Undertaking Urban Renewal

For the first time in human history, most of the world’s population—3.5 billion—is living in urban areas. By 2050, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 80 percent of the global population will reside in cities. Management of these areas has led to efforts in urban renewal and sustainability to reduce the mass population’s ecological footprint.

Though cities occupy only 3 percent of the Earth, they produce 50 percent of all waste, 60-80 percent of all greenhouse emissions, and consume 75 percent of natural resources. Urban sprawl,
the construction of residential and commercial buildings at the outskirts of a city, has further depleted natural resources. Automobile commuters from these distant areas also increase air pollution levels. These development patterns, which leave city centers in decay and pave pastures and forests, run counter to the long-term interests of the cities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In response, urban renewal efforts work to transform growth patterns and maximize the use of underutilized core development in order to decrease urban sprawl.

All of these factors have led to an overwhelming need for sustainable development. The World Commission on Environment and Development established the concept of “sustainable development” in their 1987 report, “Our Common Future.” More commonly referred to as The Bruntland Report, the paper defined sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The Bruntland Report sought to discuss global environmental issues and suggest solutions through integrating economic and ecological policies.

The report also laid the groundwork for the Earth Summit, which convened for the first time in 1992 with over 30,000 participants. The resulting Summits have paved the way for international agreements on climate change, forest management, biodiversity, and the establishment of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

Sustainable development is a type of smart growth. Smart growth invests time, attention, and resources in restoring community and vitality to cities while using what is already in existence, according to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency and the International City/County Management Association. It also preserves open spaces, is transit- and pedestrian-oriented, and has a mix of housing, commercial, and retail uses.

Speaking to an assembly gathered on eco-engineering, the United States Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu declared, “The global shift to urbanization presents an opportunity to improve our quality of life. The approach that cities take to urban renewal can make a big difference in improving sustainability.”

A Call for Change

When the headquarters of the Shreveport Regional Arts Council (SRAC) burned down in August 2009, Mayor Cedric B. Glover, city council members, and citizens saw an opportunity for smart growth and sustainable development. The group pledged to transform the landscape of downtown Shreveport. Within days of the arson, SRAC decided to renovate and repurpose downtown Shreveport’s historic Central Fire Station as their new home. Upon completion, the Central ArtStation will devote 65 percent of its space to public programming, including a 4,000 square foot multi-purpose space, an emerging artist gallery, and artist business center.

SRAC has a strong foothold in the community having provided Shreveport with more than 500 art-related activities a year and demonstrated a $90 million economic impact on the city over almost 20 years. Mayor Glover promised to “put the arts at the forefront of designing and stimulating a cultural economy that is rooted in arts programming, new arts venues, and increased public participation.” In doing so, he challenged SRAC to not only repurpose the underused Central Fire Station but also revitalize the 9-block area surrounding the Station and create a cultural district—a vibrant community where people could live, work, and create art.

In preparation for the arduous planning process ahead, SRAC and the City of Shreveport submitted a grant proposal to the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts. As one of only 17 cities selected, Shreveport received matching funds to engage the community in the planning process for the area that is now known as Shreveport Common.

Throughout much of the 19th century, the nine blocks encompassing Shreveport Common served as the city cemetery, now known as Oakland Cemetery, and Shreveport’s community park. In the 1890s, some of the largest and grandest houses, home to Shreveport’s wealthiest citizens, were built in the area west of Common Street. However, as newer developments drew the wealthy to the suburbs south of downtown, the Shreveport Common area began to sprout first labor then service-oriented businesses. Some of this commerce still survives today along with a few residential properties, although the majority of the area remains underused.

Local businesses and residents have been vital catalysts in creating the vision and plan for Shreveport Common. Gregory Free, a historic preservation design consultant, gathered friends of SRAC and artists to create a planning team. The group along with an advisory committee interviewed all residents and property owners within the Shreveport Common area. The Texas Avenue Community Association also hosted community listening sessions, where local citizens could share ideas. The Texas Avenue Community Association is a grassroots community organization focused on revitalizing the surrounding areas of Texas Avenue, which was once the main thoroughfare through downtown Shreveport and the historic trail to Texas.

The United Nations Environmental Programme has found that communities that engage citizens and institutions in developing a collective sustainable vision for the future are the most successful. Shreveport City Councilman Jeff Everson ’01 also sees community involvement as essential to the success of Shreveport Common.

After graduating from Centenary, Everson gained experience in community outreach and development with both the City of Memphis and the Shreveport office of United States Senator Mary Landrieu. Along with his city council duties, he is also engaged with several partnerships and boards to enhance Shreveport’s community.

As a representative of District B, Everson has been a part of the planning and listening sessions for Shreveport Common.

“To look to the core of the city and make sure it is vibrant is the most efficient use of our resources,” said Everson. “The planning efforts focused on identifying the things that were great about that neighborhood, returning those things to greatness with modern planning, and making it a vibrant community of choice.”

A Vision for the Future

The vision that emerged for Shreveport Common is one of an urban cultural district powered by the arts and humanities. Shreveport Common is now considered “downtown’s newest oldest ‘uncommon’ place…built, and rebuilt, on authenticity, community, creativity, and sustainability.” Smart growth advocates will find that Shreveport Common fits perfectly with their ideal of preserving the best of the past while establishing a better future for coming generations. SRAC’s Public Art Director Josh Porter ’04 finds that combining the old with the new is what makes Shreveport Common such an interesting project:

“This area of town that makes up Shreveport Common has so much history, and it is time to regain the glory this area once had. The goal is not to start something anew but to cultivate what is already there.”

After graduating from Centenary, Porter worked in film, designing and fabricating sets and props. He joined SRAC in 2006 and has since received national acclaim for his set designs and production oversight. He is currently working on Shreveport Common’s “Line and Sky,” an artist-designed transportation and information hub.

Porter has been focused on the visual aspect of Shreveport Commons. “My goal in this project is to encourage artists both local and national to help in the development of this area visually,” said Porter. “Not just to create art that stands alone but that enhances and connects with the surrounding area. I would encourage any new developers or renovation to put art and artists at the top of their list when they are planning their space. That art really becomes integrated into the look of the community and not just an afterthought.”

Looking Ahead

The Shreveport Common area will continue to see development over the next three years. According to a SRAC-prepared executive summary, “Shreveport Common addresses all the needs of a sustainable development” and is “destined to spread into neighboring blocks to repopulate and reinvigorate the City’s core.”

Though Shreveport Common is far from complete, Councilman Everson is looking toward Shreveport’s future with a focus on sustainable development: “We are reinvesting in the center of our city and trying to plan for the long-term maintenance of it. Our master plan speaks strongly to sustainability, and we are looking to reinvigorate areas across the city.”

The “common” area of Shreveport Common is at the heart of the new development. This triangle of land will feature a two-thirds acre lawn surrounded by a walking path. A band shell will function as a stage for performances and meetings. A dog park and smaller, niche parks scattered between buildings will provide Shreveport Common with even more attractive, green spaces. This thriving natural environment encourages social, civic, and physical activity—a tenet of sustainable development and smart growth.

Aseana Gardens and historic Oakland Cemetery are just two of the many historical landmarks in Shreveport Common that will be renovated and preserved. A visitor center will be created out of the last surviving Victorian cottages from 1890 and placed south of the Oakland Cemetery gates. The Cemetery will also receive a columbarium to use as an active memorial site and meditation place. The Aseana Gardens organization will relocate existing sculptures and introduce more child-friendly art. Panels will also be installed for sound control and to enhance performance potential.