New Orleans Goes Green
Written by Georgina Wilson-Powell
The newly opened pedestrian and cyclist park Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans actually has a long history. It was once a bayou, then a canal, then a railroad before it became 2.6 miles of much needed public green space for the districts north of the French Quarter.
As a bayou, local Native Americans used it to show the French settlers how to access inland areas like Bayou St John (and through it the Gulf of Mexico). The Spanish turned this into a more commercial canal in 1794 and transported everything from building materials to oysters into the city (where the trail starts at Basin Street is where the ships used to be turned around). A railroad was constructed alongside it in the 1900s, but eventually they both fell into disrepair.
Turning the desolate railroad into a green space wasn’t a new idea. “As part of the recovery process after Hurricane Katrina, we wanted to help create a healthier and more sustainable community,” says Sophie Harris, director of the non-profit Friends of Lafitte Greenway. “It was first thought up in the 1970s but nothing happened. Then some friends were walking the old railway in 2005, on what has became known as the first hike of Lafitte Greenway, and thought it would make an excellent park.”
Using $111 million of federal recovery funds the organization helped to oversee this unique project, buying back plots of land that had been sold off over the years to create a green corridor from the historic French Quarter through Treme up to Bayou St John. They hope to continue the path and buy another half mile.
Over the course of the greenway’s development 500 new trees have been planted, native plants have been brought in, wildflower meadows are getting established and playing fields are now home to kids and adults spending time enjoying their environment. There are 80 people involved in the community planning of the area and I could see the various ways locals are already enjoying it; from vegetable gardens that have sprung up to cyclists, joggers and dog walkers all out in the sunshine on the morning I ran the length of it. In the first month of data collection, it’s thought that 645 people used the new greenway every day.
“Folks have been inspired by it,” says Harris. “We are reclaiming public space for the public, to aid more sustainable and more healthy lives.” This is part of a wider movement in New Orleans, which has increased its network of bike paths to 100 miles (ten times what they were pre-Katrina). The city is now fifth in the US for the number of cyclists it has.
The park’s location is also important. “It connects diverse neighbourhoods,” explains Harris. “We want everyone’s wellbeing and health to improve across the board and we’re already seeing that. Years ago there was a staggering difference in the quality of life along the trail and we hope that we can help that change.”
The greenway also has another purpose, unseen but if anything even more useful. It’s part of a drive to create more sustainable ways of managing storm water.
“There’s 14.5 million gallons of storage capacity for water under the greenway,” explains Harris. “Once filled, it would then slowly release that water. The ditches that we’re putting back in are becoming homes to water loving plants and sedges. We are also creating permeable pavements – which will all help to slow down and stop stormwater.”
The organization wants the park to be a beacon of green living for everyone in the city. The park is the first place to use solar powered recycling bins in the city and is running various volunteer programs that help pick up trash. There have been al fresco movie events, sports competitions and walking tours all organized by volunteers over the last few months all geared to reintroduce neighbourhoods to the park and to each other.
This year (in April) will mark the 10 year anniversary of that first Lafitte Greenway hike. Only this time it’s not a few friends with big ideas making the walk; it’s a celebration of what they’ve achieved. Local businesses are turning out to support the event, there will be music and beer, volunteer ambassadors to guide visitors and local activist groups looking to talk to the neighbourhood about other ways they can improve their environment. As a community program that’s designed not just to improve lives but also inspire people in New Orleans and beyond, the Friends of Lafitte Greenway finally have a lot to celebrate