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. The UC partnered with WaterWise Gulf South to provide 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 capstoned 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. Try FYI Direct, be open, and educate yourself.”
Interested in learning more about FYI Direct? 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.
By Skylar Hughes
Time is running out to address climate change, and New Orleans is no exception. With rising sea levels, increased storm surges, and a disappearing coast, the outlook seems dire. But one local resident tapped into her optimism and became part of the solution. Her name is Tribble Condor.
The devastation of the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina was nothing short of catastrophic. “We had 26 feet of water in this area alone. Nowhere else had 26 feet of water,” says Condor.” The costliest storm to ever hit the United States, Hurricane Katrina completely uprooted the historically Black community.
The Lower Ninth Ward was classiﬁed as a low-risk ﬂood zone the year that Hurricane Katrina hit, leaving many residents without ﬂood insurance. It was a time of peril, and the city’s response was deemed inadequate at the individual level. Even now, after routine ﬂooding, the need for monetary compensation often goes unmet. “They (the City) put you on this list to get money back after a ﬂood. Girl, you’ll never get a dollar back. I’ve been on this list for years, and I ain’t seen a dime. The city doesn’t have any money.”
Since the catastrophe of these hurricanes, Condor has made it her mission to sustain her family’s intergenerational home. She routinely researches ﬂooding and standing water solutions, to assist herself where policymakers won’t. “I’m always trying to stay informed on sustainable living, to preserve my parents and grandparents’ home.”
Condor’s aim for personal action against the environmental crisis is becoming increasingly more prevalent nationwide. A study from Pew Research found that 4 in 5 people are now willing to make changes to how they live in order to reduce the effects of global climate change.
Citizens in some of the world’s most vulnerable cities, such as New Orleans, want to be part of the solution, but many don’t know where to start. Research from Media Matters for America found that as of 2018, only 1 in 5 climate news articles even mentioned solutions.
During Condor’s research, she stumbled upon one of the leading solutions for property ﬂooding- green infrastructure. “I didn’t even really know what that was, but I emailed them [the Urban Conservancy] anyway. Within 24 hours, I was in contact.” Green infrastructure refers to stormwater management systems that mimic nature by soaking up and storing stormwater, such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and green roofs. Data from various studies in the U.S. show that extensive green infrastructure is able to capture more than 80 percent of the runoff generated annually by storms.
While some neighborhoods in New Orleans, such as Gentilly, have access to government-funded grant programs for ﬂood mitigation, many neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward do not. “Everyone over there has the french drains, the gardens, and the water systems. We live 12 minutes away and we don’t. It’s sad,” says Condor.
With systemic disparities such as this, many residents in the Lower Ninth Ward were unaware of solutions such as green infrastructure, “If you’re not used to having access to this stuff, or you’re not familiar with the proper terminology, you’re never going to ﬁnd out about these things. Some don’t have the knowledge to research ‘sustainable living’ or ‘water mitigation’. It’s our job to introduce that to them,” Condor stresses.
With innovative programs such as the Urban Conservancy’s Front Yard Initiative-Direct, solutions such as green infrastructure are becoming more accessible to these communities. “It’s very accessible because it’s a grant. You don’t have to worry about coming up with money.”
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.
Condor has nothing but positive feedback for the Urban Conservancy’s FYI-Direct. “Honey, my experience with them was just off the chain- truly a beautiful experience. I love them.”
Condor worked with contracting team Mastodonte, a Black woman-owned company, to remove 240 square feet of paving and install rain gardens full of native, water-loving plants and 110 cubic feet of French drains. Her property now absorbs 900 gallons of water when it rains. “Even my neighbor was amazed. The water just subsides into the ground, so nothing holds on my property.”
Condor believes that everyone in the Lower Ninth Ward should look into green infrastructure. “Do your research. You are going to love it,” she maintains. “I cannot stop glowing about it.” Her property experiences significantly less flooding than before her installation, and now serves as a proof that individual action really can make a difference.
This is the second 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.
Gaynell Brady has lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, or “Lower Nine,” her entire life. For generations her family, as well as many others, called the Lower Nine home, with no intention of leaving. “It’s the same blocks, the same front porch communities. You feel the warmth here– it just looks different.” For the past two years Brady has been working as the Lower Ninth Ward Homeownership Association’s (L9WHA) Executive Director, mobilizing the community to counter their current environmental situation. Of the approximately 4,750 residential buildings in the Lower Nine pre-Katrina, it’s estimated that around 3,000 were damaged beyond repair. Since then, only about 37% of households returned to this historic community. “It seems as if the storm just happened last year. We’re still in recovery mode in the Lower Nine, especially when you see the growth in other communities.”
The challenges facing the Lower Nine have grown even more complex in light of the climate crisis. Climate change has exacerbated the frequency and intensity of rain events in New Orleans, and the flooding typical of this city is expected to worsen. “When you’re dealing with homeowners who see water coming up in their lots after a rainfall, that makes people nervous. Of course you know what they’re going to think about, right?” says Brady. Flooding after a storm is no longer a possibility, but an expectation in this neighborhood. “I’ve been here 45 years, and I’ve never experienced this rapid intensification, that takes us days to recover. We can’t even get simple rain down here.”
