Fallow Ground | Future city proposes tangible and innovative landscape strategies that respond to the challenging opportunity that is the ‘vacant’ land of New Orleans. We take on, not just ‘vacant’ lots, but also the gamut of underutilized land from a pothole in Gentilly to an infrastructural edge in Algiers from a concrete slab in Central City to a toxic piece of ground in the Lower Ninth. Our strategies can be applied at the small or large scale, and implemented by the DIY individual, the community organization, or municipal agency. While we support large capital investments in landscape infrastructure, these strategies do not require it. Finally, while we were inspired by magical New Orleans and her vibrant communities, our proposals are adaptable to cities around the country who want to get started now.
Introduction With so many cities facing vast expanses of vacant land, Fallow Ground | Future City explores the role that urban wilds can play to redefine the urban landscape. Echoing the prompt from “Future Ground”, a design competition co-sponsored by the Van Alen Institute and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), this work tackles ubiquitous vacant land in New Orleans. Like many cities across America, New Orleans has been subject to abandonment as the post-industrial economy took its toll. And then came Katrina. While much has been done to revive the city, some initiatives, especially far-fetched design propositions have resulted in little substance. Future Ground calls for ingenious strategies that can realistically be implemented, maintained, and sustained. Our charge is based on this challenge. As an alternative to a dependency upon economic redevelopment of underutilized land, we position wildland as a legitimate part of healthy urban fabric. We challenge the notion of urban wilds as unkempt weedy fields strewn with debris or scary tangled woodlands colonized by vagrants. Urban wilds have a valid position within the city, and well articulated forms of wildland offer a broad spectrum of very real options to (re)build a city’s landscape and its identity. New Orleans’ vacant parcels are not to be considered empty and barren, but full of potential to implement landscape strategies. These fallow territories are categorized and mapped across the city to create a cohesive picture of the existing conditions and opportunities. It is our quest to encourage a more nuanced understanding of those big blobs of green on city maps labeled “open space”, and instead, define each and every type of landscape. From highway buffers to residential lots, the range of underutilized, latent landscape types is considered. The 2400 NORA-owned properties throughout the city are of special interest. These are the low-hanging fruit, where urban wild strategies could be tested first. Often small and concentrated in residential areas, they offer particular opportunities for addressing neighborhood needs. Ground Rules The New Orleans Redevelopment Agency owns 2400 properties within the city, but this only scratches the surface of underutilized land/properties within New Orleans. Commercial, industrial and institutional fallow lands are full of potential and in need of re-engagement. Investing in these fallow lands will also provide opportunity for a workforce which is also vastly underutilized. In 2014, fifty-two percent of African-American men in New Orleans were not formally employed. Because the range of fallow lands within New Orleans reaches far beyond what can be accomplished with a single strategy, Fallow Ground |Future City proposes a menu of prototypes. These prototypes represent a host of propositions which can be applied where most appropriate, either alone or combined. The prototypes of Fallow Ground | Future City respond directly to the existing social, economic and spatial conditions of the City of New Orleans. They do not offer impractical promises, but maximize potential of fallow land with economic means. The prototypes are easy to construct, and install. They are both replicable and adaptable, to fit within, and satisfy the needs of a wide range of communities. They add value to both landscapes and the workforce by providing accessible entry level jobs and a clear ladder of skill development. The residents of New Orleans will invest in, nourish and maintain the City of New Orleans (for and by themselves) Cast of Characters The Wild Things of Fallow Ground | Future City took on alter egos in order to delve into the calls we heard from New Orleans. We became the Puddle Jumper, Ground Breaker, Mud Doctor, Field Marshal, Fallow Forester, Indigenous Cultivator, Civic Industrialist, and Job Captain. We organized ourselves into the Ground Krewe, the Flora Krewe, and the Job Krewe. Ground Krewe The Puddle Jumper understands the complicated waterworks of the city of New Orleans on a local scale. While large infrastructure is essential to city function, it does little to help local residents with the task of living with water. Don’t drain, collect (naturally)! Don’t pump - SOAK! Through planted form and low-maintenance planting regimes, problem puddles are transformed into new landscape paradigms. The Ground Breaker regards remnant concrete foundations as both a marker of cultural memory and a stigmatized slab. With the banal tools of demolition, the slabs are transformed to provide a public space for community occupation and the reclamation of neighborhood rituals. Our Dirt Doctor intervenes in a less than ideal existing condition: lead contaminated soils. Where there is a ‘cap’ of concrete slab, it remains and is ‘frosted’ with minimal dirt addition. The depth of soil dictates the appropriate planted form and creates a civic garden. Where leaded soil is bare, a phytoremediative thicket is planted with a woven edge. This proposition can be scaled from the local DIY individual to the municipal agency. Flora Krewe The Field Marshall sees the aggregation of vacancies as her fodder for neighborhood transformation. On blocks with many vacancies, maintaining the existing parcel lines hinders new approaches to access and maintenance. Residents can choose to make a civic compromise: to gain a private threshold within the block, while allowing for public access through. This frames a new commons where neighbors can encounter one another in shared gathering spaces. The Fallow Forrester finds potential in the historic and existing canopy trees in the sweltering New Orleans climate. The Forester strategically focuses efforts on editing existing woodlands and adding canopy to NORA lots in order jumpstart the reimagining of fallow land and encourage occupation with the priceless cooling effect of shade. The Indigenous Cultivator reintroduces aspects of the displaced swamp landscape to the existing urban fabric. A new network stretching from Bayou Sauvage into the heart of New Orleans reintroduces the iconic Taxodium distichum which doubles as storm water infrastructure. Flora Krewe The Civic Industrialist repurposes expanses of infrastructural dross for commercial woodlots supported by a local economy of neighborhood nurseries. NOLA Yards creates a novel economy that engages the fallow residential lots as community-managed nurseries to the large post-industrial lot as productive re-industrialized woodlot. This wild-loop engages NOLA residents and the city in a hybrid public-private model of planted industry. The Job Captain proposes a new workforce training to answer the demand for the skill required to implement these prototypes across the city. Skills are developed from accessible entry-level jobs to highly-skilled landscape contractors. A new civic training landscape is proposed to begin to shift perceptions of new landscape types. The training ground is juxtaposed with a public square creating a new landscape typology where neighbors and visitors promenade past apprentices. By witnessing the art of maintenance, New Orleanians learn the value of cultivating urban wilds. Conclusion Each proposition from Fallow Ground | Future City presents a distinct set of prototypes, expanding the repertoire of landscape, offering an alternative to high maintenance parks and silly plantings that constitute ‘beautification.’ These prototypes are then applied and tested ‘on the ground’ throughout the city. Subjected to the powers of ten, proposals demonstrate effectiveness from small parcels up to jumbo tracts. Considerations are made for the ongoing nature of each proposition, from raw materials and distribution to installation and management regimes. What happens when design strategies are so smart that the policies are beholden to change? Abandoned = Available. Empty = Full. Vacant = Inviting. Derelict = Fertile. A shift in our view of these territories is the first step. In seeing opportunity, we can envision potential for functional, productive, pleasurable landscapes. We are not proposing to ‘save NOLA’ by ‘repairing’ or ‘healing’ it, but defining proactive means to achieve a productive urban fabric. We are not just trying to improve upon the current condition, we are designing the future resilient city.