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Living with water: Thrive New Orleans is working to make residents safer through green infrastructure

American Cities

Eve Abrams

Eve Abrams

This is the second entry of a two-part series, With Water, highlighting the impact and importance of American Cities Program grantee partner Thrive New Orleans. 

Part 1: Working with water: Thrive New Orleans creates a pipeline of economic opportunity with climate resiliency training program

Living in New Orleans means living with water. But like most cities, New Orleans is covered in concrete and asphalt. It’s also bowl-shaped and much of it is below sea level. So when there’s too much water, it has nowhere to go. Water fills the streets and the drainage system.

The nonprofit organization Thrive New Orleans is working to change that.

Thrive’s mission is to advance racial equity and community stability through its work in sustainability, particularly green infrastructure. Thrive has two academies. One trains a skilled workforce for careers in green infrastructure. The other builds capacity for small businesses to take on projects in green infrastructure.

But Thrive is also a prime contractor — directly manifesting the city’s climate resiliency by rebuilding New Orleans’ residential landscapes, yard by yard. One of those yards belongs to Constanza Porche.

When I met Porche, she greeted me in front of her home wearing a vibrant pink jacket and a gleaming smile. It was an overcast December day.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t rain,” Porche said. “And it rained. It stormed.”

But then her ingrained habit of worry — about a muddy yard, standing water, an unusable outdoor space — dissolved, as Porche recalled her new reality.

“You know what?” she said, “It’s going to be okay.”

And indeed, it was. Porche gestured toward her yard, “Because of what Thrive did, I had no problems.”

What Thrive did is remake Porche’s yard so that it can absorb and use every drop of water which falls on it. Her yard now keeps this water in place and out of the city’s drainage system.

Living with water rather than eradicating it

This approach to water management is a welcome change from how New Orleans has historically managed water: attempting to remove it through the city’s pumping system. As the city is currently designed, rain falling on homes, streets and buildings is meant to roll along gutters and atop concrete, flowing into streets and then into the city’s drainage system. From there, ideally, the water is pumped out and (for the most part) deposited into Lake Pontchartrain, the enormous body of water bordering New Orleans to the north.

The side of house with shovels leaning against it and the driveway all dug up.
Thrive New Orleans crews installed French drains so that water runs through the underground drain and into the back yard and a rain garden. (Photo courtesy of Thrive New Orleans)

This system of water management has many problems: pumping water out of the city has deprived the ground beneath it of its buoyancy…drying it out like a well-wrung sponge. The result? New Orleans is sinking.

Pumping has also failed as a reliable solution. The volume of water New Orleans receives – via rainstorms and hurricanes – can easily surpass the capabilities of the city’s pumps.

Climate instability has brought stronger storms accompanied by larger volumes of water in small windows of time. The city’s aging pumping system struggles to keep up.

Ever since Hurricane Katrina, landscape architects and city planners have espoused a new design paradigm: living with water rather than attempting to eradicate it.

Porche’s yard is a perfect example of this design approach.

Her Gentilly neighborhood is close to Lake Pontchartrain and largely built on low ground. Following Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans’ levees failed, Porche’s street flooded.

“The water got as high as… I think it was like 14… between 10 and 14 feet,” she said, pointing to one neighbor’s roofline.

Porche didn’t live in Gentilly at the time, and her house was built years later, in 2010. It’s also raised five and a half feet off the ground — because of that flooding.

“We had already addressed the flooding issues,” Porche said. “But then there was standing water whenever we had a heavy rain.”

Porche’s property is a bit higher than those of her immediate neighbors. Water from her yard pooled against her neighbors’ fences and collected in the space underneath her own house, which is enclosed by a wooden lattice.

“Here, along the house,” Porche said, “along the bottom of the lattice — the water started eating at that part.”

This was before Thrive redesigned her homes’ landscaping. Thrive’s crew began by talking with Porche about what she wanted and how she might ideally use her yard. A landscape architect designed plans. Once Porche was satisfied, the crew began construction.

The drain is installed and covered by small stones. (Photo: Thrive New Orleans)

She now points directly next to the lattice. “There’s a drainage system that they put in,” she said. “A French drain.”

Thrive installed the French drain by first digging a trench and laying a pipe in it.

“We don’t see the pipe,” Porche said. “It’s dressed very well.”

That dressing is comprised entirely of small stones, concealing the pipe from view.

“It’s very, very pretty.”

It’s also functional. Now, when water falls on Porche’s house or her side yard, it flows into the French drain. From there, the water runs through the underground drain all the way to the backyard and, ultimately, into a rain garden.

“Now that we’re managing it from underneath — underground — we’re having better usage of the water. Because it’s not damaging anything. The water is being recycled and it’s watering the garden.”

The rain garden blooms in two areas — the back corners of Porche’s yard. “It’s a split rain garden,” she said. “And these plants, they love water. That’s why it’s called a rain garden.

“So that is why when we had the heat wave, I still had a beautiful garden in the back,” she said. “Because the little water that we did get, did manage to go where it needed to.”

In addition to the French drain and the rain garden, Thrive also removed a good deal of cement from Porche’s side yard, which was installed when the house was built.

“The cement — it’s solid,” Porche said. “There is nowhere for the water to go. Once water hits it, it runs off.”