But Brady maintains that there are solutions, and has recently found promise in one in particular– green infrastructure. Green infrastructure refers to stormwater management systems that mimic nature by soaking up and storing stormwater, such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and green roofs. Data from various studies in the U.S. show that extensive green infrastructure can capture more than 80 percent of the runoff generated annually by storms. “We must disturb the surface of the earth to correct the mistakes we made as mankind.” Brady explains. “Once you get the ground put back in its most natural state, you can finally go outside after it rains, because you wouldn’t be sitting in two feet of water.”
New Orleans has been readily implementing green infrastructure citywide for years now, but residential projects tend to happen primarily in white, high-income households. “Folks who don’t have capital are being left behind again,” stresses Brady. She is stepping up to battle these inequities, and give the Lower Nine the environmental attention it deserves. “This is real. This is our lives, and our community, and our culture. People don’t understand what we lose when we don’t protect our neighborhoods.”
Brady has a goal of implementing green infrastructure on every residential property in the Lower Nine to show her community that collective action really is enough to combat their circumstances. Since early 2021, Brady and the L9WHA have been working with the Urban Conservancy to make this goal a reality. Through the Urban Conservancy’s Front Yard Initiative (FYI) Direct program, and with additional financial and technical assistance from WaterWise Gulf South, L9WHA has facilitated the installation of green infrastructure on ten residential properties. 100% of participants are black or brown, and 100% own the property where the green infrastructure was installed. “We need to start taking small changes in the right direction. The implementation of green infrastructure allows us to go to the city and say we’ve done our part, what about you?” says Brady, a WaterWise neighborhood champion.
The FYI Direct program is a modified version of the traditional FYI program which incentivizes homeowners to reduce excessive paving by providing limited financial reimbursements based on how much paving is removed. FYI Directmakes green infrastructure accessible to residents who experience the worst consequences of flooding, but aren’t in a financial position to address it, by fully funding small-scale residential projects. Generous philanthropic support is provided by Entergy’s Environmental Innovation Fund, the Borchard Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Environmental Fund, the Wisner Fund, and individual donors. The UC directly hires local Black-owned businesses to design and build residential nature-based installations.
Brady utilizes the promise of green infrastructure as a stepping stone in the fight for preservation. She envisions a learning lab where area homeowners, students, emerging green sector professionals, and other community members can learn more about– and see examples of– nature-based solutions to stormwater management including permeable paving systems, rain gardens, and native and naturalized plants. “The thing that I love about this community so much is that once this information gets out there, it doesn’t take us long to catch on,” Brady explains. “We have to work together to increase knowledge.”
The L9WHA and the Urban Conservancy are collaborating with a broad range of other partners to secure funding to install the lab at the L9WHA office location, on the former grounds of the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, on Deslonde Street. On January 17, 2023, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Day of Service, L9WHA hosted the Urban Conservancy and other partners and volunteers to kick off the transformation by installing rain gardens, painting rain barrels, and doing a neighborhood litter pick-up. WaterWise Gulf South and the Kresge Foundation provided funding for the green infrastructure installation. Brady envisions this space as an opportunity to continue to engage and educate community members while providing habitat for birds and other pollinators. Given the location’s high visibility and its historic significance, Brady considers it an ideal location for such a community space.
Brady is optimistic about what the future holds for the Lower Nine, and committed to doing whatever she can to ensure the neighborhood thrives. “Our community is so warm, it’s so inviting. And I would hate to lose all of that because we sat on our hands.”
This is the first in a series of stories focused on flood mitigation efforts by Lower Ninth Ward homeowners in partnership with the Urban Conservancy by Skylar Hughes. Skylar is a Robertson Scholar and rising sophomore at Duke University. The Robertson Scholars Program is a joint undergraduate scholarship program between Chapel Hill and Duke University.
The most consistent feedback we receive regarding our Front Yard Initiative (FYI) program is that the financial barrier to completing a gray-to-green project is significant, even after receiving an FYI reimbursement. Financial status should not be a barrier to green stormwater management. Green infrastructure is a rising tide that lifts all boats, more distributed residential green infrastructure leads to less flooding.
With this in mind, we developed the FYI Direct program. The FYI Direct program makes green infrastructure accessible by fully funding small scale residential projects for income qualified households. We directly hire women and black owned businesses to create unique and functional designs.
Ms. Julie didn’t have any concrete, but was still experiencing a lot of standing water issues, exacerbated by the impermeable lot behind her property. Without gutters sheets of runoff from her roof would pour in the alley alongside her house and pool beneath it, causing subsidence and safety hazards. Although her project did not qualify for FYI, we had the opportunity to help Ms. Julie create a unique green infrastructure installation through our new FYI Direct program. We directly hire local businesses and fully fund small scale residential projects, such as this one, for homeowners who have a great need for stormwater management intervention.
