Green Infrastructure Projects Underway in New Orleans’ Minority Communities

Photo credit: Angela Chalk

A group of Black-led community organizations and Louisiana state officials will break ground later today (Thursday, October 14) on the latest green infrastructure project aimed at combating severe flooding and the negative impacts of climate change. Participating groups include Healthy Community Services, Greater Treme Consortium and the Upper 9th Ward Bunny Friend Neighborhood Association. 

An economic feasibility report, The Benefits of Community-Driven Green Infrastructure, will also be released that details the enormous economic benefits of investing in green infrastructure, particularly in communities most vulnerable to climate change. Prepared by Earth Economics, the report illustrates how neighborhoods like Treme, the 7th Ward and the Upper 9th Ward regularly suffer from localized urban flooding associated with periods of intense rainfall. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of calls to 311 for street flooding and drainage-related service between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River have increased 46%. With non-hurricane street flooding becoming so frequent, the number of 311 calls continues to increase. 

The report suggests that ongoing flooding in these downriver neighborhoods is part of the history of racially discriminatory policies and disparities in public investments.  

State Representative Royce Duplessis, who represents Treme and a portion of the 7th Ward, is firmly committed to building more green infrastructure. “Climate change has led to heavier and more frequent rain events in New Orleans. Combined with an antiquated drainage system, extensive and dangerous flooding has become commonplace. Stormwater management remains not only one of the biggest challenges we face, but it also presents one of the biggest opportunities,” said Duplessis.  

“New Orleans can and should become a global leader in green infrastructure. This consortium of neighborhood-based organizations which is taking the lead on new green infrastructure projects should be celebrated, studied, and replicated. This is an example of leadership and innovation, because they are not waiting on government. These green infrastructure projects will serve as a catalyst for community education, empowerment and long-term sustainability,” he continued. 

French drain
Photo credit: Angela Chalk

Instead of being supported by the federal government, these and other green infrastructure projects are moving forward with dollars made available by The Kresge Foundation and the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC). No taxpayer funds were used for the planning, design, design, implementation or maintenance of these projects. New Orleans based architect and planner Dana Brown provided input into the project. She is the well-known author of “Using Plants for Stormwater Management: A Green Infrastructure Guide for the Gulf South.” 

ISC empowers people to transform their communities by providing technical expertise, training and best practices to create lasting change. Water Wise Gulf South (WWGS), a group of community advocates and water professionals who share a commitment to strengthening public awareness and use of green infrastructure, is also playing a contributing role. WWGS co-founded Jeff Supak is bullish on the economic benefits of green infrastructure. “Each dollar invested yields six times higher returns in economic, social and environmental benefits,” Supak explained. WWGS started in New Orleans but is now expanding across the Gulf Coast.

“If the government doesn’t invest in the infrastructure that Black communities need to safely manage stormwater levels, then those communities are forced to solve their neighborhoods’ flooding problems themselves. That’s just wrong. As Congress debates one of the biggest infrastructure bills in modern history, our green infrastructure projects in New Orleans and the associated economic benefits of creating resilient climate infrastructure can serve as a playbook for government officials to help scale projects like ours nationwide. It’s the only economically viable path forward,” Supak continued. 

Part of Supak’s goal is to build awareness and education among residents about the importance of GI. To that end, tours are available of completed projects.  

The 7th Ward based non-profit Healthy Community Services (HCS) helps residents grow their understanding about how coastal land loss and flood risk impacts communities in New Orleans and across Louisiana. HCS director Angela Chalk said these GI projects are all community driven and that more than 100 residents attended meetings to help prioritize projects based on available funding.  “We live, work, play and pray in these neighborhoods.”

Photo credit: Angela Chalk

The top priority of the recent prioritization process was a new stormwater management park on state property at the intersection of North Claiborne and St. Bernard Avenue. When completed, it has the capacity to hold 30,000 gallons of rainwater. Neighborhood residents chose this location because the intersection floods with every hard rain. St. Bernard Avenue is also a hurricane evacuation route.  “We expect people – particularly Black and Brown communities – to be resilient following a natural disaster. What we really need is resilient green infrastructure to prevent flooding damage and help communities recover faster and more equitably,” Chalk said.  

Developing GI in a minority community is a double-edged sword. It increases property values and can lead to further gentrification. Nevertheless Chalk, Cheryl Austin from the Greater Treme Consortium and Katherine Prevost from the Bunny Friend Neighborhood Association are all dedicated to mitigating the amount of stormwater that floods their areas. Their motivation is based on the desire of residents to survive and stay in their historic neighborhoods. Austin is currently working on an extensive new rain garden at St. Anthony and North Johnson. Prevost is focused on a residential project at 2300 Gallier St.   

Green infrastructure compliments existing traditional stormwater management systems. As green infrastructure (GI) scales up, so does its capacity to store floodwater. The three community organizations have installed GI projects at private residences, small businesses, churches, community centers, vacant lots, and in public rights-of-way. Working with WWGS, more than 500 trees have been planted and 150 other green infrastructure projects completed. Together all these projects have added over 50,000 gallons of stormwater retention capacity to the three neighborhoods. 

Street trees are one of the most effective GI solutions at reducing local flooding. Stormwater benefits trees by absorbing water into their root systems, holding water in their canopies and keeping rainfall away from nearby impervious surfaces. Other co-benefits include reducing the effects of urban heat islands, enhancing community cohesion and neighborhood culture, mitigating land subsidence by replenishing groundwater, and improved physical and mental health.

Photo credit: Cheryl R. Austin

Future community-visioned projects could store approximately 6.5 million gallons of water and increase green space by 45 acres, costing $32 million for installation and $1.5 million in annual maintenance.

“Despite a lack of government funding Black communities have designed an ingenious network of green infrastructure in New Orleans to solve for and mitigate flooding in their communities,” said Lois R. DeBacker, managing director of The Kresge Foundation’s Environmental Program. “The community-based planning process led by the collective of Water Wise Gulf South organizations is a national model, which could be supported by philanthropy in other places.” 

Also expected to attend the groundbreaking is Charles Sutcliffe, Chief Resilience Officer, State of Louisiana; Austin Feldbaum, Hazard Mitigation Administrator for the City of New Orleans;  and Norman Barnum, IV, interim president of the New Orleans Business Alliance.

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