Beyond Turf: Reinterpreting the Ecological Management of Vacant Landscapes


Alexander Ochoa, Student ASLA | Undergraduate | Faculty Advisor: Wes Michaels, ASLA | Lousiana State University | Baton Rouge, LA


New Orleans East, the loosely defined suburban neighborhood of Orleans Parish has been battling increasing residential vacancies scattered throughout the area and continues to worsen. Currently, all publically owned vacant lots in the parish are homogenously turfed with scheduled mows. Beyond Turf seeks to maximize the ecological benefits of the lots by a native plant palette that will improve the on-site ecosystems of these dispersed lots and create a new framework for managing vacancy.



New Orleans East (NOE) experienced declining populations before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and the amount of vacancies increasing in the aftermath. Accounting for over half of the land area of Orleans Parish, the characteristics of NOE share more in common with the suburban parishes than the iconic New Orleans. With 20% of the parish’s population living in NOE there is a need to address the issue of what to do with the 403 vacant lots in NOE that impact the community. The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) currently manages all publicly owned vacant lots. For a portion of the city where urban agriculture and park installations in vacant lots would not be the most appropriate solution, this project looks to revive the ecological activity of these lots as well as how to best maintain them.


NORA’s current management plan for publicly owned lots includes sodding cleared lots and mowing the lots eighteen times a year at the price of $400 per lot annually. With over 1,400 uncommitted lots in the parish this ends up costing the city over half a million dollars annually. Besides the financial burden, there are the impacts that these lots have on the local ecology. Most lots suffer from high sun exposure with minimal tree coverage. There is also poor on-site drainage that overwhelms the city’s canals and drainage system during high periods of rain. Lacking a diverse plant selection on these lots hinders plant and animal biodiversity with continual mows suppressing habitats for native species, as well. The community has a strong misunderstanding of meadows for the fact that many people mistake native species as weeds due to the lack of education on these plants.


Beyond Turf looks deal with the issue of disjointed vacancies as well as creating a sustainable solution that decreases the amount of mows on each lot. There is great potential for meadow installations in the Read Boulevard West neighborhood of NOE that could create a linkage with the natural landscape of New Orleans. Environmentally, this project will seek to improve the ecological benefits of these vacant lots by examining the following; carbon sequestration, improved stormwater management, provision of habitat, and enhanced local biodiversity. Additionally there would be indirect social improvements from the ecological benefits such as; aesthetic improvements, financial incentives for NORA, better educating the public on native species, and application in other declining suburban areas.


Implementing a meadow into New Orleans East (NOE) involves a higher time commitment at first but as the meadow matures the maintenance decreases. The heaviest time commitment is within the first year, which involves the site preparation as well as plant installation on the lot. Preparing the site includes clearing the site of all lawn, solarisation in the summer months to eliminate weed growth, and then broadcasting wildflower seed in the fall and grasses are to be planted in late spring/early summer. To prevent a lot from looking unruly it is important to maintain a meadow setback that preserves a 15’ groundcover strip. The lots will need an annual mow, cut on the lowest setting, in early spring, which will allow seeds to come in contact with the soil and aid the germination process. Establishing an involved volunteer program will help support community enhancement. Clear signage will show ownership of the lot and inform residents of the project. Additionally, once the meadows become mature there is the option of including site furnishings that promote observation. Ultimately, the planning and analysis for Beyond Turf is meant to be a solution for vacancy that could be applied throughout NOE and into the rest of New Orleans. Redirecting already established landscaping funds for NORA would help maintain and implement this project and create a volunteer program. There is great freedom to vary plant selection based on site conditions, lot typology, and plant preferences. Eventually, the vacant landscapes could become a productive and beautiful installation that moves beyond a turf landscape.

"Straightforward, direct, and refreshing. It has graphic clarity and could be applied to any city. It even got into implementation and maintenance. These are good, simple solutions to eyesore lots."

- 2014 Awards Jury