We hired Mastodonte for this project, owned by experienced green infrastructure contractors Arien and Luisa. They walked the property with Ms. Julie, carefully listening to her and observing the property for signs of standing water issues. Miss Julie explained her water management challenges, spoke about her grandkids (who come to visit her often), and discussed the abandoned lots surrounding her property (widely overgrown and ignored by the City). The result? A permeable basketball court for Ms. Julie’s grandkids to play on!
The surface is created with a really tiny aggregate that can be lightly compacted to create a suitable surface for sports. The court is connected to subsurface drainage that runs through the backyard and into a French drain alongside the house’s alley. Here, runoff from the gutters and overflow from rain barrels, both installed in partnership with Green Light New Orleans, is captured and allowed to infiltrate into the ground. This installation creates approximately 650 gallons of stormwater holding capacity, alleviating pressure on the City’s drainage system and reducing flood risk for Ms. Julie’s property.
After the project was complete, Mastodonte brought their bushwacker to clear the 2 lots straddling Ms. Julie’s property and threw a celebratory fish fry. By building lasting relationships and community that go beyond green infrastructure, we will create a better, healthier New Orleans.
Green infrastructure has a multitude of benefits outside of water management. Ms. Julie no longer experiences standing water issues in her backyard and there is less subsidence on her property, but now her grandkids also have a safe place to play ball. This project wouldn’t have happened without the creativity and hard work of Mastodonte, the input and trust from Miss Julie, our partnership with Green Light New Orleans, and support from individual donors.
What does success look like? Certainly similar to this homeowner’s story, but in the grander scheme, the Front Yard Initiative strives to exemplify scalable and distributable green infrastructure by empowering homeowners to live with water.
A Holistic Approach: From Your Community to Your Backyard
On what seemed like truly the first day of fall, this October Jenny Wolff, Front Yard Initiative Program Manager, and I met with Mid-City homeowner Khai Nguyen nearly a year after the completion of his FYI project. While sitting on Khai’s patio in his backyard, we discussed the process of his project, the native plants he included, and his deep appreciation for community.
As Program Manager of Community Development Corporation MQVN, co-founder of VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, and a New Orleans native, Khai was happy to talk with us about sustainability and the importance of being stewards of the New Orleans landscape.
Khai has been living in his home since 2014, an older single-family cottage, but he has lived in a few neighborhoods in New Orleans as an adult and spent his childhood in New Orleans East. When we asked Khai about his initial motivations for partaking in the Front Yard Initiative, he explained that his front yard was 100% concrete and unlevel; for Khai, even after a drizzle there would be standing water in front of his home as rainwater pooled in the lower areas, forcing him to step through or jump over the water to get into his home. Khai heard about our design workshop through friends and knew he would benefit. Khai even invited two of his friends to join him at the workshop who also had overpaving issues at their homes.
Once at the workshop, Khai decided he should not only create a design for his front yard but one for his backyard, too: “The backyard was a mess. There was a lot of concrete everywhere and we barely spent any time outside.” He admitted that the neighbors who lived behind him sometimes experienced flooding due to all of the concrete on his property too. After four years of living in his home, Khai realized that his backyard was a source of stress where it could be a source of calm. Although the FYI program no longer funds backyard concrete removal, many homeowners have been inspired to remove concrete from their front, back, and side yards all at once and apply the knowledge they gain from the FYI design workshop to their entire properties.
Khai decided to DIY his project, committing himself to working on his yard every weekend until it was finished. He drew inspiration and experience from a rain garden install he coordinated with the VEGGI Farmers Co-op.
With help from a friend, Khai was able to remove 745 square feet of concrete and enjoyed the added benefit of exchanging ideas with his two friends also moving forward with their FYI project. In his front yard, Khai removed all of the concrete from the right of way, the area between the street and sidewalk, and a portion along the front of his home.
Now, Khai has Muhly grass and a few types of ornamental flowers growing. In addition to these plants, a few months after he completed his project, he had two Little Gem Magnolias planted by SOUL. In his backyard, Khai removed just over 500 square feet of concrete. Where there was once a 200 square foot island of grass, Khai now has a string of native plants and trees planted along the perimeter of his backyard which protects his neighbors from flooding, a couple of garden beds, and a gravel area with a table and chairs for hosting activities with friends and family. Khai bought his materials, gravel, sand, sod, mulch, and plants, from a number of local gardening stores, including: Bantings, Jefferson Feed, Gomez Pine Straw, and Wood Materials.
As far as challenges with his project, Khai ran into a brick wall… literally. Like many homeowners who remove concrete from their yards, Khai found a number of buried layers of materials, most of which were bricks. Also like many homeowners who find bricks, Khai was able to salvage them in order to incorporate them into his design as a practical and attractive solution.
Khai has seen a number of improvements in the year since his project was completed: “Now my roommate, Sophie, spends a lot of time out here doing work, and when the weather’s nice we have people over.” Khai also agreed that the native plants proved helpful in periods of both heavy flooding and drought and that his Muhly grass especially is “very, very hardy.”
Besides the two friends he went through FYI with, Khai mentioned that he has encouraged many others to go through the program because he believes FYI itself is“really encouraging folks to make the city more water friendly and more prepared.”
