Last week members of the Water Collaborative traveled to the Maumus Center in Arabi to hear about green infrastructure plans for stormwater management in St. Bernard Parish. This area is more residential and more spacious than New Orleans, leaving ample opportunity for developing green spaces. Arabi, like other coastal cities, faces major threats of flooding due to dilapidated infrastructure and sea level rise, and St. Bernard Parish government is looking for innovative ways to address these issues.  

We were invited to the Maumus Center by Dale Thayer of the St. Bernard Parish government, who sought our help in conveying new green infrastructure plans to the public. The Maumus Center is a historic school that was recently transformed into a recreational learning center, complete with a planetarium and 3-D hydrology map of the parish. When site plans were underway in 2012, Dana Brown & Associates, a landscape architecture firm, began exploring landscape features that would decrease stormwater runoff from the building. Danielle Duhe from Dana Brown & Associates described the resulting eight green infrastructure features surrounding the Maumus Center. These features, including rain gardens and pervious pavement, capture an amazing 7,849 cubic feet of water, which drastically reduces flooding around the center.

The stormwater features of the Maumus Center demonstrate characteristics of a parish wide strategy known as the Integrated Water Management Plan. This plan was created by Waggoner & Ball in conjunction with St. Bernard Parish government. Thom Smith, an architect and urban designer, described the plan for the upper half of St. Bernard Parish as an opportunity to use water as both an asset and a resource. The goals of the plan are to promote access and connectivity among residents, support local ecology, and maintain the cultural identity of the parish. The plan showcased spillways with boardwalks as recreational spaces and commercial street retrofits such as green roofs and pervious parking lots as a means to connect residents and reduce flooding.

The challenges towards implementing projects outlined in the Integrated Water Management Plan arise from outdated city ordinances, but Dale Thayer explained that pending changes to city ordinances will actually incentivize the development of green infrastructure features. His presentation was the first time these changes were presented to the public, so Thayer was eager to hear the audiences’ feedback. These changes were aided by a grant from Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, which allowed the parish to restructure codes for building streets, landscape, and zoning. The parish now has an opportunity to improve stormwater management throughout St. Bernard Parish by creating green infrastructure guidelines for new developments. Jason Stopa with St. Bernard Parish discussed ongoing green infrastructure and resilience projects in the area. The Builder Bundle Program is one such project that is a potential avenue for adding green infrastructure features to residential homes. The goal of this program is to promote regional competitive housing, and homeowners are more likely to buy in neighborhoods that do not struggle with flooding. In this case, green infrastructure features are helping the local economy as the Builder Bundle Program brings new homeowners into St. Bernard Parish.

While these projects can potentially help stormwater management in Arabi, these plans cannot address community problems without citizens’ support. This presentation was only the first of many community dialogues that will occur over the course of these changes. After asking for community input, we were shocked to hear the obstacles that citizens face during heavy storms. Teachers notice empty classrooms; grandparents can’t pick up their grandchildren; and customers are trapped in flooded parking lots. Some seemed optimistic about the ability of green infrastructure to address their flooding concerns. One woman noticed that her house, on the same block as the Maumus Center, floods considerably less than other houses in her neighborhood. Others are not so hopeful. One man described the plans as “kicking the can” around the larger issue: a dilapidated pumping system. Some question the ability of green infrastructure to help flooding while the pumps and canals are still neglected. Howard Luna, a St. Bernard Parish Council Member, understood citizens’ pessimism, but emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to stormwater management. These are plans that pull multiple resources together, giving communities multiple lines of defense in the face of impending storms.