Green Infrastructure has Songbird of New Orleans Singing a Happy Tune

By Skylar Hughes

Award-winning artist Robin Barnes is no stranger to ingenuity. From cultivating a unique blend of funky jazz, soul, and R&B, to revisiting popular songs with her own personal twist, the famed ‘Songbird of New Orleans’ has always valued creativity. “In this industry, everybody is talented in multiple genres like jazz, soul, reggae, and pop. I had to learn to be comfortable with who I am and how to just really stick to that and to hone it,” Barnes told Offbeat Magazine in 2020. But her love for innovation goes beyond her music career. Last year, the New Orleans native participated in FYI Direct’s green infrastructure program in an effort to mitigate water on her property. 

A relatively new concept locally, green infrastructure has been met with a blend of fascination and hesitancy. “I think anything new is overwhelming. In our culture new can feel scary and makes people not want to do it,” Barnes expressed. She grew up witnessing the havoc NOLA’s climate wreaked on the city and the devastation that floods like hurricane Katrina brought. Climate reports from the National Center for Atmospheric Research indicate that these weather patterns are only expected to worsen. By the end of the century, Louisiana could average 12 degrees hotter, allowing the air to hold more moisture and worsen storms. Although Louisiana is expected to see sizable flood protection projects begin in the near future, the timeline and efficacy of said solutions are not yet known. Like many residents, Barnes had the desire to  ensure the safety of her property.

I had just moved into a new house that I bought before the rainy season. Then I found out my entire street floods. So I reached out to the Urban Conservancy to get some advice on stormwater management. And oh my goodness I’m so happy I did it.” The Front Yard Initiative’s FYI Direct makes green infrastructure accessible by fully funding small-scale residential projects for residents who experience the worst consequences of flooding but aren’t in a position to address it. The UC directly hires local Black-owned businesses to design and build residential nature-based installations. 

Before FYI Direct, just about every square inch of Barnes’s plot was paved. Some of that concrete was cracked and broken. The project was a community effort. Grant support came from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the City of New Orleans via the Edward Wisner Donation. The UC partnered with WaterWise Gulf South who provided additional funding; Dana Brown & Associates provided the design, and Ubuntu Construction Company installed the green infrastructure, turning her driveway into a beautiful and distinctive permeable drive.



The border of bricks and fill of gray pavers off-set from one another in an unusual and eye-catching pattern, making the driveway a conversation piece. Ubuntu excavated her side yard a full two feet and added pavers and a French drain. The whole project is accentuated by rain gardens complete with Louisiana irises–our state wildflower. Altogether, 388 square feet of paving were removed. Now, instead of flooding, the property holds 1132 gallons of stormwater each time it rains. 

Her results? Indisputable. “Instantly there was a significant difference in water retention. Before, it was understood that there would be days with water and flooding. Now the water may get a little pool, but it drains. It’s been such a blessing.”

Barnes maintains that her experience was nothing less than exceptional. “Out of all the projects I’ve done, they were the most supportive and the biggest cheerleaders for what I wanted to do. They had great contractors, had a list of resources, and made it easy to communicate.”

She is now urging her fellow New Orleanians to follow in her footsteps. “Reach out to the Urban Conservancy and try the programs. Go to the classes and the seminars and don’t be scared. FYI is a great initiative because of the funding. Be open, and educate yourself.”

Interested in learning more about the Front Yard Initiative? Click here!


This is the third in a series of stories focused on flood mitigation efforts by Lower Ninth Ward homeowners in partnership with the Urban Conservancy written by Skylar Hughes, a Robertson Fellow and rising sophomore at Duke University. The Robertson Scholars Program is a joint undergraduate scholarship program between Chapel Hill and Duke University.





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