By Adam Smith
The Department of Environmental Services in the city of Baton Rouge sought to answer a question: How can we help our community better understand who we are and what we do, and how can we better engage them?
Everyone in Baton Rouge is familiar with the services our Department of Environmental Services provides. From taking a shower to flushing a toilet, or walking outside to find that their garbage and recycling have been collected, residents interact with our services from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep. However, we’ve found that while they may be familiar with these services, they’re largely unfamiliar with our department itself, unless they’ve had a service issue they needed us to address.
What many people don’t know is that, under the leadership of our Mayor-President Melvin “Kip” Holden, our DES team has been hard at work for more than a decade on a number of projects that directly affect, and aim to improve, their quality of life.
Since 2001, our consolidated government of the City of Baton Rouge and Parish of East Baton Rouge (City-Parish) has operated under a consent decree issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency focused on improving quality of life for Baton Rouge residents through strategic investments and capacity upgrades to our sewage infrastructure and wastewater system. When Mayor Holden took office in 2005, he immediately began working to meet the mandates of this consent decree and, since then, we’ve been working to develop and implement our Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO) Program.
With 110 projects and a present-day cost of $1.65 billion, the SSO Program is one of the largest and most significant capital programs we’ve overseen here in East Baton Rouge Parish. Included within this program are projects to increase the capacity of pump stations and pipes, rehabilitate various elements of our wastewater system, and upgrade our wastewater treatment plants - enabling us to shift operations to upgraded facilities, saving taxpayer money and creating a more efficient and effective system as a result.
Needless to say, the major capital investment we’re making now will create a sustainable system that will serve us for years to come. When complete, this program will dramatically transform our wastewater system and allow us to better meet the health and safety needs of residents and businesses, as well as protect water quality for future generations.
In addition to managing one of the largest capital improvements programs East Baton Rouge Parish has ever seen, we also recently underwent an organizational transition when, in January 2015, our Department of Public Works was reorganized into six departments with oversight and budgetary authority over more specific public works functions in order to deliver more effective, streamlined services to our residents. DES was thereby formed and today we’re responsible for leading initiatives such as the SSO Program, maintaining our existing sewer-related services, maintaining environmental compliance with state and federal standards, and managing solid waste and recycling services.
With so much going on within our department, we wanted residents to know more about our organization - who to call when they need help, services, or support; investments we’re making in programs and projects; and how those investments are making Baton Rouge an even better place to call home. Our thinking was that if we could bring together our team of public servants and our larger Baton Rouge community while also improving infrastructure, it would be a win-win.
What we discovered was that painting a mural helped beautify a standard piece of sewer infrastructure and the surrounding community, while contributing to economic development and community engagement efforts. Transforming the exterior of a pump station into a vibrant mural may seem unconventional, but to us it was the perfect way to bring our team and community together to create something that would stand out and give back to an area we serve daily.
Pump Station 59, one of many wastewater-related facilities we manage, is located at the foot of a trailhead entryway in downtown Baton Rouge that leads to a number of walking/running/biking paths along the Mississippi River. In addition to the fact that this area is a visible and central entryway to our business district, it will only continue to grow in importance and visibility as our City-Parish and development community build upon millions of dollars in investments to our downtown area.
Two of many initiatives neighboring these developments and Pump Station 59 include a proposed modern streetcar system linking downtown to the Louisiana State University campus, as well as a 35-acre complex dedicated to bringing the greater scientific community together to identify innovative solutions benefitting coastal Louisiana and beyond. Creating the mural at Pump Station 59 connected these investments with the surrounding community in an artistic, unique way emblematic of our Baton Rouge culture - and all at the foot of the iconic Mississippi River bridge.
In addition to contributing to community revitalization and economic development efforts, we wanted to involve local youth in the process of developing the mural - first and foremost because this mural, in many ways, represents an investment in our children and their health and overall well-being. At its core, this is what our SSO Program is about: improving quality of life for those who live in Baton Rouge, and our children will become the greatest beneficiaries of this effort.
Our commitment to recognizing and empowering our young people did not begin with asking them to be a part of developing the mural. In fact, we recently launched a highly successful school outreach program, through which many of our DES staff members are actively working to introduce students to the work of our department and how that work involves applying the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts they’re learning in school.
Along those same lines, when we began organizing our mural painting project, we enlisted the help of Mayor Holden’s “Love Our Community” Summer Youth Employment Program, an initiative that engages youth from across Baton Rouge to gain work experience in environmental and neighborhood revitalization efforts under the supervision of City-Parish staff. One of the primary goals of the program is reflected in its name - to create a sense of pride and ownership in participating students through having them take part in making their home a better place to live, work, and play - which aligned perfectly with what we hoped to accomplish through this mural effort.
An additional positive outcome of involving youth in this initiative was having an opportunity to educate them about DES, building on the successes of our school outreach program and allowing the students to further create positive connections between STEM subjects and careers they could eventually pursue - particularly those that can help fill our City-Parish workforce pipeline in the future.
What were we able to accomplish, and what was our biggest lesson learned? With a little help from a variety of community partners like The Walls Project; other City-Parish agencies such as our Downtown Development District and Mayor’s Office; CH2M, our SSO Program managers; and of course, a visit from our Mayor and other leaders to help paint the walls of Pump Station 59, the hard work of our students led to a finished product all Baton Rouge residents can - and should - be proud of.
The response we’ve seen - including political and community leaders, area businesses, media outlets, and individuals - has been nothing short of tremendous. And, as a result of this response, we’ve been able to make more progress in educating Baton Rouge residents about our department and our team members who work so hard to serve our community, as well as the role of our SSO Program in helping to create sustainable infrastructure and a better future for our children and grandchildren.
Most importantly, we learned that thinking outside the box and not being afraid to get creative can yield tremendous results - something that doesn’t always come naturally to government agencies, let alone engineers. Together, we were able to work with our community to transform one of our most visible pump stations into an iconic landmark and, as a result, create valuable partnerships, better educate our community, and create a shared sense of pride and ownership in the work of our City-Parish government.
About the Author: Adam Smith, PE, serves as the interim director of Baton Rouge’s Department of Environmental Services, where he leads one of the largest agencies within City-Parish government with a staff of more than 200. DES is tasked with managing the delivery of daily garbage and recycling collection services as well as the parish-wide wastewater system, including the Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO) Program - one of the largest capital programs in the history of East Baton Rouge Parish. In addition, Smith’s team serves as the lead agency for debris removal during times of emergency or disaster, including the recent August 2016 flooding events during which DES has overseen the collection of more than 1.5 million cubic yards of debris.