What remains of Porche’s cement begins at the curb: two strips for a car to park on. This driveway once extended the entire length of her house and morphed into a concrete walkway. Porche stands at the juncture where the cement now ends — about 20 feet from the street.

The side of a house with newly installed permeable pavers.
Thrive New Orleans remade a concrete driveway with permeable pavers. (Photo: Thrive New Orleans)

“So they removed the cement from here all the way up to the side of my stairs, and they replaced it with the permeable pavers.”

Permeable pavers look a lot like bricks. In Porche’s yard, they’re laid out close together to form a walkway. But unlike cement, they’re not one, solid surface.

“With the permeable pavers, there’s crevices in between them so the water can run in between them,” Porche said.

The permeable pavers are placed atop subterranean layers of gravel which also hold and direct water flow. So now the water goes where Porche wants it to go. “They can manage it underneath versus the water going in its own direction,” Porche said.

This change has been revolutionary.

“Managing of the rainwater is just unbelievable,” she said. “We haven’t had any trouble with flooding since Thrive came in and did my yard. It can storm in the morning and I’m still dry 20 minutes after because the water goes where it’s supposed to.”

This difference impacts Porche’s quality of life.

“You know, when my friends come over, they’re like: this doesn’t seem like the same yard.” In prior years, entertaining outside was much less pleasant. “We would come out and we were constantly slapping mosquitoes,” said Porche. “It’s much better now. Much, much better. It’s basically like giving me another living space.”

Green infrastructure is about making people feel safe

Porche’s personal experience has altered her broader thinking about water.

“It’s smarter to be prepared and to look to the future than to just stay where we are and always just keep thinking brick and mortar.”

She now envisions the city in terms of its infrastructure, and conceptualizes it in colors: gray, green and blue.

“We should not be thinking gray,” Porche said. “And when I say gray, that means cement.” In other words, sidewalks, parking lots, houses and buildings.

Let's stay in touch Sign up for our newsletters SubscribeGreen spaces, on the other hand, are plants: trees, grass and flowers.

Blue spaces hold water, infrastructure like Porche’s French drain and rain garden.

“Everybody should be thinking green or blue,” Porche said. “We should always be thinking of different ways that we can actually incorporate more green spaces and more blue spaces. The more green spaces we have, there are more places for the water to go. The more we become gray, that’s less places for the water to go. And water, as we know and as we have seen in New Orleans, has a mind of its own. You can’t control it. If it has nowhere to go, it’s going to come into our homes.”

Porche knows this first hand. During the floods following Hurricane Katrina, she lost her house in New Orleans East. But that was actually not her first flood loss.

“I grew up in a Lower Ninth Ward,” Porche said. “I’m a Betsy baby.

Hurricane Betsy was an intense and destructive hurricane which slammed into New Orleans around 60 years ago, ushering in a storm surge and knocking out levees. It flooded the Lower Ninth Ward. Tens of thousands of people lost their homes. Some people drowned in their attics.

“I was born in October of 1965,” Porche said. “Betsy was in September. So my mom would always talk about how the water came in and she would always talk about how she lost the pictures of her dad and her family, you know…she would always sit down and say, I just wish I had a picture of my dad.”

This made a big impact on the way Porche deals with hurricane season — which lasts roughly half the year, from June through December.

“Water and flooding have always been something that I have been hearing about from a little kid,” she said. “And crazy thing is that whenever I do leave, the first thing I pack are my pictures. I leave without clothes, but I always take my pictures. My pictures right now are in a suitcase. And they stay in there through hurricane season. And then I take them out because if I have to leave, I need to grab this suitcase and leave.”

“My mom lost everything in Hurricane Betsy,” said Porche. “I lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. But it’s okay. You know, you learn from situations.”

These past experiences are a big reason why Porche is so passionate about something as technical as her yard’s water management system. Because a French drain and permeable pavers signify so much more than the efficient movement of water. Green infrastructure makes it possible for Porche to safely live in her city.

Seeing this kind of climate-smart water infrastructure spread, both in her own neighborhood and more broadly, in her city —  that’s the direction Porche hopes New Orleans keeps going in.

“I think that the programs like Thrive and other water management programs, they’re helping us to learn how to live in a flood prone area. We can turn a blind eye,” she said, “but the more we educate ourselves and the more we incorporate green spaces and blue spaces into our brick-and-mortar spaces, the better we are as a community.”

Standing in Porche’s yard, in the midst of flood prone New Orleans, I got a feel for how profound an experience working with Thrive has been for Porche. It’s given her a sense of safety and a tenable connection to the land – at a time when an unpredictable climate has caused many New Orleanians to wonder how long they’ll be able to live in their city. Because smart water infrastructure is about more than engineering; it’s about making people feel safe.

“Thrive invests in people,” said Porche. “They don’t just talk. They don’t just say, okay, this is what we’re doing. You can actually see what Thrive does.”

Porche has certainly benefited. She hopes others will too.

Eve Abrams is a radio producer, writer, audio documentarian, and educator in New Orleans. Eve currently produces the award winning audio project Unprisoned, which tells stories at the intersection of the criminal legal system and human lives. Abrams’ 2015 documentary “Along Saint Claude” received the Edward R. Murrow award and a New Orleans Press Club Award. Her radio stories have aired on a host of national programs.