This kind of active stewardship is encouraging to us as well. It was exciting to hear that Khai is spreading the message about stormwater management and employing green infrastructure in some of his projects with his organization. Khai also remarked about how the reimbursement process was easy, but cost can prove to be a barrier for many who may not have the cash upfront. And while concrete removal is not necessary in all cases of improving stormwater management – Khai told us how in New Orleans East removing lawns and installing concrete to make room for more cars in multigenerational homes is more of the issue there – it is important to understand that stormwater management requires many perspectives to understand all the approaches necessary to tackle our collective issue: flooding.
Story and interview by Blake Allen.
Interested in going gray to green? Learn how here.
FYI Step by Step
When we host our annual workshops, we never know who’s going to come through the FYI program! Erica Johnson completed her FYI project in April 2019 and blogged about the process from workshop to completing construction.
We wanted to share her insights and story with you and anyone who might be considering the Front Yard Initiative program.
Let’s Break it Down
Follow the links to read Erica’s blog posts.
Step One: The FYI Workshop
- Erica walks you through why stormwater management is an important issue in New Orleans and what you can expect from an FYI Workshop, as well as before photos from her project!
Planning Phase: Making a Design for FYI
- Oh, the trials and tribulations of creating a plan, picking plants, and finding a contractor! Read more to see how Erica handled all her decisions and see her hand drawn designs.
Almost there: Hardscaping Complete
- Erica’s project is almost complete! The concrete is out, and the stormwater management features are in. Check out the details of her project from French drain to rain barrel.
Finished Project: From Paving to Permeable
- The plants are in and the final FYI inspection is complete! Erica passed her inspection with flying colors and can now sit back and enjoy her completed yard. You don’t want to miss these after photos!
Click here to see all of Erica’s posts in one place.
No Challenge (or front yard) Too Small
I want to do my part for our city’s water retention problem. The house that I bought has cement over the tiny strip of land available for front yard planting. I would like to plant bushes, ground cover, or a tree there instead. Our block has a few young trees, but eventually, I would like us to have more shade in general.
– Rhonda, FYI intake form
For this interview, we spoke with Rhonda Broussard, a homeowner in Central City, and Peteh Haroon of We Can Dig It, a contractor native to New Orleans. I walked up to find Peteh and Rhonda discussing the importance of ADA accessibility in front of her home. They were also planting varieties of angelonia, hibiscus, and lily in one of her two new garden beds.
Originally from Lafayette, Rhonda has traveled for much of her life. In 2016, she moved to New Orleans, in 2017 she founded Beloved Community with an aim to provide organizations with the necessary tools to build diversity, inclusion, and equity. In 2018 she became a New Orleans homeowner.
Once Rhonda’s father reminded her of the fact that “New Orleans is going to flood,” Rhonda felt more than ever the risks that stormwater can pose. Before the start of her project, Rhonda wondered, “as someone who doesn’t know anything about stormwater management, it’s not my area of expertise… what else can I do as an individual?”As a native to the Gulf Coast and now a new homeowner in New Orleans, she wanted to know what she could do on her own property to improve her relationship with water, the lives of those in her neighborhood, and the lives of those living in the Greater New Orleans community.
Rhonda’s journey to the Front Yard Initiative involved more than a little luck. Rhonda met her contractor Peteh Haroon of We Can Dig It through a mutual friend to clear out a number of invasive weeds that had taken over her backyard. During that project, Rhonda asked Peteh if he had any ideas about what she could do about all the concrete in her front yard.
Coincidentally that same day, Peteh spoke with FYI project manager Felice Lavergne, so pavement removal was fresh in his mind. Peteh had also recently been connected to Launch NOLA Green, a business and green sector training program, and was eager to implement a ‘green’ project. And so, Rhonda and Peteh turned their attention to her front yard.
Rhonda and Peteh had to work creatively to come up with a design that would manage water in a space that was less than 150 square feet. They also needed to honor the maintenance needs of a homeowner who travels a lot. This led to the compromise of a planter box outfitted with an innovative self-watering system.
The system is composed of an overflow drain in the surface of the bed that connects to a perforated hose. This hose collects rainwater and distributes it over time to plants as they need it. Plant choice is also important to a low maintenance, water loving garden. The Front Yard Initiative always encourages the use of native plants. Native plants are true to our specific environmental conditions and the critters that live here.
To find plants listed on the FYI Plant List, Peteh took Rhonda and her children to a Pelican Greenhouse monthly plant sale. They’re one of the best local sources for native plants and located near Grow Dat in City Park. The outing resulted in a photo-op as well: Peteh taking a photo with the “Native Plants” sign while wearing his “Native” hat.
Once the designs were in place and the plants chosen, it was time for the concrete removal. As often happens in New Orleans, there were multiple layers of concrete to remove.
Once people pave land that used to absorb water, the clay soils underneath start to dry out and shrink, causing the area to sink, crack, and subside. To correct for this, people often lay down layer after layer of concrete, not knowing that the solution to the problem lies in removing it and recharging the dry soil with water. This is a common challenge FYIers have to face. Extra layers of concrete always increase a project’s budget and timeline. Planning for surprises and adding a bit of contingency to your budget can help keep your FYI project on track.
