Solutions for a Living Climate Changing World

What we have currently and where we need to go in terms of green infrastructure to protect our most at risk communities and ecosystems.

Louisiana coastal area satalite image from 2014 Photo: ProPublica

There is a growing understanding that vulnerability to climate change is not only driven by fossil fuel use and cyclical climate factors, but also by non-climate factors that affect the exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity of coastal communities. These external factors can be environmental, social, racial, and political. People, often the stigmatized “slum” dwelling minorities living in coastal communities, are highly dependent on a healthy ecosystem. In New Orleans, Louisiana that invaluable ecology comes in the form of the world’s most productive ecosystem, which according many ecologists and environmental scientists, are marshlands and wetland areas. Therefore, it is crucial to not only consider the vulnerability of livelihoods, but also the vulnerability of coastal ecosystems and acknowledge how well thought out designs can be used to combat them both. Urban studies “best practices” have shown local innovations for climate change adaptation as the best path to addressing systematic inequality while simultaneously strengthening the resilience of coastal ecosystems and cities.

At the current rates that the sea is rising and land is sinking, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists say by 2100 the Gulf of Mexico could rise as much as 4.3 feet across this landscape, which has an average elevation of about 3 feet. If that happens, everything outside the protective levees — most of Southeast Louisiana — would be underwater.

The following are real-life solutions that embody sustainable planning best practices and resonate as a “triple threat” in which infrastructure and design 1.) respect and aim to grow the vivacious substandard housing communities that create and sustain New Orleans’ day-to-day activities and culture, 2.) appreciate and emulate the genius of mother nature, and 3.) employ a comprehensive planning approach that serves current necessities in addition to allowing flexibility to adapt to the needs of future generations.

Levees that recreate marsh with a vegetative ridge. This is a model of a pproject that is to be implemented in Port Sulphur, LA and Empire, LA. Photo: Aims Consulting

Horizontal levees are a piece of innovative green infrastructure that uses tidal marshes in combination with compressed dirt levees to create a multi-functional, long lasting piece of infrastructure. Wetlands, that in Louisiana alone make up 300 kilometers of coastal shoreline, act as a holding area for large quantities of surface water which can be slowly released into the watershed. A one acre wetland, one foot deep, can hold approximately 330,000 gallons of water. That means a wetland can hold around twenty times the amount of water a single person uses over a whole year. When wetlands are removed, stormwater runs directly into the watershed, increasing flooding. During this present era of sea level rise, marshlands of places like New Orleans can be a critical tool in increasing the adaptive capacity of valuable shoreline substandard housing communities and even New Orleans as a whole. The horizontal levee is design letting mother nature back in, and from another angle, it actually brings infrastructure to life. This hybrid alternative solution to traditional, one dimensional, unreliable levees is creating a “cyborg landscape” of soft edges whose physical abilities can extend beyond normal, anthropocentrically engineered structures.

Competitions like the Global Green USA Sustainable Design Competition offer platforms for innovation and multi-use function-ideas as seen with horizontal levees, but instead in the realm of housing. Winner of the Sustainable Design Competition for New Orleans, Workshop/APD’s describes the mission behind their home design as an idea that couples concepts of traditional New Orleans architecture and planning with green building design that embraces its past while looking to the future. The winning multi-family apartment design features a solar shed made of shelf manufactured building components that can be dismantled and reused, a green roof with cross ventilating permeable walls, a thermal mass parking lot for residents, and day care facility, community garden, and community gathering spaces. Workshop/APD did its homework on the Lower Ninth Ward by incorporating many spaces in their design for socialization, cooking, and gatherings in general that highlight the importance of human interactions and family bonding as pillars of that neighborhood, particularly in the disruptive aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Rendering of Workshop. APD’s Sustainable Design Competition winning deisgn Photo: GreenNOLA

Not a single aspect in Workshop/APD’s design has only one use — the solar shed of PV arrays harnesses the sun’s energy, allows for net-zero energy living, and offers additional protection to the complex during harsh winds. This trend continues from the roof to the ground with implementation an innovative rainwater collection and recycling system, which reduces the potential for neighborhood flooding, provides resiliency in the event of future disasters, and produces environmental benefit. Even planted trellises were incorporated to cool the building and to add aesthetic value.

Not only are the two aforementioned categories — housing and infrastrcuture — of green infrastructure good for neighborhoods, the environment, and the future, they are also good for our pocketbooks. In an interview with Yale 360 news forum, Landscape Architect and University of California Berkeley Professor Kristina Hill explains, “This technologically … is actually cheaper than putting in a lot of concrete reinforcements, steel, and machinery.” In a city like New Orleans where levees are depended upon, it is important to note that horizontal levees that combine tidal marshes could reduce levee construction and maintenance costs by almost 50%. Furthermore, often in competitions like Global Green USA’s Sustainable Design Competition, or even in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge,” it is stipulated that all designs must be affordable, thus of feasible implementation, for the populations that they are aimed to serve.

Paige Chambers, a project architect at Ryan Street and Associates with a specialization in sustainable building, suggests that often people equate green infrastructure with cutting edge new technology. “What some people don’t realize,” she explains, “is that with elements like passive solar, constructing walls and roofs so that natural wind movements can be harnessed for cooling, tapping into the Earth’s natural warmth with geothermal technology, and using flora laden facades that interact with our atmosphere and produce natural insulation — none of it is new. It is all simply sun, wind, dirt, and plants.” Green infrastructure is showing itself as the 21st century way of getting back to basics. Luckily these basics, although often with larger upfront costs, will not only cut down your energy bills, but in the case of New Orleans, possibly keep you from having to spend funds to completely rebuild your home in the wake of natural disaster.

Even with green infrastructure that only creates positive benefits for the Earth, there is always room for improvement. Dialogue between residents and experts is vital to useful construction, but education is the crux of true sustainability. When asked what the next step is for building resilient cities that protect low-income communities in the United States and around the world, Chambers responded, “Don’t build just one of the competition’s winning designs. And the step after that? Give local residents the skills and understanding to build them all.”