Connecting Social Uses of Public Space to Green Infrastructure

Connecting Social Uses of Public Space to Green Infrastructure
 Arkadien Winnenden by Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl showing multi-functional green infrastructure.

Arkadien Winnenden by Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl showing multi-functional green infrastructure.

Regardless of their program, location, or scale all buildings and landscapes impact the public realm of our cities. These spaces directly relate to the built environment around them, but they are also connected to a wide variety of municipal, environmental, and social systems at a variety of scales. These systems may include garbage collection, electricity and gas, public transportation, exposure to sun light, prevailing winds, urban tree canopy, public gathering space, and memorials or places of remembrance, to name a few. When we intervene in place we must take these systems into account as we connect to them, alter their functioning, or displace historic uses.

Today, the systems that manage urban water are a priority in New Orleans as we work to address the pressures that increased development, subsidence, and climate changes are placing on our drainage infrastructure. The Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, the Sewage and Water Board’s Green Infrastructure plan, and the Resilient New Orleans strategy are a few of the plans that address this challenge and help to guide development of a more livable and vibrant city. Green Infrastructure is one of the most accessible and scalable ways that everyone from individual home owners to large institutions can influence the creation of a new water management system. The ways that this new infrastructure intersects with our cities public spaces is incredibly important.  

Question: How can we design highly functional green infrastructure that prioritizes place specific social uses of the public realm? How do we recognize and protect locally important sites and practices?
Example: In many projects that utilize the public realm, green infrastructure ignores the possibility of the street/road as a social space and severs the links from road to sidewalk to building façade. In New Orleans, where the street is utilized for many social and civic purposes this can present many spatial conflicts– from spectatorship to commerce.

Prioritizing Civic Benefits Beyond Water Management  

Green Infrastructure must take into account community tradition and cultural practice, places of local importance, as well as community conceptions of beauty and maintenance. Understanding specific, local social uses of public space and finding ways to integrate green infrastructure that enhances these uses is an important issue touched on in the Urban Water Plan, but not addressed at length. Finding a method to understand these relationships and incorporate them into the implementation of green infrastructure projects in New Orleans will become incredibly important as we invest in these new types of spaces.

The SWBNO’s Plan for Green Infrastructure and the GNO Urban Water Plan recognizes the need to include social criteria in their planning for Green Infrastructure, yet they do not identify a method for prioritizing it. The first is instructive that green infrastructure be “community assets” and provide, “aesthetic value and recreational benefits beyond the tangible benefits associated with storm water detention and flood mitigation.” The Water Plan provides a provision that the plan, “protects unique local customs, existing ways of life and the cultural economy.”

The SWB plan directive does not include any recognition of current neighborhood or community use of the public realm or ensure that green infrastructure enhance and not interfere with historic and contemporary uses of the public realm. The Water Plan goes a step further to instill a value of protecting unique local customs and existing ways of life, but the details surrounding these statements focuses on the economic value of these activities and less on the social/civic value of them for communities.

In New Orleans, with the new requirements to manage stormwater across the city, the question of how to design site specific green infrastructure that functions at a high level and allows for unique and highly specific social uses of public space is incredibly important. This focus on the social, as well as the ecological impacts of green infrastructure will help lead to projects that create truly multifunctional spaces and a more resilient city.

Ideas into Action

 A rendering created during the EDR 2015 MLK, Jr. Day of Service Project with the Arts Council of New Orleans

A rendering created during the EDR 2015 MLK, Jr. Day of Service Project with the Arts Council of New Orleans

This focus, combining social and infrastructural goals, which we are calling the “civil landscape” will be put into practice for the firm’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. day of service on January 16, 2017. The request for proposals asks for projects that seek to manage urban water more effectively while also creating more productive public spaces. For many neighborhoods, non-profits, and community groups green infrastructure can achieve these goals and provide additional benefits from educational opportunities to increased public health.

We look forward to reviewing your project proposal and to learning more about our city and neighborhoods through a process of designing together. You can find the announcement and application here.

The Social Components of Water Management Plans

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Sewage and Water Board of New Orleans – Green Infrastructure Plan

3.1.1 Social Criteria
Green infrastructure projects shall be community assets.  They should improve the neighborhoods by providing aesthetic value and recreational benefits beyond the tangible benefits associated with storm water detention or flood mitigation. 

Community commitment is essential to ensuring long-term maintenance and sustainability. Experience with green infrastructure initiatives in other jurisdictions has demonstrated that success of any effort—whether rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs at the community level, or rain barrel installation at individual residences—is heavily dependent on commitment to long term operation and maintenance of the project. In this regard, SWBNO will strongly support Operation and Maintenance agreements in place before project construction begins. Pg 14

Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan – Implementation Plan

Achieving socially just outcomes - equal protection and amenities for all and avoidance of undesired demographic shifts and extreme changes in culture and character -  also presents a great opportunity in a city and region where the most disadvantaged often live in the areas most prone to flooding.  Pg 32
Integrated water management goes beyond safety and economic vitality to touch quality of life. It builds value with water, creating waterfronts, accessible public spaces, and recreational opportunities where there were none. Pg 55
Protects unique local customs, existing ways of life and the cultural economy. Pg 68