With all the paving removed, a plastic-grid and gravel permeable pavement system (Gravalock) was installed for the walkway and sidewalk. The duo also installed two raised garden beds on each side of the walkway to provide a gardening space.
Peteh works with two team members at his company We Can Dig It, Jahlil, Peteh’s son, and Jahi. Peteh has always been interested in rainwater retention, sustainable horticulture and green contracting, and employing practices with similar philosophies, but he voiced appreciation for the opportunities that connected him to Front Yard Initiative and LaunchNOLA Green. He‘s “thankful to be meeting people who have similar interests” in preserving our unique ecosystem and being dedicated to living with water.
Rhonda, like many FYIers, wants to continue incorporating lessons learned from her project in her neighborhood and beyond. Moving forward, Rhonda would love to plant trees in her backyard and around the neighborhood. “It hurts my heart how the sun beats down so hot in our neighborhood,” said Rhonda.
Peteh shares Rhonda’s optimism that the people of her Central City neighborhood are inspired, from her neighbors to the kids walking home from school, by Rhonda, Peteh, and their friends and family working together on her front yard. Both the team at FYI and Rhonda are glad that she put her trust in a local contractor, who is also a native of New Orleans, to cater to the unique needs of our city and be an example for the present and future of sustainable, green contracting.
The featured contractor We Can Dig It can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for help with your future projects!
Story and interview by Blake Allen.
Interested in going gray to green? Learn how here.
Launch NOLA Green – Native Plant Paradise
Launch NOLA Green is designed to equip New Orleans’ minority-owned businesses with the skills and knowledge to be not just part of the workforce, but leaders in the water economy. Over the course of the 4 month program, participants learned how to incorporate water management into residential landscaping projects to combat flooding and subsidence.
As a city that requires a great deal of water management, Launch NOLA Green seeks to supply a network of green sector professionals to the property owners enrolled in the Urban Conservancy’s Front Yard Initiative and other residential scale projects. Eight dedicated students met every Thursday evening for fourteen weeks, many of them after a long day of work. George Toca, Arien Hall, Glenn Moore, Tarell McGowan, Luisa Abballe, Matthew Haynes, David Rodas, and Adrian Crawford are all in the process of setting up their own businesses, or incorporating green infrastructure services into their existing businesses plans.
One Thursday in April, just as the sun was beginning to set, Joe Evans of Evans + Lighter Landscape Architecture began one of the final classes at Delgado Community College. The attendees gathered at a U-shaped table facing a screen displaying a spreadsheet and an illustration of the yard they would be working on together for their first applied project. During the class, they constructed a design and helped each other calculate the total onsite water capture needed to handle all of the property’s runoff. They also built out a complicated bid sheet detailing estimated time spent, equipment rental, materials, labor, plants, and more that would all fit into the homeowner’s budget.
In the end, the LaunchNOLA Green crew was able to develop a bid that was within the homeowner’s budget; the team was even able to fit in a flagstone path the homeowner requested. The project removed 500 SF of paving, so the project qualified for a Front Yard Initiative reimbursement of $1250.
The class wrapped up with a discussion of all the benefits of the new yard including increasing the homeowner’s knowledge of stormwater management and the benefits of native plants to healthy habitats. They all agreed, talking clients through the process in the same way they did in class is an essential part of client education and essential for a smooth project.
Two weeks later at the graduation ceremony, Chuck Morse, Executive Director of Launch NOLA welcomed family and friends to watch loved ones become a part of the first graduating class of LaunchNOLA Green. Morse encouraged the graduates to think of the ceremony not as the culmination, but as the beginning of the next phase of their development as green sector professionals.
A few weeks after graduation, Luisa, Adrien, and Matthew were prepping the yard they had developed the design and budget for throughout the course. They removed all of the 500 SF of concrete in the front yard and had already hit an unpleasant surprise. “There were two layers of concrete and a layer of brick underneath that, unfortunately,” explained Luisa. “So the excavation we thought would take a day actually took more like three.” Because our city is sinking, this is a common occurrence. Homeowners pour layer after layer of concrete to counteract subsidence (land sinking) they see over the years, a response that actually exacerbates the issue.
Once the concrete was removed from the front and both sides of the house, the crew installed a rain garden filled with Louisiana iris and Muhly grass in the front yard, as well as a couple of water-loving cypress trees and palmettos. “I am passionate about trees,” says homeowner Tom Lasher. “If you look up and down this block there is no shade anywhere, so my neighbors have trouble finding anywhere to sit and be comfortable.” Permeable gravel and flagstone walkways leading from the sidewalk to the front stairs completed the look. Within a week, and despite having to work through some days of record-breaking heat in May, the crew had transformed their Central City project from a concrete jungle to a water-loving oasis.
Arien, a carpenter by trade, says she has learned a lot about residential contracting through working with SBP and Evans + Lighter, for whom she’s been working for over two years. “The LaunchNOLA Green program is so important, in that it educates people overall on the issue of stormwater management. But what makes it really special is that it is educating those of us working in contracting and construction because, honestly, we’re the ones who, if properly trained, can save New Orleans from its subsidence and flooding issues.”
