The plan rec- ommends protecting the coast and marshes in Cameron to shield investments in both parishes with a layered approach that includes structural and natural interventions. Source: UDA

Mapping 50-year resilience in a vulnerable region

Just Imagine SWLA is a long-term resilience plan for Calcasieu and Cameron parishes in Louisiana. The Community Foundation Southwest Louisiana and Urban Design Associates won a 2024 CNU Charter Award in The Region: Metropolis, City, and Town category.

Southwest Louisiana, comprising Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, is larger than Rhode Island or Delaware. The region is extremely low and vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge. The largest city, Lake Charles, is 30 miles inland and only 15 feet above sea level.

Four federally designated disasters, including two hurricanes, struck the region from late summer 2020 to spring 2021. This prompted tech billionaire David Filo, who grew up in the area, and his wife Angela to donate $2.5 million for a resilience plan. Just Imagine SWLA, which achieved tremendous public participation, is already being implemented.

The region in context. Source: Urban Design Associates

A 50-year resilience plan focuses on 11 catalytic projects to be completed within a decade, eight of which will be partialy funded by a sales tax approved by voters. Like other new urbanist regional plans, Just Imagine SWLA ranges in scale from coastal protection and other major projects to neighborhood plans and individual buildings. The combination of effective projects at multiple scales convinced the Charter Awards jury that this plan will have a powerful impact. 

The widespread buy-in and community input contribute to momentum—the plan is based on 7,300 comments from a region of 210,000 people through creative public engagement initiatives. These included many workshops and civic meetings, and the “Hello Lamp Post” interactive signs, placed throughout the area using a multilingual platform, were particularly effective.

“The City of Lake Charles’ strong support of Just Imagine SWLA is evident as eight of 11 catalytic projects will be touched through our recently passed LC REBOUND bond proposal,” says Mayor Nic Hunter.

Eleven billion dollars has been raised for risk reduction, including the US Army Corps of Engineers projects. The plan recommends a layered approach to coastal protection, including structural and natural interventions. Just Imagine SWLA created a Resilient Housing Toolkit, which turns dense and indecipherable federal recommendations into clear, graphic guidance in 25 pages—so homeowners in crises can employ best practices to make properties more resilient.

The Bayou Greenbelt. Source: Urban Design Associates

The plan’s goals cover a wide range—including strengthening and diversifying the local economy, and improving natural and cultural resources. Bayou Greenbelt is a 23-mile hiking and waterway trail around Lake Charles, connecting park and waterfront areas. “The project will build trails on public land for walking, running, and biking and kayak launches for paddling. Five other catalytic projects are directly connected to the Bayou Greenbelt,” explains the design team. Another waterfront project focuses on public spaces and mixed-use development in the cities of Lake Charles and Westlake. “Plans call for five miles of continuous pedestrian promenades and public edge, spanning across a new I-10 bridge. Port Wonder Children’s Museum, an outdoor outfitter, and two restaurants are currently being developed. Future phases will include mixed-use shopping, dining, recreation, gathering spaces, and residential,” note the designers. The bridge's funding is political, and the design is not complete, but the Foundation, City, and partners are advocating at the state level for pedestrian connectivity.

On a neighborhood scale, the Lake Charles Housing Authority and other public entities received a $40 million HUD Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant, which will leverage $270 million in public and private investment. The recent storms severely damaged Lloyd Oaks public housing, with only 65 of 240 units occupied after. “Concentrated, low-income public housing will be redeveloped into 562 units of mixed-income, mixed-use housing built to FORTIFIED Multifamily Gold standards,” the design team explains. The city is building two new neighborhood parks incorporating resilient stormwater systems and expanding kayak access for low- and middle-income residents. That's the first public housing redevelopment I have seen involving small boats—appropriate for a region that loves water.

Choice Neighborhoods' Mid-City Neighborhood Transformation plan. Source: Urban Design Associates

Called the Mid-City Neighborhood Transformation, the Choice Neighborhoods project includes 20,000 square feet of retail on the ground floors of buildings, accommodating local entrepreneurs and businesses, an equity center, spaces for social service providers, and community gathering and meeting rooms. All are moving forward, in addition to other neighborhood-scale projects, including downtown revitalization. “Large-scale neighborhood infill is planned to diversify incomes, add housing in walking distance to amenities, and attract new amenities into existing neighborhoods, including space for local businesses, non-profit organizations, and community gathering,” the team explains.

Southwest Louisiana’s waterfronts as untapped assets for placemaking and economic development; The cities of Lake Charles and Westlake are working together on plans and projects.. Source: Urban Design Associates.

Note: The Charter Awards will be presented in a ceremony on May 16 at CNU 32 in Cincinnati

Just Imagine SWLA: A 50-Year Resilience Master Plan, Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes, Louisiana: 

  • Urban Design AssociatesPrincipal firm
  • Community Foundation Southwest Louisiana, Client
  • Stantec, Civil engineering, transportation, coastal resilience
  • Franklin Associates, Community engagement
  • Dr. Daniel Groft, Economic development
  • Skyline Foundation, Funder
  • City of Lake Charles, Municipal partner
  • Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, Parish partner
  • Cameron Parish Police Jury, Parish partner
  • Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, Implementation partner
  • Visit Lake Charles, Implementation partner
  • WHLC Architecture, Architecture
  • Dr. James Richardson, Economic development

2023 CNU Charter Awards Jury

  • Matthew Bell (chair), Professor, University of Maryland School of Architecture, Principal, Perkins Eastman in Washington, DC
  • Diane Jones Allen, Professor, College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington
  • David Baker, Principal, David Baker Architects in San Francisco, CA
  • Anne Fairfax, Principal, Fairfax & Sammons in New York, NY, and Palm Beach, FL
  • C.J. Howard, Principal, C.J. Howard Architecture in Washington, DC
  • Neal Payton, Principal, Torti Gallas + Partners in Los Angeles, CA
  • Rico Quirindongo, Director, City of Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development
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