Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Rebuilding Sustainably on the Gulf Coast

Members of ISC's Gulf Coast Sustainable Communities Network Gather in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans

Standing on a viewing platform overlooking Bayou Bienvenue, a degraded cypress swamp just north of the New Orleans Lower 9th Ward, Pam Dashiell gestures out over the bayou. “Each mile of restored cypress forest means that there will be a foot less storm surge. It was proven over and over again in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Wetlands protect the community. So there is a lot of work under way to get this restored.”

What was a once thriving wetland ecosystem — and buffer zone against flooding and storm surges — is now an open expanse of shallow, brackish water. An extensive network of levees and channels has starved the area of sediment from the Mississippi River and allowed saltwater intrusion, reducing a mighty cypress forest to a series of dead stumps. The missing bayou exacerbated the flooding of the Lower 9th Ward during Hurricane Katrina.

As co-founder of the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED), Dashiell is describing the Center’s bayou restoration efforts to representatives of coastal communities in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. These community leaders gathered in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans in October 2009 for the third meeting of the Gulf Coast Sustainable Communities Network.

The network’s first two meetings focused on developing connections across the region and the challenges facing rural communities. Using the Lower 9th Ward as an example, ISC and the network chose to focus this third meeting on the creative strategies that communities can utilize to rebuild their neighborhoods and organizations sustainably. From bayou restoration and green building to urban agriculture and economic development, local advocates and organizations are transforming the Lower 9th Ward into a model for Gulf Coast communities looking to make themselves stronger than they were before the storm.

ISC hosted the event in partnership with the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and CSED, whose efforts include creating climate- and carbon-neutral neighborhoods. Highlights included paying visits to a number of project sites and a series of roundtable discussions, moving network members to think about similar possibilities for their own communities. “I was truly inspired by so much of the incredible work I saw being done by ISC partners and other organizations,” said Diane Huhn of the Bayou Grace Community Organization. “My head is buzzing with ideas and my heart filled with determination.”

Perhaps no issue is as universally important to sustaining Gulf Coast communities as mitigating the effects of future storms, a point driven home by the view from the Bayou Bienvenue platform. Dashiell believes that restoring the bayou will not only serve to protect against future disasters, but the restoration will also bring ecotourism dollars to the region, as visitors look for new ways to explore “America’s Wetland.” For coastal communities considering the future of their own wetlands, Bayou Bienvenue illustrates the importance of protecting what remains, and the possibilities of restoring what’s been lost.

Revitalizing neighborhoods is also a priority for many of the network’s organizations. Two urban agriculture organizations in the Lower 9th Ward, the School at Blair Grocery and the Backyard Gardeners Network, demonstrated how they are using vacant lots to provide healthy, locally grown food to urban neighborhoods and locals displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — and presenting economic opportunities for urban farmers, particularly young people.

The idea inspired network members who saw the immediate impact the gardens have for a relatively small investment. “After the 9th Ward trip, we are going to pitch to the Block Captains if they’d be interested in a gardening class,” said Trinh Le of HOPE CDA in East Biloxi. “ISC has been a great resource when it comes to working with youth and tools to build a greener community.”

More important, perhaps, than the opportunity to learn from projects showcased in the Lower 9th Ward are the partnerships that have formed as members draw inspiration, motivation, and support from each successive network meeting. “It’s to the point where ISC convenings are like reunions, where we can catch up on each other's work and think on a more regional level,” says Le. “We are all pieces of the puzzle,” adds Myrtle Phillips of Grand Bayou Families United. “Putting it together is hard, but there is no impact unless we do it together.”

Editor’s note: We are profoundly saddened to report that Pam Dasheill, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, passed away on December 1, 2009. Pam was the inspiration for the founding of the Sustainable Communities Network, and her passion and commitment to creating a healthy, sustainable community will be deeply missed.