Property owner Tom Lasher agrees. “I’m thrilled with how this project turned out; working with these men and women was such a pleasure. Being able to do something to improve my lot’s curb appeal is nice, but when that improvement also reduces flooding, subsidence and the heat island effect and helps grow minority- and women-owned businesses to meet our city’s water management needs, it’s a win-win-win.”
LaunchNOLA Green is currently recruiting for its next 14-week program. For more information, please contact Ben Shenk at email@example.com.
Interview and story by Blake Allen.
Central City GreenAs winter came to a close and the earliest signs of spring began to show, we sat down with Linda Gielec, one of our early Front Yard Initiative (FYI) participants. It was late in the afternoon as church bells rang, chimes that were most likely more tranquil than the busy sounds of Mardi Gras and parade-goers passing by just a week earlier. We walked past Linda’s front yard, adorned with bright red SunPatiens and the smell of fresh dill, and settled down to talk in the lush backyard of her Central City home. Linda’s yard was not always this way. After the removal of all of the concrete from her front and side yards, Linda was able to create the yard she had always envisioned. When Linda first moved into her home in December 2014, the first task she wanted to complete was to remove all of the concrete in her front yard, as she’s an avid gardener, but like many new homeowners, other home renovations came first. Still determined to get some gardening done, Linda attempted to remove some concrete to make a small amount of space for her plants. She not only found that the concrete prevented her plants from being able to spread their roots, but also that the soil quality was too poor for them to thrive. To make matters worse, after a hard rain, water would pool around her front porch and remain for days along the side of her house. After two years of trying to manage the water on her property and saving money, Linda decided to apply to the FYI program. After beginning her project in late 2016, Linda sought out contractors to assist in transforming her yard. Finding the contractors who communicated clearly and shared her vision took longer than she expected but she found what she wanted with Vista Landscaping and Ponseti Landscaping. First, Vista Landscaping removed all of the concrete on the side of her house as well as an entire plot of banana trees that had taken over her side yard. This process took less than a month and came in under budget. Next, Ponseti Landscaping removed all of the concrete in Linda’s front yard, created the brick path she wanted from the curb to the stairs of her front porch, planted the Little Gem Magnolias she wanted, and recommended an irrigation system that turned out to be one of the most rewarding parts of her project. “ My front yard is an inferno,” explains Linda. I used to come home on my lunch breaks and water my plants, I would have to water them multiple times a day, and now I don’t have to. They water themselves.” Linda is ecstatic about her finished project. Her overall project cost $12,000, with concrete removal coming in at $5000. She was reimbursed $1250 through the Front Yard Initiative program. She truly believes the cost was well worth it, as the upfront investment has already produced unexpected financial benefits. When she refinanced her house, she was delighted to learn that her improvements resulted in a higher appraised value on her home and better refinancing terms. Linda and our team at the Front Yard Initiative were amazed and charmed at the overwhelmingly positive response to her project: Linda placed third in the Nola.com’s Jazzin’ Up the Neighborhood Garden Contest. Linda shared with us that she was grateful to have been able to transform her yard as it has extended to all these other parts of her life; she even told us that her credit score saw a major improvement because of the loan she took out. Linda has a few pieces of advice for those looking to transform their yards and homes. She suggests homeowners use St. Augustine sod instead of seeds for long-lasting results and healthy grass because seeds are prone to washing away. And she encourages people to stay on top of the maintenance– the banana trees she dug up in her side yard continue to try to re-establish themselves. She also encourages others to select contractors who are responsive and understand what you are trying to do with your space even if it takes a while. Avid gardener that she is, Linda doesn’t think she will ever be done with making changes to her yard, She is already making plans to include a small garden in her backyard. For now, though, she enjoys sitting on her front porch, taking in her yard, and speaking to neighbors and passersby, a pleasure many of those who complete FYI projects share. “Other people are buying cars and I’m buying a garden,” jokes Linda. While both are great investments, Linda found that having the choice to invest in her environment was ultimately something she was grateful to have the privilege to do. Linda says many of her neighbors compliment her on her new yard, and Linda is happy to be an example of gray to green improvement in her neighborhood. Story by Blake Allen
For this homeowner story, we traveled to Mid-City on a mild March day to talk with Chris Freeman. Chris finished his DIY Front Yard Initiative (FYI) project a few days before we visited. Though the project is only 215 square feet, it has a big impact. Before, looking down from the porch, all you saw was paving and two seemingly out of place brick planters. Now colorful plantings and a winding path add interest as well as manage water onsite.
Chris, a graphic designer, and his wife have been in their Mid-City home for three years. They had always wanted to work on the front yard, but it took a backseat to home repairs and remodeling. As the before and after photos show, they repainted their house in intricate detail. The Freemans drew from the vivid stained glass scene on their front door to pick the unique colors. Chris mentioned that the previous homeowner was from Mexico and had the stained glass and many pieces of tile work imported from there. The tile adds character and detail to the home; the peacock hidden on one of the brick planters seems particularly pleased with the landscaping that now surrounds him.
