Re-Greening New Orleans

Photo by: Johannes Worsoe Berg

In 2004, landscape architect Abigail Feldman was working for the New York City design firm WRT on projects including a master plan for Rutgers University's College Avenue Campus and a perimeter design for the New York Aquarium—two high-flying public works. But, like many of their kind, they were never built. Others were slated to take years to complete.

“The time frame was killing me,” says Feldman—and so was the landscape. She grew up in New Mexico, where she could always see the horizon, and she was beginning to think urban living wasn't for her.

Then, in the spring of 2008, Feldman went to New Orleans to visit old friends.

“I was enchanted,” she says. “I had come from winter-gray, concrete New York to this garden city where all was flowering.”

There, she bumped into an old acquaintance, Ommeed Sathe. A lawyer and urban planner for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, Sathe was hatching an idea called Growing Home, which would help NOLA residents reclaim lots left empty in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But he needed the right person to make it real.

Feldman was the perfect fit. “She has a brilliant landscape eye and this ability to let people express their creativity and individuality,” Sathe says.

Today, as Growing Home's director, Feldman is deep in the yards of the Crescent City, helping residents plant trees and collard greens.

After Katrina, about 10,000 displaced homeowners sold their lots to the Louisiana Land Trust, which collaborated with the Redevelopment Authority to repurpose the land. Through the Growing Home Incentive Program, current residents can buy the lot next door for up to $10,000 off the purchase price (from $6,000 in the low-income Lower Ninth Ward to $80,000 in suburban-style Lakeview), if they green it up—with a vegetable garden, flowers and trees, or even a permeable driveway.

Feldman currently has about 800 participants, with 150 projects completed. For each, she draws up a design based on the clients' vision, and the client agrees to complete the work within nine months. Then she coordinates the project, calculating and sourcing materials, tasking volunteers, and directing clients to service providers and vendors. At times, her staff of two even pitches in with yard work.

The program has allowed Feldman to evolve the concepts she developed in her former work, as well as her training at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where designers like Adriaan Geuze and Ken Smith were reimagining the revitalization of cities, and biologist Peter del Tredici challenged students to love plants, both native and exotic.

“I think about those discussions with Peter—what is natural and unnatural—now that I'm running this program,” says Feldman, who notes that, regardless of the sometimes outlandish designs residents come up with, transforming a blighted lot someone has lived next to for five years is empowering for the clients. She giggles about one of her favorite clients, Mr. Bell.

“He put in palm trees, painted his sidewalk white, and told me, ‘This place is going to look like California, baby!’”

For more information about Growing Home, visit their website www.growinghomenola.org.

Also see: United States of Gardening for information about about programs across the country that encourage residents to create greener gardens.

This article was first published in Garden Design July/August 2011