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Q&A: Kinder Baumgardner, Baton Rouge lakes lead planner

Last week, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that a coalition of state, local and university officials has been formed to save the six lakes surrounding the LSU campus. Partners include the State of Louisiana, EBR City-Parish, BREC, LSU and the LSU Athletics Department, and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

LSU Real Estate and Facilities Foundation (LSU REFF), an affiliate of the LSU Foundation, will be in charge of issuing contracts for engineer drawings, the next step, and for restoring the lakes, which should begin in late 2020.

The project will be guided by a $1 million master plan that was underwritten by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and completed, with community input, in 2016. The plan itself was led by Kinder Baumgardner, who works for SWA Group in Houston but is from Baton Rouge and a graduate of LSU’s Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, which is ranked the No. 1 program in the country.

We interviewed Baumgardner after Edwards announced funding is in place for the project.

Your firm designed the Buffalo Bayou Project in Houston, which took a downtrodden water body and turned it into a draw for recreation. How did that project change the people of Houston and the city’s perception outside it?

The Buffalo Bayou project has been an amazing catalyst for so many things that are happening in Houston. It has become the image of Houston, both here at home and nationally. When you google “Houston Texas,” you used to get images of freeways with our skyline in the background; now you get images of the bayou with our skyline in the background. And the bayou is full of Houstonians and visitors doing things that they never expected to do in our city. They are riding bikes to work, kayaking, attending concerts and learning about nature and habitat in the heart of the fourth largest city in the U.S. It not only changed the image of Houston, but the image of what Houstonian’s think of themselves.

Has the Buffalo Bayou project sparked other recreation projects in Houston?

After the success of the first phase of Buffalo Bayou, the Houston Parks Board convinced our residents to pass a bond measure that would build 150 miles of trails and linear parks along the citywide network of bayous. I think that people saw the Buffalo Bayou project and wanted those amenities and access to open space brought into their own neighborhoods. The project has also sparked a continuation of the park along the Bayou north of downtown, and a new flood control project called the North Canal that will mix flood control infrastructure with public space. Like the main Buffalo Bayou Park project, both of these new projects are being led by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership.

“Ultimately, we will find Baton Rouge residents using the lakes in ways that they never considered, and in turn new attitudes about their city will emerge.”
When completed, what effect will the LSU/City Park Lakes project have on the people of our parish?

I think that the lakes project will have similar effects on the people of Baton Rouge and visitors to the city, as Buffalo Bayou Park did to Houstonians. Your lakes already offer spectacular views and are well used by residents from across the Parish – but the surrounding streets and open spaces were never designed for the types of uses that they receive, so a lot of conflict has resulted. The master plan calls for the resolution of much of that conflict and, as a result, people will be able to make much better use of the lake system. Water quality improvements will ensure healthy populations of fish and migratory birds; wetlands and native plantings will introduce biodiversity to the heart of the city; and new trails, bike paths and park spaces will result in people using the lakes in a more robust way, and with more harmony. Ultimately, we will find Baton Rouge residents using the lakes in ways that they never considered, and in turn new attitudes about their city will emerge.

What benefits can we expect to see from saving and enhancing the lakes?

The idea of the lake as a park is the essence of the master plan. The opportunity is a new kind of park for the people of Baton Rouge; an open space amenity with the restored Baton Rouge Lakes at its heart. A place of health, wellness and equity illustrated by the renewed waters and ecosystems of the lake, paired with fantastic views and new activities on the lake and along its shores

Were there some surprise result from the Buffalo Bayou project that we may see in Baton Rouge as well?

I think the biggest surprise we saw was how Buffalo Bayou Park became the park that Houston never knew it needed. The bayou was always there, and there were open spaces along its banks, but by repositioning the bayou and its lands as a robust park designed specifically to accommodate new uses and activities, everyone just seemed to say “of course.” The result seems so simple and obvious, but it was the result of rigorous research, design thinking and public engagement.

Another important surprise was how much private investment grew out of the park. More than $2 billion worth of development has occurred within a three-block radius of the park. Of course the Baton Rouge Lake system is largely surrounded by residential uses and that won’t change. But the important thing about this metric is that open space has been proven to be a big driver of the evolution of cities, and that evolution ripples through the city in new and unexpected ways. In the case of Baton Rouge, it will likely result in people thinking about themselves and the city differently, and this new kind of public space will complement the many new urban opportunities happening in Downtown Baton Rouge and its surrounding neighborhoods.