Once Chris received notice that he had been accepted into the FYI program in October, he began the search for a contractor. After some consideration, he decided the project was small and simple enough to complete on his own. He had a friend who gave him advice on his design and plant ideas and helped out with labor. In the end, they created a design that included a path from the street to his home and the plants he wanted.
One challenge Chris faced came about from his move from design to construction. Half way through, Chris realized the planters were not centered on the house. He originally intended to have a straight path, right in the middle of the house and planters. Having the path centered on the house made the planters look crooked, and having the path centered on the planters made it uncentered on the house. The compromise was a curved path that adds interest and movement to his design. Sometimes challenges can lead to unexpected successes!
Chris spent some time researching the types of plants that best fit his garden. The multitude of choices was daunting, but he knew from the beginning that he wanted sweet olive trees: “They smell amazing when they bloom and the thought of sitting on the porch and smelling that was a big draw.” With some advice from his friend and FYI, the Freemans’ garden ended up containing sweet olives, azaleas, some blooming annuals, and muhly grass, all plants compatible with Louisiana’s climate.All together Chris estimates his project cost $2000, including redoing the sidewalk in front of his house. His FYI reimbursement was $530 ($2.50 per square foot of paving removed). It took about 20 hours to complete the project because he worked on his yard during breaks between taking care of his daughter and freelancing. Chris couldn’t be happier with his project and the fact that he completed it himself, with help from friends and other experts, of course. He said that his neighbors have noticed the transformation and love the results. Chris anticipates that with all the concrete gone now, his afternoons on the porch will be much cooler. “I’m happy with the way our front yard looks for now,” he says, “but I plan to add to the project as time goes on.” Chris wants others who are embarking on their own small home improvement project, “You don’t necessarily need a landscaper, just some guidance.” And with every completed FYI project, homeowners have one more great resource to turn to for guidance and encouragement. Written by Blake Allen, Edited by Felice Lavergne
Riverbend Rain Garden
Before she launched FYI, Dana Eness had to try it out herself…
In 2015, Dana Eness, the Executive Director of the Urban Conservancy, knew that excessive paving might be contributing to the yard flooding she was experiencing, so she decided to test the then budding concept of the Front Yard Initiative in her own yard. Each time it rained, she noticed standing water along the side of her home, a problem that was worsening over time.
“I can’t say for sure why after living here over 15 years we started seeing this problem,” says Dana. “I suspect it had to with modifications we and our neighbors have made over the years to our houses and our properties that have somehow affected the way the water flows.” Because of the impermeable, compacted dirt and clay that covered the ground, the rainwater found its way to the side of the house and stayed, making that side of the house inaccessible after even a moderate rain. The pooling water may have also been contributing to other, more serious issues as well. Dana and her husband began to have problems with a termite infestation on that side of the house. Because termites thrive where there is moisture, Dana said, “We were concerned about our biggest investment, which is our house.” Ready to take action, Dana began to dig on that side of the house. What she discovered led her to a remedy.
About 18” beneath the dirt, sand, and debris was an old, clogged terra cotta pipe. After talking with a few of the landscape architects in the Greater New Orleans Water Collaborative, they explained that she had unearthed an old piece of the lot’s earlier drainage system, but one that was no longer functional. While it wasn’t feasible to put the old terra cotta pipe back into service, she learned the most practical solution in such a long and narrow space was to install a French drain. The French drain consisted of a permeable trench excavated to about 18 inches with a gradual grade toward the street from the back of the house, so gravity pulls the water toward the front of the house.The trench is lined with geotextile, a material that keeps plants from growing back. Then it is filled with large gravel, creating a 40% void space that can detain the rainfall until it can seep into the ground. The French drain does a great job of capturing the majority of the rainwater that previously sat there and funnels any excess rainwater to the rain garden in her front yard. Dana did not do her project through the Front Yard Initiative; she paid for it completely out of pocket. “I wanted to do this first and foremost because I had a serious problem to solve,” says Dana. “But I also thought doing it would help me better understand the experience of homeowners participating in the FYI program.” The removal of the soil that was there beforehand and installation of the French drain and rain garden was a bit more labor intensive than Dana and her husband were prepared to tackle on their own. They called on Evans + Lighter, local landscape architects, who provided the project design, installation, plant and other materials. The total cost of the project was $3000. Dana said their first reaction was “Yikes! It gave us sticker shock. Like a lot of homeowners, we really had no idea how to estimate what a project like this would cost. We were at first tempted to think that we could do that ourselves for less, but we’ve come to learn that there’s an art and a science to proper installation. There is no way we would have gotten the same results if we had done it on our own. Plus, we’d still be working on it two years later.” It took the Evans + Lighter team less than a week to complete the project, enabling Dana and her family to get back to business as usual, now with more peace of mind about their home. Dana reports having no problems with flooding since the completion of her project, and maintenance has been minimal, requiring only periodic weeding. “Knowing my own limited gardening skills, we requested plants that had a tolerance for dry spells and heavy rains as well as benign neglect.” Evans + Lighter planted an assortment of native and naturalized plants including Louisiana irises and Lantanas. The only problem Dana reports is that “a year into it, the Lantana was dying and I didn’t know why. I called Joe (Evans) and he suggested I throw some compost and mulch on there and within a couple weeks, it had perked right up. I was starving the poor things.” Since then, the completed project has been problem free. There is no more standing water and the irises and lantana, now in bloom, add a touch of color to the front yard. When asked how she felt about her home after the project was completed, Dana declares, “I love my cute little rain garden! I even love rainy days now that they no longer create a breeding ground for termites and mosquitoes in our alley.” Does she have future plans? “I’d love to do more in other parts of my yard, especially tearing up some of the concrete our lot has accumulated over its 120 years,” she says. “People say that tattoos are addictive; once you get one, you want more. I feel like water-smart landscaping is like that; once you start, you want to keep going. And I am so inspired by what I see FYI participants doing with their spaces.” Does she have any advice for other homeowners contemplating making similar improvements? “Homeowners have so many big ticket maintenance items, from painting to weatherproofing to just keeping up on repairs, that it’s easy to constantly put landscaping at the bottom of the maintenance list. Don’t! It’s not just about the aesthetics. The health of our houses depends on the health of our lots, and you’ll sleep better knowing you’ve taken steps to protect your home from flooding and subsidence. There are more resources out there every day to get you started.” Check out the Urban Conservancy’s FYI Resource List to get you started. Do you know someone who provides goods or services in the green infrastructure sector we should include? Have them contact Felice Lavergne at firstname.lastname@example.org. Interview and article by Blake Allen.
