It's been a month since I found myself filthy and sweaty from painting walls, ripping out nails and putting up shelves. Yes, I was making home improvements, but not to my own. These simple changes were part of a larger community project for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, called Historic Green.
Historic Green, a group, associated with the US Green Building Council (USGBC), has a mission is to transform communities by using educational and charitable activities that integrate historic preservation and sustainability. The organization holds an annual Spring Greening event in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.
I joined the group for their second annual event this past March 10-20. More than 400 individuals, members of university groups, and non-profit workers came from all corners of the United States to lend a helping hand. The volunteers brought a range of skill levels, from those who had little to no building experience, to professional architects and construction workers. The organizers took advantage of this diversity by planning a large variety of projects, from cleaning up sidewalks, to putting on a fresh coat of paint, to deconstructing homes, to planting gardens.
Volunteers freshened up St. Claude Avenue by weeding, picking up debris, painting, rapairing buildings and walkways, and creating rain gardens to soak stormwater into the ground. Some installed radiant barriers in historic homes to reduce energy use and save residents money. Others restored various homes on Dauphine and St Maurice streets by clearing debris on site, repairing concrete walkways, replacing rotten or damaged structural wood members, framing new walls, installing insulation, and weather-stripping doors and windows.
Historic Green organizers and volunteers are also working to transform many of the derelict buildings in the 9th Ward into community spaces. A handful of designers held a charrette to generate ideas on how to transform the Louis Armstrong Elementary into a new community arts space. A former Walgreens will soon become a worship space and community gathering place, and the warehouse used as the hub for Historic Green, is slated to become a community center where residents will hold job trainings, create a library, prepare meals for the homeless and elderly and host community meetings.
Historic Green recognizes that preserving, restoring and building a sustainable community requires an understanding of the place and of the people who live there. The planners introduced volunteers to the local culture through tours of the city and events like crawfish boils and post-work gatherings. Speakers, including Majora Carter, discussed their current work, inspiring us to take what we've learned back to our own communities. The mixing of events helped connect us with people and big ideas.
Although Historic Green is a post-disaster relief event for New Orleans, I found the rebuilding can also be a model for the rest of the nation, and as a volunteer I learned new strategies that I can continue to use at home. We learned how making big changes to the built environment can not only decrease our energy use, but also improve our landscape and the ways in which we interact with each other.
I found Historic Green's work to be particularly worldchanging for its focus on restoration and retrofits. It was wonderful to see that Historic Green is so dedicated to restoring the intricately detailed homes instead of quickly demolishing and rebuilding yet another condo complex. It's much better to create quality housing and public spaces by restoring historic buildings sustainably -- especially in a city so famous for its past.
To learn how you can help or attend next year's event, go here.
Photo credits: Valarie French & Morgan Greenseth
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Morgan! Thank you so much for telling me about this event. I'm always talking about changes that I would like to see in our society and in the way we think about design. I have to say it felt so good to get out and actually do something! I was only there for a couple of days and at first it was a bit overwhelming to see how much work there is left to do. However, being there among all of these good people from across the country was so incredibly inspiring. I left New Orleans with a sense of hope, because I know now that there is a growing collective of people out there that are just as concerned as I am and together we will eventually reach the tipping point.