Tim Duggan, ASLA, is a landscape architect with the Make It Right Foundation. Learn more about the foundation’s innovative, sustainable landscape architecture work and see their “Kit of Parts” (4MB).
The Make It Right Foundation was started by Brad Pitt, who wanted to help the residents of the Lower 9th Ward rebuild their community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Instead of rebuilding using conventional methods, Pitt asked William McDonough to apply his Cradle to Cradle approach to create a new set of sustainable homes. The primary goal is 150 affordable, green, and storm-resistant homes. How far has Make It Right progressed towards its goals?
Make It Right was founded by Brad Pitt, William McDonough + Partners, GRAFT, and Cherokee. At that point, they were a little discouraged by the progress in rebuilding the Lower 9th Ward. This was two years after Katrina. So they collectively decided that sustainability should be dedicated more towards folks that need it, that affordable sustainable houses could have a much bigger impact. We set the goal of 150 homes. Right now, around three years out from project conception, we have approximately 50 houses completed and 30 houses under construction, all of which are under the LEED Platinum umbrella. We decided to strive for and reach that level for every home. This current build of 30 homes will be wrapped up mid-to-late February. We are then going to go through another round of analysis and value engineering to see how we can increase the affordability even further, without taking anything out of the systems of the house, the neighborhood, or the landscape.
In addition to creating an affordable, sustainable, and safe set of homes, Make It Right also aims to re-conceive the role of landscape architecture in post-disaster rebuilding. A pilot of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), the Lower 9th Ward site aims to become an “innovative site sustainability platform.” What is this? How will the new site design model help mitigate against floods and storms while ecologically managing onsite water? How far along are you with these plans?
Because Make It Right is not a developer, we’re simply building individual homes for folks that lost their homes during Katrina. We didn’t have the luxury of doing a comprehensive master plan. We had to look at the individual residential lots to see how far we could push the envelope of sustainability while still making them socially and economically sustainable. That said, addressing the site sustainability at each and every house led us to a bigger opportunity with the city’s Department of Public Works. We have been developing extensive low impact development strategies such as pervious concrete, rain gardens, rain barrels, and sub-surface water storage. Our landscape gets 65-plus inches of rainfall a year and the city of New Orleans still spends several million dollars pumping water over the levy. Our goal is to create a series of streetscapes that would invest in the public realm as opposed to just simply adding in a bigger pipe and a bigger pump.
Make It Right foundation volunteers install a rain garden.
By doing those early studies we were able to create a design team consisting of William McDonough + Partners, Walter Hood, Siteworks Studio, Diane Jones, BNIM Architects, as well as Make It Right to create a series of demonstration projects that would allow the City of New Orleans to develop new standards towards stormwater management. In the first engineering attempt we did, the final design alleviated approximately 350,000 gallons of water hitting the storm systems and pumping stations for every rainfall event. That’s 350,000 gallons of water on an eight block pilot street demonstration project. When we were able to quantify the cost of a gallon pumping water as well as the savings of keeping it on site, it became very clear that it was an economically sustainable model for future development. That’s one of the important things that we do on both the houses and the sites — we don’t actually take the strategies out of the project, we figure out a way to make the strategies more affordable so that they can move forward. Ultimately, to answer your question, right now we are currently in the final construction document stage of the project. It’s currently expected to go out to bid in late February and break ground in April.
A key part of the site redevelopment work is creating new green streets within the neighborhood. The City of New Orleans has issued a contract with Make It Right to replace the streets in its area and has given your organization a $2.7 million community development block grant. The idea is to use this site as a test-bed for green stormwater management infrastructure. What are the goals of this green street test project? Will the city incentivize the spread of these practices if their benefits are proven?
