Defining Sustainability: Rebuilding New Orleans' 9th Ward

Throughout this blog, I have referred to sustainability in terms of environmentally effective design. In New Orleans, the word takes on a different meaning due to Hurricane Katrina. Even three years after the storm, many families are left without a home and with little hope for the future. In an attempt to turn this around, actor Brad Pitt started the Make it Right Foundation whose goal is to rebuild the city's Lower 9th Ward (see photo right). Having visited this part of the city, Pitt realized the cultural devastation was almost insurmountable. He also noted that this was not the first natural disaster to hit the region. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy displaced hundreds of families and left behind an estimated twelve billion dollars in damages. Pitt's vision for his foundation exploits architecture and design as a tool for creating a lasting community. For the ward's residents, sustainability did not mean using solar power or recyclable materials--it meant creating structures that would survive future storms. Author and historian Douglas Brinkley specifically defines the problem, arguing that the broken levies "did far more than flood thousands of homes--[they] forced houses and families off their foundations." In a figurative and literal sense, the groundwork of the entire neighborhood was left in pieces. Since the organization was founded in 2006, architects have been exploring innovative ways to create permanency for the Lower 9th Ward, and while it has taken over two years for the first phases of the project to near completion, the ground-breaking schemes apparently will help to maintain this district for years to come.

One of Pitt's ideas for rebuilding the ward is to stray away from repetitious structures while keeping the units affordable. Through personal and public donations, the group was able to hire a series of local, national, and international architects. Such strategies made sure that each building maintained a sense of uniqueness. Even though some of the designs are seemingly wild, they will add to the distinctive cultural background of New Orleans. One of the most prominent features of the new homes is that they will be hoisted above ground level (see photo left). Using stilts, this tactic will protect houses if a future storm ever causes flooding. Not all of the buildings will stand on poles, but some will be elevated using garages or lofty foundations. Pedestrian infrastructure will also be tailored specifically for the location. Permeable concrete will stop rain from pooling up on the sidewalks and relieve stress on the ward's pumping system. Lastly, every house will also be fortified to withstand winds up to 130 mph. Before this program, many public officials doubted whether they should invest in the renovation of the 9th Ward considering equally vicious storms are inevitable, but opposition to its reconstruction dwindled after the unveiling of these concepts. Patricia Jones, president of the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, recalls, "In the beginning, people were saying that no one would ever be coming back" to the area. Likewise, resident Gloria Guy remains hopeful thanks to the program, stating, "I used to have okra, squash, cauliflower, sweet potatoes – you name it. And next spring I'll be planting them again." Despite the physical success of the project, there will be a great amount of post construction controversy. It is still undecided how to prioritize who will acquire each unit. This is because the project went straight to the development phase. It does not necessarily follow property lines of the city before Katrina, which makes it difficult to determine what structure falls on whose land. Consequently, the neighborhood was annexed by the city, leaving it up to the private sector to decide who will live where. It is logical for New Orleans to take land in this situation since with their control, programs such as Pitt's will benefit residents. The real problem will arise when determining who is in the greatest need of the 150 houses that the program plans to build.

With the issue of permanent houses under control, the foundation is able to incorporate other sustainable features into the homes. Solar panels and energy efficient appliances will be installed in all of the units. Even though these luxuries do not aid in the permanency of the structure, Make it Right's executive director Tom Darden asserts that, "the difference between having to replace your solar panels or having to replace your home is night and day." By incorporating these facets, the idea of a sustainable house is accomplished on all levels. They also support tenants economically by saving money. Specifically, energy bills are expected to drop around 75% for the development's residents. According to project adviser Kathrine Grove, there are three simple steps to achieve maximum efficiently in design: make sure daylight can reach every room, insulate in compliance with the weather, and reduce water loads. A formula like this is practically homogeneous and can be used to reduce energy costs in any design. In a sense, Make it Right is setting a precedent for all future dwellings. Still, the sustainable features being used are not solely new and inventive. The organization plans to recycle salvaged materials from the previous community. By means of refurbished items such as mantles and light fixtures, each project will remain like no other. The Washington Post goes on to list the structures' other green qualities: "interiors feature nontoxic materials, such as paint with low VOC (volatile organic compounds) and natural-fiber carpeting. Bathrooms feature dual-flush toilets, [and] windows are double-paned." Such features might be beneficial, but to the people of the 9th Ward, sustainability is best defined as long-lasting. It is commendable that Pitt chose to focus his effort on the hardest hit area in New Orleans, but the success of the Make it Right Foundation will truly be determined after the next Katrina.

1 comment:

Josh Tom said...


I really enjoyed reading this post. You chose a very important and pertinent issue to write about, and I found myself both impressed and fascinated by the lengths that the Make it Right Foundation is going to in order to rebuild New Orleans’ 9th ward. While exploring your post, I noticed immediately that your images were well chosen and beneficial to the overall context. I liked that you decided to use one image to display the entire area from far back, and then contextualized it by portraying one the new units on the left. Moreover, you consulted a great deal of sources, rather than simply repeating a story from a single article, and your historical reference in the first paragraph showed that you took the time to examine different angles of the situation. I found that although you went into great detail concerning the different aspects of the project, your writing style had a nice flow, and allowed me to read through the post with ease, while still grasping the details. Most importantly, you did a fine job of taking a significant story and analyzing it beyond the obvious benefits of the project. In other words, I liked that you raised the question of who will receive the new houses, demonstrating that there are issues to keep in mind. Finally, I felt that you nicely qualified the post with your last few sentences, managing to end the entry with an open-ended comment, an important message that just because new homes are built does not mean the problem is solved.

I found few flaws in this post overall, so I will mention a few things that confused me. In your second paragraph, I was unsure what you meant by pedestrian infrastructure. Was that referring to the permeable concrete you mentioned in the next sentence, or something else that you did not explain in detail? Also, I was wondering if you found anything that suggested a plan for how to decide who gets which homes? Clearly that seems to be the major issue, if any, for this project. Similarly, you mentioned that the plan was to vary the homes while still keeping them affordable. Again, I was just curious as to whether or not you found any numbers on this. In any case, this post was very well written and I enjoyed reading it. Good luck the rest of the way.

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