The Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED, the Center), was established in 2006 to work towards environmentally conscious and sustainable recovery efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward - an area of New Orleans that has traditionally been underserved and systematically marginalized. Well known for the devastation and loss of life caused by the levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina, the neighborhood had environmental, economic and social rebuilding to do after the storm. CSED has been tackling these recovery challenges by engaging community residents and leaders on a host of issues, including coastal eco-system restoration, food security and the built environment.
It is well understood that floodwalls and levees cannot be the only forms of flood protection in New Orleans communities and significant work must be completed to restore the state's coastline. Together with its partners - the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL), the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF) and the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) - CSED works on the Multiple Lines of Defense Campaign. The campaign is designed to inform and engage vulnerable populations on a system-wide approach to bolstering hurricane protection and rebuilding more resilient communities. The campaign emphasizes the need to join coastal restoration with levee construction and community development to best prepare for the challenges of living in a region that remains vulnerable to intense hurricanes and a changing climate.
Tracy Nelson, executive director of CSED, speaks honestly about those challenges when she reflects on her organization's efforts to restore not only the built environment of the Lower Ninth Ward, but the strength and vitality of its community - even six years into the recovery process. "It is hard. It is really hard and very long. If you decided to come back you quickly understood the isolation of a 19th century pioneer. But you learned quickly that the people in your community are critical. There are no strangers; people become family," says Nelson. Among the most important headlines from the rebuilding process is that grassroots efforts to engage and organize residents around the issues that affect their lives, including their most basic safety, can be effective vehicles for change. As a result, CSED and its partners have helped create the initial political will to influence leadership at the local and state level, amplifying resident voices, and remaining committed to collaborative and interdisciplinary solutions. "If the people step up," says Nelson, "one community can, most definitely, make a difference."
Putting this approach into action comes with its own challenges, especially for New Orleans residents. "We have learned that the traditional way of engaging people to be a part of the people's process is just plain tired. Residents have been through more than four years of non-stop participation: workshops, charrettes, meetings, discussions, planning efforts, and sit-in-the-chair town hall meetings." This question looms large for leaders across communities in New Orleans: How do you re-ignite and re-engage people who are simply burned out, or may have burned out years ago? Recently, CSED and their partners acknowledged and attempted to tackle this challenge, by "creating something fun where the engagement is about seeing and experiencing and being a part of something you wouldn't normally get to do."
Campaign leaders organized a site visit beyond the walls of the New Orleans levee system to show Ninth Ward residents and community leaders a real world example of the Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy. Residents traveled by boat to the newly completed Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) Surge Barrier constructed to protect the eastern flank of New Orleans. They then traveled beyond the surge barrier to see the miles of degraded wetlands that previously formed the first line of defense against hurricanes, to experience, first hand, the early return of wetland wildlife in the form of birds and, most memorably, dolphins.
"We wanted residents to understand that reducing the risk of flooding begins with restoring the wetlands along our coast. If restored to a healthy condition, those wetlands will reduce the impact of storm surge on our levee system and reduce the likelihood of failure," said Peyronnin, "But wetlands and levees alone don't completely eliminate the possibility of flooding. The goal is to demonstrate how coastal restoration combined with strengthened levees and community resiliency are part of a systems-based approach to risk reduction for these vulnerable communities."
For residents, stakeholders and other participants on the site visit, that message was heard and felt in an environment of hope and beauty that spoke to the power of nature's resiliency. "The Great Wall of Louisiana" (aka the IHNC Surge Barrier), while a breathtaking, essential structure on the coastal landscape, shares its technical grandeur with the return of precious wildlife to this once decimated area. For participants that day, neither message - the essential formula for community resiliency or the song of nature's own restoration - was lost.
Below, photographs taken on the site visit:
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