We call it the Lower 9th Ward Sustainable Infrastructure Project (9MB file). We collaborated with the Public Works Department on pervious concrete and stormwater management. It was very much a collaborative effort between William McDonough + Partners, BNIM Architects, Walter Hood, Pete O’Shea with Siteworks, and Diane Jones to create a series of models that would address water quality and water quantity issues and monitoring systems for short-term and long-term understanding of impact. It would focus a great deal on local workforce capacity and development. The ultimate goal was to create a platform to develop green jobs opportunities in the city of New Orleans. Jobs are the most important thing right now in our current economy, but they’re very much a major factor in decision making in New Orleans.
Lower 9th Ward Sustainable Infrastructure Project
While these new programs are expected to have a significant environmental impact, what about their local economic and social impact? Have the new residents of the neighborhood and local community groups responded to the new sustainable site plans? What do they see as the key benefits of the improvements?
The residents of the Make It Right neighborhood are actually our biggest proponents. They immediately saw sustainability affecting their pocket books when their new utility bills came in at an average of $28 to $38, when historically they were $150 to $200. The idea that their economic sustainability is connected to their house is one we’ve tried to communicate, particularly as it relates to their taxes and the infrastructure within their environment.
Lower 9th Ward Make It Right Foundation resident.
We’re in a neighborhood that suffered great devastation. In fact, it’s about 100 yards from where the original barge broke through the levy and so water is a very unique constraint here. We have been collectively building trust together and identified means to show the impact in a metric that everyone can understand. It’s a metric of reducing one gallon of water. The reduction of one gallon of water within the landscape and public right of way is expanding to several hundred thousand gallons. It now has an economic impact that is a win-win situation for all parties.
Looking beyond the planned 150 homes, your organization is also seeking to ensure the long term economic and social sustainability of the neighborhood. There are new green construction training programs, assistance for those purchasing the homes, and work with the Lower 9th Ward Stakeholders Coalition. However, your foundation says it needs five million to invest in community infrastructure and services, including a neighborhood store and permanent micro-farm. How did Make It Right determine that these were the priorities? How will these programs help ensure that the future success of a community?
From the beginning, we have taken a collaborative, transparent approach that began with convening what’s now called the Lower 9th Ward Stakeholders Coalition, which is a group of community leaders, neighborhood association leaders, and local stakeholders. Everything we propose has gone through a review process and has received the comments of local stakeholders. Initially a local stakeholder instructed Make It Right to simply start building homes because they needed to bring back people into their neighborhood and that’s exactly what we did. Now, we’re seeing success and our trust and collaboration abilities are growing. The neighborhood has reached out and informed us that they’re looking at bigger and bigger partnership opportunities. A mixed-use development with a focus on a safe and healthy grocery store was one opportunity. One of those was also related to urban agriculture and addressing the issue of blight in New Orleans. The idea is to get productive use out of a lot that has been somewhat unproductive for the last few years. The last component that was proposed from the community was a better understanding of stormwater management in the wetlands landscape they live within. We’re just several blocks away from what’s called the Central Wetlands Unit that has been destroyed over the last 30 years by the petrochemical companies. These are the interior wetlands. Just recently the coastal wetland suffered from the BP oil spill.
Any development we may pursue both in and around the neighborhood has really been focused on developing those facets. At the same time, we’re also seeing this as a positive model that can be both innovative and replicable. We’re looking for other opportunities with like-minded initiatives outside of New Orleans.
Another idea is to expand the Make It Right affordable sustainable housing model to other ravaged communities in New Orleans and even other cities like Newark. Is the new site model also considered as a likely export to other communities? How are those practices being designed and tested from the beginning for easy replication elsewhere?
We are currently developing a long-term strategic plan within the organization, but collectively we all feel that this model works. The model of public private development that we have created here in New Orleans is very much a replicable model across the country. With rising sea levels and climate change and the need to completely rethink the way we’re handling our housing, landscape, and infrastructure, we feel we’ve been very successful. There are quite a few cities that we would like to collaborate with and think could benefit from that collaboration.
