of development of the metropolitan area has influenced each person into an uncreative way of thinking," said Omar. "From the drab design of buildings to the lack of attractive green space, the current state of Baton Rouge has been found to not inspire its citizens."
Omar's group spent a year studying Baton Rouge, documenting not only landscapes and developments, but also the weather and physical environment.
The report — which groups climate as well as air pollution, mosquitoes, and pollen counts into the same category — rates Baton Rouge low in overall air quality. Being outdoors during a typical summer day is punishing. The city is surrounded by chemical plants that have found homes on the Mississippi River. The plants, in combination with the large number of cars on the road each day, pour large amounts of pollutants into the air for the citizens to breathe in. Air pollution, pollen, and mold have made swollen sinuses so common that most people have grown accustomed to not being able to breathe well.
Heat and humidity are the most noticeable qualities when outdoors. During the day, people flee the scalding, thick air by going indoors to temperature-controlled buildings. And as sunset approaches, people stay inside to stay away from the mosquitoes that come out. This has created considerable distance between people and a natural, green environment, which removes any demand for developing parks and medians into attractive green areas.
VCRG also found light pollution to be a serious problem in the city. Billboards and businesses shine bright lights up at their signs at night. Most of these lights are brighter than they need to be and are misaimed, shining instead into the sky. There is little consideration for energy-efficient, purposeful lighting. The general consensus is the brighter, the better. The results are wasted electricity and a muddy sky without stars.
Because there is no community design plan with stores and other businesses close to residences, people must frequently travel far from home, says the report. Cars are a necessity in Baton Rouge due to these distances. The only other option is waiting in the oppressive heat for a city bus that will not necessarily bring people to where they want to go. Bus routes cannot be created for every possible path to the scattered commercial and residential areas. Also, most buses stop running at 10:00pm.
With so many personal vehicles on the roads, each usually carrying a single person who is travelling several miles from home, traffic volume constantly clogs up major roadways. It may take three or four light cycles to get through a busy intersection.
"The solution in Baton Rouge has always been to add more lanes to existing roads," said Omar. This increased volume of potential customers gives businesses incentive to build their stores near these busy intersections and roads.
Since people do not like to live near traffic, developers tend to build large, isolated neighborhoods away from these roadways. This maintains the need for owning cars and driving large distances. "Cars, roads, and short-sighted design make it impossible to break out of perpetual stand-still traffic," said Omar.
The VCRG report notes that it is striking to see so much concrete: roads with three lanes in each direction, paved medians, huge intersections with several turn lanes, and individual store buildings surrounded by acres of parking lot. It becomes apparent that everything is designed for cars as well as minimizing the time and money spent on maintaining landscaping.
"There seems to be little thought of how to incorporate natural green space into developments," says the report. "It is usually restricted to bulldozing the land flat, tearing out all the trees, pouring concrete for parking lots, rolling out squares of grass, and planting crepe myrtles." Not only is the landscaping uncreative, but it does not inspire creativity in those who look at it everyday.
When the sun sets and the burden of direct sunlight ends, the number of destinations quickly starts to wane. All but a few restaurants close at 9:00 or 10:00. What is left are casinos and isolated bars that are miles from each other and are all required by law to close at 2:00 in the morning.
Alcohol laws and buildings used primarily for state government effectively shut down downtown Baton Rouge at night and all weekend. Police cars are on constant patrol and stop anyone found walking near the State Capital at night. Posted signs at Arsenal Park next to the Capital say it closes at 9:00pm.
"Laws are remarkably prolific where alcohol is concerned," says the VCRG report. "It is illegal to carry open containers in public. It is illegal to drink alcohol under age 21. It is illegal to buy alcohol after 2:00am Monday through Saturday. It is illegal to buy anything but beer on Sundays and only between 12:30pm and midnight."
Omar says these laws are relevant to city atmosphere because it restricts adult entertainment options. Businesses that cater to the night crowd are forced to close early. A downtown strip never developed due to a combination of large distances most people must travel to reach downtown and a lack of an entertainment culture once they arrive.
"Sunday is dead," says Omar. "And the weeknights and Saturday during the day are no better. Only the casinos consistently draw in the people."
Despite having access to a large river, Baton Rouge has never taken full advantage of it as an entertainment area. The Mississippi River is bordered by a concrete and grass levee with a railroad track. The only attractions on the river are two nearly permanently-docked riverboat casinos and the U.S.S. Kidd, a U.S. Navy Destroyer with no historical connection to Baton Rouge.
Along River Road, are a number of attractions: three museums, a new planetarium, and a River Center arena and theatre complex, but as the VCRG report put it, "These are entirely inadequate in creating any excitement to the downtown area and all close early."
The report does note that the new Shaw Center for the Arts is a step in the right direction since it is a mix of museum, theatre, art gallery, and restaurants. But it is a rarity in a city void of anything that even approaches it.
"Baton Rouge is a comfortable city to live in if you have no aspirations other than raising a family or going to a moderately respected college," says Omar. "As long as you own a car, you can get to wherever you want to go. Eventually. While it may be exaggerating to say there is no culture in Baton Rouge, what one can expect to find here is a muted, directionless, and unenthusiastic existence."