Green space key to attracting, retaining new people and businesses to Baton Rouge, former HUD deputy secretary says at Smart Growth Summit

    What’s the secret to luring people to Baton Rouge—or any city for that matter—and keep them from leaving? At this morning’s opening of the 10th annual Smart Growth Summit, Ron Sims said it’s preserving and expanding green space.

    “Preservation of greenspace is absolutely critical in the 21st century if you want people to live in your community and enjoy it,” said Sims, a former executive of King County, Washington and former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “They love green. It gives them a sense of freedom. It gives them a sense of movement. It gives them a clear sense there is a quality of life being preserved.”

    Sims said he took this revelation to heart as a county executive in King County—whose county seat is Seattle—and deployed several strategies to keep and expand the green space, such as requiring permits be needed to remove trees and purchasing nearly 200,000 acres of forests for preservation.

    “Every child needs to be able to dream about something that they want to be or somebody that they want to be, and that’s what parks and playgrounds allow us to do,” Sims said as he relayed lessons he learned about smart growth during his passionate speech to open the two-day summit being held at the Manship Theatre at the Shaw Center for the Arts.

    When Sims took over as King County Executive in 1996, he learned the county, one of the largest in the nation, had no growth strategy. So county officials began conducting studies to learn what they did not know. Sims said they discovered that many health issues are related to urban sprawl. Among them, he said, someone who commutes two hours a day is more likely to experience heart problems later in life due to the added stress.

    “There was an impact that we did not know, but that taught us a lesson about other things that we did not know,” Sims said.

    Officials also did not know what population growth meant to the county in terms of transportation systems needed or what other challenges the growth would bring.

    “Something had to fundamentally change, so we birthed our smart growth strategies out of financial risk, employment risk and we did not want to be unacceptable to people to move in,” Sims said. “We knew that when major companies were going to make a decision about where they located, they did not want to be the ATM for our incompetence, so we needed to be attractive to them financially.”

    Through the development of smart growth strategies and a tool officials developed that predicted life outcomes for residents in every ZIP code, King County executives began growing smarter by, among other things, making areas more walkable, preserving and growing green space and establishing more public transportation options in poverty stricken areas. Those initiatives even helped reduce crime and improve education, Sims said.

    “Crime rates in communities that have green features are 70% lower than communities without them. If you want to stop crime, you can put all the police you want—and trust me, I was in this school of deploy more police—it never slowed down crime, it doesn’t anywhere, but we found out, as the Justice Department found out, you green out a neighborhood and for whatever reason it changes.”

    Sims last came to Baton Rouge for the first Smart Growth Summit and said he did not recognize the city when he arrived for this year’s summit. IBM’s decision to locate a regional technology center in Baton Rouge is testament to the strides downtown has made, he said. In an interview following his speech, Sims predicted the IBM center will open the door for other tech companies. Bringing more accessible housing downtown and making neighborhoods more walkable are the next steps in continuing Baton Rouge’s growth, Sims said.

    “The old Baton Rouge never would have gotten IBM,” Sims said. “The new one did.”

    The Smart Growth Summit continues this afternoon and concludes Wednesday with a keynote address by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. See the full slate of events.

    —Ryan Broussard

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