Feature Article - November 2009
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Parks Are People & Place

The Intersection of Culture & Ecology in Landscape Design

By Emily Tipping

Disaster Recovery

Couturie Forest & Scout Island
City Park in New Orleans

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, many Americans were shocked to watch continual coverage of the neglect of people in real trouble as the floodwaters rose in the city of New Orleans. But when it came to a natural area within New Orleans' City Park, a little neglect might have been helpful.

Hurricane Katrina killed approximately half of the trees at the 62-acre Couturie Forest and Scout Island site. Floodwaters rose to a depth of 6 feet, destroying ground-level vegetation and displacing wildlife.

The site had recovered from hurricanes before. But in previous disasters, what New Orleans-based Mossop+Michaels, the design team working on the site's master plan, called "fortuitous neglect" allowed the site to regenerate at a slow pace. Trees knocked down by the storm provided shade and the soil was left undisturbed, preventing invasive species' takeover attempts.

After Hurricane Katrina, downed trees were removed and the soil was disturbed by heavy machinery. This created the perfect conditions—lots of sunlight through holes in the canopy and freshly turned earth exposing thousands of dormant seeds—for invasive species to begin to establish themselves. Before the storm, the site was home to just over 200 exotic trees, mainly Chinese Tallow. But in the three years since the floodwaters receded, around 11,000 new Chinese Tallow saplings have risen up. And large patches of ragweed have invaded the now-sunny areas of the site.

In addition to washing away native species, the hurricane also destroyed paths and dispersed the organizations that had volunteered labor for the site. Over 50 percent of City Park's staff was lost, along with their knowledge of the park's operations and maintenance.

The master plan for the site, recognized with an award from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), focuses on establishing more resilient site infrastructure. The design team approached this infrastructure from four perspectives: ecological, physical, organizational and informational.

Establishing resilient ecological infrastructure means halting the spread of invasive species and, in the long term, eradicating the invasives completely. Native species will be planted, and over 21 acres of Coastal Prairie will be situated in the site, providing habitat for migratory birds and wildlife. Coastal Prairie represents a severely endangered ecosystem along the Gulf Coast, and the site will serve a larger purpose, acting as a major seed bank to contribute to other restoration efforts.

The physical infrastructure will include a trail system, while organizational infrastructure will focus on enhancing the volunteer effort by allowing smaller groups to work on specific aspects of the project, giving them a sense of ownership. Finally, the informational infrastructure changes aim to create educational material, including a Web site to keep the public informed of the progress and goals of this very long-term project.

While all portions of the master plan may not be implemented, City Park does indicate that it began work on the plan this year.