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.