Newark is the first site of a new collaboration — we partnered with Help USA, William McDonough + Partners, and GRAFT to create a 56-unit multifamily housing project that is mixed-use. More than 25 percent of its occupants are disabled veterans. The site program incorporates healing processes through innovative urban agriculture and horticultural therapy. There are also alternative energy and green roof technology components. The model is working so far. We should break ground by the end of January on the project and we’ll see where we can where else we can take this model.
Lastly, what has the experience shown you about the role landscape architects can play in post disaster reconstruction? What has worked well and less well while working as part of a broader integrated team in post-disaster New Orleans? What are the key lessons for other Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and now oil spill cleanup work?
I’ve been in a unique situation — I came from working in the town of Greensburg, which was destroyed by a tornado, to coming down to New Orleans a few years after it was destroyed by Katrina, and then even given the opportunity to go Haiti a few times post-earthquake. I think the biggest lessons learned is to be proactive instead of reactive in those situations. There’s a fine line between emergency recovery and rebuilding. The other important idea is waste equals food. Figure out every opportunity where you can create things out of what was previously there before. In New Orleans, there has been an entire economy based around deconstruction and the reuse of salvage materials and several jobs created from that. There’s a similar economy working in Haiti.
But as they relate to the overall green building industry, I think landscape architects have an uncanny ability to know the means to the end of a project and to be able to assist and collaborate with all the folks that have historically not collaborated well. I think that if you have the ability to bring together a multidisciplinary team that can understand technical, social, and ecological ramifications, then you’re in a much better place, and you’re making much more informed decisions. Frankly, I think myself and other landscape architect colleagues working with Make It Right have been able to bridge those gaps and make it more of an intuitive process that leads to a much more informed sustainable solution. I’m very much a proponent of bringing landscape architects into post-disaster situations because it’s just what we’re taught. The process of our education and design is a collaborative one and it proved to be a very good foundation for my experiences in Greensburg, New Orleans, as well as Haiti.
Image credits: (1) Tim Duggan, (2) Make It Right Foundation, (3) Siteworks Studio, (4) Make It Right Foundation
Watch an animation from ASLA’s “Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes” online exhibition that explains how green infrastructure systems effectively manage stormwater. See how green roofs, bioretention systems, and permeable pavements actually work:
According to a report from the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, one inch of rainwater hitting one acre of asphalt over an hour yields 27,000 gallons of water. In many communities, this water flows into combined stormwater / sewer systems, which channel both sewage and rainwater together through underground pipes to central treatment facilities. Storms can quickly overrun these combined systems, leading to flooding with pollutant-laden water and even backed up sewage. In fact, in many older cities like Philadelphia, basements can flood with excrement during major storms, creating major public health issues in the process.
The term “Green infrastructure” is used to describe how networks of natural ecosystems also function as crucial community infrastructure, providing ecosystem services and improving environmental sustainability. In the context of managing stormwater, green infrastructure can be defined as man-made systems that mimic natural approaches. Green roofs, bioswales, bioretention ponds, and permeable pavements are a few key examples of local green infrastructure, and all work by turning hard asphalt surfaces into green, absorbent ones. For example, Green roofs can retain 40-60 percent of stormwater hitting rooftops. Bioswales and retention ponds can absorb water and channel or hold excess run-off, cleansing pollutants in the process. However, even just adding extra trees, which consume lots of water, can help. Evergreens and conifers were found to intercept 35 percent of water hitting them.
Adding in green infrastructure systems is not only good for managing water, but also good for communities. Green infrastructure can lower air temperatures, which is crucial in cities facing the Urban Heat Island effect. Green roofs can double-up as roof-top parks, farms, and natural habitats for wildlife, providing a range of benefits. Chicago alone has seven million square feet of green roofs, which are often filled with native plants. For communities facing tight budgets, green infrastructure systems are also the most cost-effective way to manage stormwater when compared with rebuilding crumbling underground pipes. Philadelphia, which charges homeowners and local companies for their runoff, is now considering $1.6 billion plan to use natural systems to alleviate its major stormwater management problems.
