Xander Peters, The Christian Science Monitor
In some New Orleans neighborhoods, just a few inches of rapid rainfall can turn the streets into a pint-sized Mississippi River, leaving residents frustrated that long-promised solutions have yet to be implemented.
“We can’t wait for government,” says Angela Chalk, a Seventh Ward resident. “The climate is rapidly changing, and residents are engaged. They want change, and they want change now, and community-driven action is leading that charge.”
Helping to coordinate that change is Water Wise Gulf South, an environmental outreach collective that partners with neighborhood advocacy groups.
The effort is led by Black people and driven by the community. Unlike flood-mitigating gray infrastructure made of concrete, their green infrastructure projects use nature’s methods. So far, their impact measures an impressive planting of 500 trees, as well as 160 green infrastructure projects, from building rain gardens to installing permeable pavers in driveways.
On one hand, a resident-driven initiative in a historically marginalized community is empowering. On the other, it reveals local leaders’ inability to aid their citizenry.
But Jordan Fischbach, the Water Institute of the Gulf’s director of planning and policy research, sees the dueling perspectives as complementary.
Grassroots action, he says, “helps to build the political will to actually think about this more systematically.”
WHY WE WROTE THIS
As municipalities struggle to keep pace with the impacts of climate change, neighborhood coalitions are taking the initiative to find – and implement – solutions. Take New Orleans, for example.
The Full Read
Every year, New Orleans’ 7th Ward becomes a mini-Mississippi when it rains. Tired of waiting for city leaders, residents took a DIY approach: installing permeable paving stones, planting trees and rain gardens.
Year after year, wet season after wetter season, water keeps flowing down New Orleans’ streets – in Tremé and across the Upper Ninth Ward and the Seventh Ward, which Angela Chalk calls home. Just a few inches of rapid rainfall can turn the neighborhoods into a pint-sized Mississippi River, aluminum and plastic trash gushing down the potholed pavement.
Hurricane Katrina changed the city’s fabric in 2005. Since then, as New Orleans resurrects itself, a host of suits and ties and, presumably, good intentions have visited neighborhoods like the Seventh and Ninth Wards. Promises are made but rarely unfold in these historically diverse communities that were among those that took Katrina’s brunt. Meanwhile, rainfall only seems to gather faster every year.
In Ms. Chalk’s mind, you can only sit and listen to others’ ideas for so long. Rather than wait for local government to gradually intervene, she and a host of neighborhood organizations decided to pick up shovels and get to work themselves. In 2017 Ms. Chalk’s advocacy group, Healthy Community Services, joined forces with the environmental outreach group Water Wise Gulf South, a collective launched in 2013 as part of a broader movement of local citizen engagement.
Engrained in their work and their collective’s message is a gospel of the potential that green infrastructure holds for underserved communities like theirs. The effort is led by Black people and driven by the community through education and outreach. Their approach is to listen to residents in each neighborhood – those who know it best – and then act on their insight. So far, their impact measures an impressive planting of 500 trees, as well as 160 green infrastructure projects, from building rain gardens to installing permeable pavers in driveways.
“Government is slow. We can’t wait for government,” says Ms. Chalk, a longtime community organizer. “The climate is rapidly changing, and residents are engaged. They want change, and they want change now, and community-driven action is leading that charge.”
The impact of climate change is bearing down on cities like New Orleans faster than governments are equipped to react. Meanwhile, Americans are growing antsy for a demonstrated response as scientists’ predictions of a warming planet become increasingly dire. In response, community initiatives are gaining ground as they work to fill the existing void, says Jordan Fischbach, the Water Institute of the Gulf’s director of planning and policy research. Communities are viewing “stormwater as a collective problem,” he says. “But, also, something that all residents need to be aware of, and to be part of that solution.”
Among Water Wise Gulf South's projects across New Orleans is this rain garden built outside of St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in the Upper Ninth Ward. The assortment of native plants helps drain excess water during flooding events in the neighborhood.
Green Versus Gray Infrastructure
New Orleans was flooding more frequently than the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood risk maps might suggest, the folks behind Water Wise Gulf South realized as far back as 2014. So they set about conducting surveys and identifying the city’s neighborhoods that were the most low-lying.
Their intention was to reimagine “how we could live with water in a more effective way that creates opportunities,” says Jeff Supak, one of the executive directors at Water Wise Gulf South.
But as their plan came together, the group realized they lacked resident involvement. So, they took to the community through a white-tent, revival-style outreach effort, touring New Orleans’ neighborhoods with their green infrastructure message. Their takeaway eventually became the basis for Water Wise Gulf South’s three-part champions program: a workshop on green infrastructure (on hold during pandemic times), in which more than 500 locals have participated so far; a tour of local green infrastructure projects, such as bioswales and rain gardens; and a “visioning workshop,” in which residents identify problems and work with WWGS to map out a plan of action.
