Combining Preservation and Sustainability in the Big Easy

Rebuilding projects are taking place all over New Orleans with builders, developers, homeowners and residents working together to restore communities and neighborhoods to what they were before Hurricane Katrina struck in August of 2005. One such project, however, is doing more than just rebuilding. In the Holy Cross Neighborhood of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, the Historic Green project is helping a New Orleans neighborhood become the nation’s first zero-carbon community.

For the past two weeks, hundreds of volunteers have been working in New Orleans, bringing their energy and ideas to help revitalize the Lower Ninth neighborhood. They are architects, engineers, city planners, landscapers, interior designers and contractors who are working hand in hand with neighborhood residents to sustainably rebuild their historic houses, parks, playgrounds and community centers.

“The event is hosted by the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED), which is a non-profit born out of the neighborhood’s goals for carbon neutrality by 2020 and climate neutrality by 2030,” said Ryan Evans, co-founder of Historic Green.

More than 85 percent of the homes in the neighborhood are in the National Historic register. They are prime examples of styles of architecture that are integral to the unique character of New Orleans. For example, many of the single and double shotgun homes in the area have brackets and joints that bear the signature style or mark of the craftsman who worked on them.

An example of a shotgun style home in the Lower Ninth Ward,
this is one type of home helping to be restored by Historic Green.
Credit: Historic Green

While preservation is a key goal, renewable energy and energy-efficiency features are being added to the homes. Energy-efficient features include radiant barriers in the walls, high quality insulation and compact fluorescent light bulbs. On the renewable energy side, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and solar thermal hot water systems are being installed into some homes. According to Evans the two goals balance well.

“In terms of preservation, we will restore a lot of what is on the outside of the home and for the most part the sustainability features and the preservation features work in harmony,” Evans said. “There have been ten 4-kilowatt PV systems installed and plans to do a lot more. The residents do have some help, the systems cost US $25,000, but through tax incentives the cost is cut in half.”

In addition to the solar PV, studies are currently underway to assess the feasibility of using the Mississippi River as a potential power source for the community. Hydrokinetic river turbines are in the testing phases.

Another unique feature of the Historic Green project is using the neighborhood’s parks as a way to keep the streets from flooding. Evans said that the parks will function as rain gardens that will allow rain to move through the soil quickly, keeping it out of the streets and storm drains.

Linda Jackson is the president of the Lower Ninth Ward Homeowners Association, another group looking at ways to rebuild the neighborhood in a more sustainable way. She said that projects like Historic Green will benefit the neighborhood in the long run and that it will take time for the area to fully realize the benefits of the rebuilding efforts.

“It’s a slow process, but a working process. It’s going to take the next 10 or 15 years to get the community back up to where we want it to be…but we have the patience and the perseverance to see it through,” Jackson said.

The Historic Green event runs from March 8 through March 23, but that doesn’t mean that these projects are going to stop on the 23rd. Evans said the project’s partners, which include the Preservation Resource Center, Global Green, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and many others, will continue work after this initial push is over. The event will be held again in March 2009 and there are plans to hold it annually for the next decade. The project has been averaging just over 100 volunteers per day and the organizers expect the total number of volunteers for two weeks to be in the 300-350 range.

A project like this has both short- and long-term goals. “In the short-term, the project will be a success if it gives the neighborhood a sense that they matter. After all the post-trauma, lack of support and other issues they’ve dealt with, bringing teams of volunteers to show their support is a key element in generating hope for their desperate situation,” Evans said.

He said the the long-term goals are helping the neighborhood become carbon neutral.

“This involves implementing energy-efficient building technologies, renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic panels and river turbines, and building systems that improve air and water quality. All of this is done in an effort to generate social capital in order to reweave the social fabric of this community and make them virtuous once again,” said Evans.

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Former Editor at, now Assistant Counsel at the New York State Department of Public Service, regulating New York's electricity, gas, and telecommunications industries.

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