Witold Rybczynski, author of numerous acclaimed books on the built environment, including most recently, “Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities,” spoke at the kick-off of the National Building Museum’s Intelligent Cities program on the past and future of cities. After giving the audience a tour of big urban ideas of the past, he argued that “demand-side pressures have forged the shape of American cities, not the grand visions of designers.” In fact, in the cases when big visions have had influence — like Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, which set the model for inner-city housing communities, the impact has almost always been negative. To address the challenges of the future — climate change, limited water resources, and environmental degradation — urban infrastructure “may have to undergo dramatic changes” but the city of the future will largely look like today’s cities. In fact, Rybcyznski warned against creating bold new models like Masdar, U.A.E, to address critical environmental issues when so much of today’s cities work so well.
Once, the romantic idea of the city was that ”it needed a great plan, which could show the population’s ambitions.” By the turn of the 20th century, however, Americans had gotten very lazy and city planning became “a pragmatic effort about creating real estate.” City planning was “no longer an artform.” Soon though, a few architects and landscape architects started to look at the second rate cities in the U.S. and think about how to change things.
Another influential designer-led movement, the Garden City, which was the “Congress of New Urbanism of its time,” was orchestrated by Ebenezer Howard. Howard saw Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside community in Chicago, one of the first planned suburbs and which became the model for high-end suburbs everywhere, as “a city that’s not a city” because it featured lots of green, open space. Rybczynski also pointed to the Forest Hill Gardens in Queens as another example of an “urban suburb” that was excellent because there was a union in the vision of the architect, landscape architect, and developer. This movement spread throughout Europe — “almost all European languages have some term for Garden City.”
The Radiant City, Le Corbusier’s vision of a community filled with skyscrapers but no streets, just parkland, was a “radical vision.” Europeans largely scoffed at the idea, but novelty-loving Americans took to the ideas. One of the more positive examples is the Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town on the lower east side of Manhattan, but all those dehumanizing inner-city public housing units were also the realization of that vision. Another architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, created his vision, Broadacre City, which “was an extremely radical proposal,” an idealized city that has no edge or centers. Frank Lloyd Wright thought this would happen with the rise of the automobile — Americans would spread out and seek space, and no longer need cities anymore. In effect, he was describing a vision of sprawl, which is “exactly what has happened.”
To combat these ideas, Jane Jacobs came up with her idea of the downtown in the seminal “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs repudiated the Garden City and City Beautiful, and especially hated the Radiant City. She put streets back at the heart of the city and proved that cities are the result of “many individuals each making decisions.” Her theory was almost “anarchist,” not liberal or progressive, but her values of “density, mixed-use, street life, choice, diversity, and age” were proven to be the right ones.
Rybcyznski believes Jacobs is still largely correct, but there are ideas within each of the earlier movements that still have merit and exist today. The City Beautiful movement led to the creation of beautiful buildings like Washington D.C.’s Union Station, and even the new Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The Garden City movement has been successful — many modern suburbs use those concepts as a model. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre city has been realized in “uncentered urbanism.” Even Jane Jacobs’ beloved Greenwich Village can now be found replicated in downtown Reston, Virginia, and other dense, mixed-use developments “that she would have hated.”
The past 30 years have been spent recovering from the “disasters of modernism” initiated in the 1950′s and 60′s. “Highways, pedestrian malls, and housing projects” were all horrible ideas and are now being torn down. “This has been a repairing time, not a time of grand visions.” Rybczynski thinks the only successful developments have been urban waterfront redevelopment projects that feature water, streets, parks, infill, density, mixed-uses, conservation, and shopping. He cited the Yards project along the D.C. waterfront and Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park as two successes. He emphasized the growing importance of parks, which were seen as outdated and even Victorian in the 1950′s and 60′s, but have undergone a renaissance recently. “Every city is now adding significant park space.” Again, reiterating his theme about demand creating cities, he says parks are expanding again because people nowadays seek a connection with nature and a place to exercise.
