When Brad Pitt visited New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after hurricane Katrina, he saw the remnants of people’s homes shredded and an entire neighborhood torn apart. While many assumed there was no chance of it ever being re-built, Pitt was drawn to the possibility of creating a viable, eco-friendly solution. He began by working with Global Green to sponsor architecture competitions aimed at generating ideas on how to rebuild sustainable housing. Preserving the spirit of the neighborhood was vital.
The dire situation of the residents’ plight inspired Pitt to found the Make it Right Foundation, which is a catalyst for the redevelopment of the Lower Ninth Ward. Since the residents expressed concerns about rising energy costs and future storms, the objective was to rebuild a neighborhood comprised of safe, eco-friendly homes with an emphasis on a high quality of design. The spirit of the community’s culture would be retained; something better would arise out of the ashes.
After three and a half years and a great deal of national press, 91 out of the 150 planned homes have been sponsored (by donations from celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Barbara Streisand, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Morgan Freeman, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Bill Cosby, Jack Nicholson, Wynton Marsalis, and many others). Home-owners go through the regular mortgage process and have mortgages. The Make it Right foundation funds the gap with donations to drive the cost down to affordability.
The first resident to move into a newly constructed Lower Ninth Ward home with her family, Gloria Guy celebrated last Thanksgiving with her three children and 16 grandchildren. It was the first time they were all together since Katrina. During the hurricane she was forced to swim to the next door neighbor’s tree, where she stayed for nearly two days before being rescued.
Each of the homes is built for pre-Katrina owners. The unique houses, designed by a team of 13 regional, national, and international architects, are colorful, modern structures that are eco-friendly, designed to lower utility bills, utilize water as a precious resource, and weather storms.
“Eight have been built and nine to 16 are under construction and will be finished in the next two weeks,” said Make It Right landscape architect Tim Duggan during an on-site interview in May. “We plan on having 150 different homes finished by August 2010.”
Taking the project one step further, Duggan and his team are concentrating on rain water as a resource. They are working with the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development and the Louisiana Department Recovery Foundation to create 30 demonstration gardens in the Lower Ninth Ward that will showcase built projects related to storm water management, wetland restoration, and urban farming to the broader community.
The native landscapes being created accept storm water as a resource while reducing flooding impacts throughout the community through rain gardens, bio-swales, pervious concrete, and rainwater cisterns. The bio-swales convey water not through gutters, but through vegetation that cleans the water and reduces its volume by absorbing it. The pervious concrete, which can be seen in every driveway and on sidewalks, is porous concrete that captures storm water and eliminates run-off (during the interview, we observed Duggan pouring a hose continuously on a pervious concrete driveway for 10 minutes, and watched it absorb directly into the concrete; there was no run-off!)
“We are doing an urban micro farm on a vacant lot. We are giving it a temporary use of a wetland that would accept storm water and propagate plants and reduce flooding by encouraging it to go directly into the ground as opposed to piping it over the levee,” Duggan said. “We’ll be able to alleviate over 100,000 gallons of water every time it rains by doing all the various techniques of our strategies. It is a substantial amount of water. It costs 20 cents a gallon to pump water over the levee. That money can add up.”
Although Duggan’s project is currently with the Make it Right foundation in the Lower Ninth Ward, he wants to change the way New Orleans and beyond thinks about water. Rather viewing it as an enemy due to storms, he wants to view it as a resource to be managed and used productively. Duggan completed many such projects successfully in Kansas, where he worked for BNIM Architects. While at BNIM, Duggan assisted in a variety of sustainable design projects ranging from streetscape to public art and urban renewal projects. He brings to the table an extensive understanding of innovative storm water management.
“There is a ground swell of innovative storm water management around the U.S. and it strikes me as viably important for Louisiana,” Duggan said. “We are building relationships with the city of New Orleans with this project. We are working to further develop this throughout the city.”
One of the interesting ancillary projects he completed last year in the Lower Ninth Ward was the construction of a unique playground that has digital games and a wireless server so that the children can tabulate their scores. “I designed a solar powered digital playground here. It is the first in North America,” Duggan said. “I completed it for the anniversary of Katrina last August, but that was evacuation day. The playground incorporates a lot of sustainable strategies,” he said.
The homes surrounding the playground are located in a four block by four block radius where pervious concrete driveways, sidewalks, and micro gardens abound. “Water is a precious resource,” Duggan said. “We need to capture it, harness it, and utilize it. Ultimately, what we are trying to do is to create a mindset that rain water is valuable. We are capturing every drop of water on our site. This will ultimately reduce flooding.”