Geoff Anderson on smart growth strategies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Last week, Smart Growth America’s President and CEO Geoff Anderson spoke with Jim Engster of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s WRKF FM about smart growth strategies in Lousiana and across the country. Tonight Anderson will speak in Baton Rouge as a guest of Smart Growth America’s coalition partner the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX). Anderson will speak about how economic development, fiscal conservatism, and smart growth as a great benefit to business owners, community leaders and residents. Find out more about tonight’s event here, and read an excerpted transcript or listen to the full audio of Anderson’s interview with WRKF using the player below.

WRKF: In Baton Rouge we have a vote coming in a few weeks, April 25, a measure to preserve the bus system in this area. What’s your take on whether or not a public bus system is a necessity or not for a city the size of Baton Rouge?
GEOFF ANDERSON: I think that there’s a common myth out there that public transportation is all about big cities. And of course we have a good system here in Washington. But in fact in a lot of those smaller towns and cities around the country public transportation is even more important because often we find that people are using those systems to get to their jobs, to participate in the economy. It’s the thing that’s getting a lot of people in rural places to their medical appointments, it’s the only option they have. And with the volatility that we’re seeing in energy prices, in gas prices, we’ve seen a lot of pain in different communities as people are trying to control their household costs and figure out a way to avoid paying high gas prices this is what they’re turning to. We’re seeing public transportation ridership at all time highs, and certainly a lot of fiscal pressure on those systems. But if you want to keep people employed in the economy and you want to keep them as active participants in the workforce and not end up paying costs that are associated with having people be unemployed, this is a great way to do it.

WRKF: Have you had a chance to survey the general situation in Baton Rouge, as far as smart growth and how it can be implemented here?
ANDERSON: You know I haven’t had a chance to look closely at Baton Rouge, but I will be down there Monday to give a talk and I think the thing that I hope to be able to do is both learn about the Baton Rouge area while I’m down there but I can also I think bring a perspective about other cities and towns are doing around the country and it’s really up to the folks in Baton Rouge whether those ideas are applicable.

The trends that we’re seeing is just a recognition of that the economy is changing, that the real estate market is changing, that people around the country are beinning to adjust to that. So, for instance, in the 1950s and 60s, about 50 percent of households had kids. It’s now down to about 30 percent. And in a lot of places the real estate market hasn’t caught up with that at all. So we keep basically building a product that’s sort of in our mind’s eye for a household demographic that’s much more typical for three or four decades ago. And I think in the latest real estate crash we saw a lot of that come home to roost with a lot of oversupply of some kinds of projects with a lot of drivable, suburban kinds of projects not holding their value. Where walkable places with a lot of different amenities and housing choices really have held up a lot better around the country.

WRKF: You have done work in other cities. What are some of the cities you’ve been active in?
ANDERSON: Well we’ve worked in a lot of different places. I’ve been to Cheyenne, Wyoming, I’ve been in cities in New Hampshire, and Denver, Colorado, a number of different places around the country. A lot of different places, a lot of different neighborhoods, a lot of different places grappling with the issues that they’re facing. And that’s where I think a lot of these issues really come out and how they’ve kind of risen and been adopted in a lot of places around the country. You find when people deal with their own challenges locally they come up with a lot of the same solutions and it starts to coalesce. And other places ask, “Well how did Oklahoma City address their issues from the 1990’s? What’s their theory?” And for instance in Oklahoma City the mayor there is really a big believer in quality of life and quality of place as a driver of economic development. I think that’s in response to a larger trend in a lot of places, that’s that people and companies are more mobile. It used to be really important to be at a port or at the intersection of two highways. The internet and other things are changing that in this country. When you can be anywhere the quality of a place starts to matter a lot. We’ve seen in recent surveys that young people will first pick a place that they want to move to and then start looking for a job there. So if you believe, as I do, that the future of economic activity and growth requires a lot of smart people to be able to interact with one another and access capital, being able to draw them to your city and your town is going to be a key economic strategy. And that comes down to what kinds of places people want to live. And the Millennials are just another huge demographic wave that we’re seeing out there and what they’re saying very clearly is that they want places where they can walk, and interact with one another, places that are lively. If they’re putting off having a family for a while, they need a variety of different housing types.