Ms. Chalk invited Water Wise Gulf South to build a bioswale – a vegetative ditch that collects runoff water – in her backyard as a demonstration for her neighbors. One of the Seventh Ward’s first bioswales, it has sometimes been a stop on the green infrastructure tours.
In contrast are seawalls, roads, curbs. All made out of concrete, gray infrastructure describes itself. It’s artificial, lifeless by design. It has helped build the world we recognize through architectural marvels like the One World Trade Center. But it has also brought worlds down, like when the levees failed in New Orleans after Katrina and as much as 80% of the city was flooded, with more than $100 billion in damage.
Whereas gray infrastructure is humankind’s doing, green infrastructure involves nature’s methods. That might include big projects like permeable surfaces and human-made wetlands, but also measures as modest as setting up rain barrels next to your house, or planting trees that, once mature, will gather gallons of excess water by the thousands. It’s arguably the oldest of concepts in existence, but one that’s being seen anew through the lens of local stormwater management.
In the post-World War II era, cities across the United States built cutting-edge storm and wastewater systems. In some cases, those municipalities’ populations grew; in others, they shrank. But in both cases, continual investment in and improvements to those systems were often neglected, with repair costs increasing the longer cities waited.
The result is a crux most local governments have only begun to grapple with. New Orleans is among the nation’s most prominent examples. The city, much of which was built over a boggy swamp, has a quagmire on its hands. With a poverty level hovering around 23%, according to U.S. Census data, its tax base doesn’t produce the funding needed for projects of such scope.
It is unfortunate, but “one of the major ways you get change quickly in big infrastructure being built is a disaster,” Dr. Fischbach says, referring to the federal government’s $14.5 billion investment in New Orleans’ hurricane storm damage and risk reduction system post-Katrina.
“That shouldn’t be the way we invest,” Dr. Fischbach adds.
On top of that is the threat of a warming planet, experts say. Its impacts are becoming apparent in everyday ways, like waking up to standing water in the backyard.
That’s what sent Katherine Prevost searching for solutions, which led to Ms. Chalk introducing her to the local, do-it-yourself green infrastructure effort. A lifelong Upper Ninth Ward resident and the executive director of Bunny Friend Neighborhood Association – one of the groups partnering with Water Wise Gulf South – Ms. Prevost had had enough of seeing their streets slip beneath the water.
“These are environmentally unjust neighborhoods” already, Ms. Prevost says of existing hyperlocal risks, like the area’s heat-dome effect, in which an excess of concrete increases the temperature. “If we don’t do it, who’s going to do it? You have to care about where you live at.”
These permeable pavers, installed in front of Katherine Prevost's house in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward, allow excess water to drain from the street, which helps prevent flooding.
Ms. Prevost has “greened” 15 of her neighbors’ residences so far. That’s included planting trees and installing permeable pavers in a few driveways, which allow water to soak back into the ground. One driveway can cost up to $5,000 due to an increase in the cost of pavers, paid for through grant funding for which the residents apply. They also make a point of hiring local help for construction work in order to keep the money in the community.
Engage, Educate, Empower
The work Water Wise Gulf South and its initiatives have accomplished through partnerships with local neighborhood associations is a looking glass into how Americans are coping with crises. On one hand, a resident-driven initiative in a historically marginalized community is empowering. On the other, it reveals local leaders’ inability to aid their citizenry.
But Dr. Fischbach sees the dueling perspectives as complementary.
Grassroots action “helps to build the political will to actually think about this more systematically,” he says.
In other words, a public that’s educated about green infrastructure understands the solutions they could ask of local government. Then, local government can prioritize the proposed solutions. Small-scale projects such as those underway through Water Wise Gulf South can also lead to large-scale projects at the city level, which the group’s new policy arm hopes to encourage.
But their work is primarily focused in neighborhoods right now. “We engage, educate, and empower residents to make decisions that are best for them,” Ms. Chalk says.
“I suffered the same effects that they suffer when we have flooding,” she adds.
But she’s seeing a difference lately. Since Ms. Chalk began developing green infrastructure projects in the Seventh Ward, the impact of flooding from just a few inches of rain has gradually subsided.
“I know in the Seventh Ward, we’re approaching 50,000 gallons of water retention or infiltration,” Ms. Chalk says of the excess water their work has collected from the city’s streets.
Their community-driven method works, she says. “It gives a holistic view of how to mitigate climate change.”