From Flooding to Flora One Homeowner’s Front Yard TransformationHomeowner Kristy Hitchcock recently transformed her yard from gray to green with an incentive from the Urban Conservancy’s Front Yard Initiative, a program designed to catalyze homeowners to remove excessive paving on their lots.
Urban Conservancy’s Blake Allen sat down with Kristy to talk about her design decisions shortly before her “Porch Party” where neighbors and friends came to enjoy King Cake and coffee and to celebrate her new, charming yard.
Kristy, an avid gardener for many years, grew accustomed to having a prolific garden to complement her home in her native Arkansas. Upon moving to New Orleans from Little Rock, she ran into a problem with continuing her work outdoors; the front, side and back yards of her charming Irish Channel shotgun were covered with concrete, leaving very little space for planting, and lots of space for flooding and pooling water. Kristy enlisted the help of the Front Yard Initiative to make her new house her home. The concrete that dominated Kristy’s yard made it hot and shadeless on sunny days, and made flooding a major problem for her; she needed rain boots to walk along the side of her house in order to access her backyard on rainy ones, even long after it had stopped raining. Kristy suspected that the concrete may have had something to do with the flooding, but her largest concern was removing it to make space for gardening. Kristy had been removing chunks of old, loose concrete by hand where she could, but when she heard about FYI, she saw her chance to remove all of it at once. She kept costs relatively low by doing a lot of work herself, but she hired a professional for the front yard, as removing paving in that area can be tricky due to buried utilities. She estimates “concrete removal was $600, the permeable pavers cost $750, hiring someone to build the patio cost about $1800, and the FYI reimbursement came out to be $893.” The project began in early October and was completely done the week after Thanksgiving. Kristy already had many ideas about her new yard’s design, a step that can be time-consuming for homeowners just beginning the process. Kristy is enamored with her new green spaces, and recalls the times before the transformations: “I love being outdoors. Before I did this project it just wasn’t enjoyable to be out there, it wasn’t an inviting space. I found I was spending a lot of time sitting on the side gallery because it was where I had shade, rather than in the backyard.” After getting rid of 344.5 square feet of paving, Kristy now has a host of plants and trees like Louisiana Phlox, Swamp Rose Mallow, and Louisiana Irises spread throughout her property. One of her latest additions, a bog garden, contains more unusual natives, like pitcher plants, that like more saturated soil. Kristy got most of her plants, from the Big Treesy (a tree giveaway program sponsored by the NOLA Tree Project), plant sharing with neighbors, and Urban Roots, a local nursery. She makes a point of getting most of her greenery from local vendors and organizations. With Kristy’s yard makeover complete, she enjoys every inch of her yard, from partaking in the neighborhood tradition of drinking coffee and waving to passersby and neighbors from the front porch in the mornings, to private cocktails on her gorgeous herringboned permeable brick back patio in the evenings. When asked what her vision would be going forward she says, “The vision is to preserve as much of the integrity and history of the home and the yard as I can. When this house was built these yards were not filled with concrete, these yards were gardens.” Although her project is finished, she says that her yard work will never be complete as she is a steadfast gardener. However, Kristy now has more time to focus on other activities, like participating in the Krewe of Nyx and researching the history of her and her friends’ houses at the notarial archives Kristy’s vision for her home and yard and her research and involvement in groups around the city are all reflections of her deep appreciation of New Orleans. “New Orleans has such an incredibly rich history, and has been such a beautiful and fascinating city,” says Kristy, “I think everything we can do to preserve that beauty in the architecture, in the green spaces, and everything else New Orleans has to offer should be done because we don’t want to lose all the other beauty we have.”