In the future, Rybczynski thinks successful projects must be public-private partnerships. Using the example of the Brooklyn Bridge Park, he said private development helped finance the new pier-based parks. He said these partnerships are increasingly crucial because “public bodies are bad at development. They think they know best but they don’t listen to demand, only their own visions of what people need.” Developers in turn “are not good at connecting their projects with everything else.” Public bodies can help play a “guiding, connecting role,” but developers are good at finding out what people want. “A new division of labor” must be created.
To conclude, people live in cities not because of their efficiencies or “intelligence,” but because other people are there. “It’s about professional and personal contact, meeting lots of other people, and choice in physical experiences.”
In recent months, landscape architecture has gained a good bit of attention from an ongoing debate over the notion of landscape urbanism between a vocal critic, Andrés Duany, and its promoters at Harvard University. So the design world is publicly acknowledging the increasing value of landscape architects. But step for a moment outside our design bubble and take stock in the low awareness of landscape architecture among consumers.
Perhaps this is partially because of the West’s philosophical view of nature as primordial. But primordial nature is dead, at least for most of the inhabited world. Nature—as consumers imagine it to be—is a controlled environment influenced by generations of politicians, landscape architects, and planners. The average visitor to Yellowstone doesn’t recognize the role that landscape architects have played in their experience—they assume it was providential. If we seek recognition and political capital, then there is a responsibility for greater legibility in landscape design work. To secure political capital, landscape architects need to articulate clear, contemporary, and relevant design ideas.
Our situation is not helped by the mass retailers that supply the majority of landscape materials to consumers. Regardless of where you are in this country, I guarantee your “neighborhood” Home Depot has a full stock of boxwood, roses, and sod—even in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a result, consumers place little value on locally native plant species and are confused about what constitutes nature. Indeed, the local Earth Day festival near my home in Reno, Nevada, is held in a rose garden. How can we expect laypersons spending the afternoon at Crissy Field in San Francisco to recognize the talent that went into imagining that space and not to assume it has been this way for eternity, especially when the only expression they relate with designed outdoor spaces originates from European designs of boxwood, roses, and sod?
It’s not just the consumer model that is broken. The cultural preference for lush lawns influences public and commercial landscapes as well. We can no longer make excuses for contributing to the expansive panoramas of water-hogging landscapes. It is our responsibility to educate clients and provide artful solutions that meet their needs in ways that do no further harm to our environment. My firm, SWA Group, recently redesigned the campus for a university in a major Mexican city. After persuading the client of the appropriateness of a native planting palette and a design that incorporated the natural systems of the site, we found there were no local wholesale plant suppliers who could provide native species.
This year, several ASLA award-winning projects were expertly rooted in context. Most notably, the Shanghai Houtan Park and the High Line plainly reveal themselves as products of the design elite. However, in the same Landscape Architecture issue that featured the best work among us—with all of these projects’ staggering imagery—the magazine cover depicted an ambiguous reflected hillside in a pond of water with the silly metaphor for the 2010 award winners as a “Watershed of Innovation.” To be recognized among elite designers, we owe it to our profession to step above the clichés. The residential project profiled in the same issue in “Under the Texan Sun” is skillfully crafted, but Tuscan gardens in Texas do not represent our profession’s culture of ideas. Are these the impressions we want to project to the public? Will we recruit the best and brightest design talent when our leading publication is giving off such mixed messages?
Landscape urbanism proponents are making clear the opportunity for our greater role in designing urban environments. But let’s not lose sight of the opportunity we have neglected, namely, building a recognizable brand for our profession. There is a new wave of public interest in environmental responsibility, in outdoor living spaces, in community, in recreation and alternative transportation, in gardening and growing in general. We need to advocate for a greater appreciation of our natural and designed landscapes and the differences between them. We need to educate our clients and the public about the functions of natural systems and the importance of indigenous materials. We need to lobby young people to consider landscape architecture as a career path. We are all responsible for our profession’s status. When our work is so relevant to contemporary culture, what excuse do we have for being invisible?
René Bihan is Managing Principal of SWA Group’s San Francisco Office.