There is an undercurrent of class envy in some quarters toward developments like River Ranch. And, indeed, most of the real estate in the traditional neighborhood development is beyond the means of the middle class. But the principles of smart growth applied there — a marriage of commercial, retail and residential space in tight quarters — is key to Lafayette’s future, and to reversing the inner-city decay and suburban sprawl that crept in like mold over the last four decades. From a wider perspective, smart growth, known more grandiosely as New Urbanism, is a prime component in de-stressing our environment and reducing our dependency on foreign oil — on any oil, in fact. Who needs a car when you can walk to work, to a restaurant, to a market, health club or theater?
“It’s a pretty holistic approach to looking at how we live and work and play,” says architect Steve Oubre, whose imprint is etched onto enclaves such as River Ranch, Sugar Mill Pond and — coming in the future to Guilbeau Road — Cafferytown. “It’s very different from a suburban approach where everything is disconnected one from the other — this is a much more connected kind of concept.”
Tightly packed housing, sidewalks, green spaces and public squares clustered around commerce — restaurants, retail, medical and business — is the polar opposite of suburban sprawl and at the core of New Urbanism. It promotes walking and interaction among neighbors. And from an environmental perspective, it reduces dependency on cars, fossil fuels and their attendant pollution. “The basics of what we’re doing is trying to create compact, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use districts that allow people to conduct their daily businesses as much as possible within one area without absolutely having to engage the automobile.”
The blueprint for New Urbanism — mid 20th century small town America — isn’t new. As a school of thought it was a sort of happy accident that grew out of the development three decades ago of Seaside, Fla., which became the idyllic backdrop for the 1998 Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show. In seeking to recreate the era of Mayberry — to recapture that sense of community paved over by sprawl and run over by the automobile — Seaside’s developers realized the sustainability of such communities. And Lafayette’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are primed for a reintroduction of these smart growth principles. “When you look at the town center, Jefferson Street, the old Freetown for instance,” says Oubre, “these are wonderful examples of early mid-century pedestrian-friendly kinds of places. And there’s a movement now within the city to rebuild those areas.”
Couple that with an upcoming announcement — within the next few weeks, according to Oubre — about an ambitious smarth-growth application to property in the center of town owned by UL, including the university research park and the Horse Farm, and a new and improved Lafayette begins to take shape.
The alternative to rebuilding existing infrastructure and emphasizing density and mixed use is more sprawl, more traffic and less “community” within our community. “The future of our region,” says Oubre, “will be in our ability to focus our growth on infrastructure that already exists as opposed to expending whatever tax dollars we have available on building further and further out. And the hidden costs, which we have not actually understood for a long time, are the costs created with providing those services after those things are built — fire, police, busing, you name it, utilities, it goes on and on; not to mention the loss of some wonderful rural property that as a culture we’re so much about.”