- Rebuilding streets without green infrastructure won’t keep us dry

Tuesday, Jun 4, 2019

Original posting on

Rebuilding streets without green infrastructure won’t keep us dry

By Felice Lavergne, guest columnist

You might ask, “What does green infrastructure have to do with how our streets are rebuilt?” I’d say, “Everything.” It all comes down to water. We know the damage it does. It’s surrounding us on all sides, waiting patiently, held back only by levees and an antiquated system of pumps.

As we know too well, our beloved New Orleans is a bowl dependent on those pumps to push out all the water that makes it inside. Storm by storm, year by year, this increasingly fragile system is stressed beyond to its breaking point.

To have any shot at a sustainable future, we simply cannot rely on any pumping system to keep us dry. We have to commit ourselves, as a community and individual households, to redirecting rainfall back into the ground where it falls. Believe it or not, in New Orleans our soil actually needs the water! Since it’s mostly clay, it shrinks and swells as it dries out. If we direct water back into the ground, it will lead to less soil shrinkage, known as subsidence. In turn, we’ll have more stable soil with fewer potholes.

So how can we direct all that water back into the soil? By reducing the amount of paved surfaces, while adding plants and trees instead of just pipes and pumps. This “green” infrastructure gives water a place to go before it enters our “gray” infrastructure system. Water can be captured in rain gardens or bioswales along the side of a street where water can be absorbed by plants.

This is important for a couple of reasons. Not only is the water held back from our pumping system, giving it much needed time to catch up to our heavy rain events, but green infrastructure cleans water that would otherwise be dumped untreated into Lake Pontchartrain and other waterways.

Beyond absorbing water and keeping our streets accessible when it rains, green infrastructure keeps the street safer in any weather condition. For example, on a tree-lined street people drive more slowly due to the tree cover and added presence of large vertical objects lining the road. Additionally, the air is cleaner and cooler, providing an environment that is safer and more pleasant for people biking and walking.

It’s also common in New Orleans to see a street with no curbs where cars are parked on both sides of the street, often over the sidewalk. Adding a rain garden and trees is an easy way to direct drivers into the proper locations to park, while also keeping the sidewalk open and dry because of the absorptive effects of the green infrastructure. These interventions can be done by the city or residents on or adjacent to private property.

The Urban Conservancy and our partners in the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition believe strongly that green infrastructure must be fully integrated into how our streets are designed and rebuilt over the years to come. At a minimum, every street considered for repairs should be assessed for how green infrastructure might be integrated, either currently or during future repairs.

We believe every New Orleanian should be responsible for the water that falls around their home (or business) and that we should carry that mentality into the workplace. We can all become stewards of the water by doing what we can to “slow it down, spread it out, and soak it in.” If we do, a more hopeful and constructive spirit will permeate (pun intended) our city departments, universities, churches and workplaces.

The Urban Conservancy’s Front Yard Initiative reimburses homeowners up to $1,250 for removing paving from their front yards. So far, we’ve made 62 gray to green transformations across every part of New Orleans. The result is 33,776 square feet of concrete removed and more than 60,000 gallons of water per one-inch, one-hour rain event held back from the pumping system.

In your home, you can start by installing a rain barrel from Green Light New Orleans, plant a tree with SOUL, or remove paving through our Front Yard Initiative. As a community, we need to commit to rebuilding our streets that not only makes our travel safe and accessible, but also leads to a greener New Orleans for this generation and the others to follow.

See all articles in the News Archives

Connect With Us