The Connector

Diane Jones Allen works to put public spaces and neighborhoods back together in post-Katrina New Orleans.

By Adam Regn-Arvidson, FASLA

In the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, at a community garden baking in the March sun, some herbs struggle up out of cinder block planters, and irrigation lines snake through the beds, which are awaiting springtime seeds. On the side of a toolshed is a big chalkboard announcing an evening movie screening and other community events. In the shade of a wooden arbor, Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, is meeting with Jenga Mwendo, the director of the Backyard Gardeners Network, which runs the garden. They are discussing not this place, the Guerrilla Garden, but the vacant city block across the street. Mwendo wants to claim it as community space, and Jones Allen is helping her envision what that might look like.

Jones Allen starts up her laptop on the wooden picnic table and presents a few sketches: plastic crates repurposed as small gardens, movable tables on a gravel bed, a pile of tires as a play area. That last idea intrigues Mwendo. “I just came across a pile of tires,” she says. “I’m just trying to remember where I saw that. There are lots of tires in this neighborhood.” She says she could probably make that happen right away, and it would offer some more options for Kids’ Club, an after-school program at the Guerrilla Garden. As Jones Allen presents her ideas, teenagers start to wander into the garden. Guerrilla Garden hires them to do outreach to the community, programming for younger kids, and some gardening. Though the garden is popular, the kids can’t really play in there, so Mwendo and the teens are eyeing the big grassy square across the street.

The lot’s ownership is unclear—it might be owned by the city or the Port of New Orleans, which has an adjacent facility. It has been used for storing extra piles of metal from the port or as a staging ground for area construction, which doesn’t seem quite appropriate, considering it is surrounded on three sides by single-family homes. This is a major reason for Jones Allen’s interest in helping the Guerrilla Garden. The focus of her firm, DesignJones LLC, is environmental justice and racial equity, and this little square of land is emblematic of the problems lower-income minority communities often face. Here in the Lower Ninth Ward (arguably the site of one of the most egregious ongoing examples of institutional bias), 10 years after Katrina, a motivated and organized community group can’t even figure out which government agency to talk with to implement what would be the only play area for miles in any direction.

You could call it tactical urbanism, a pop-up park, or trespassing. The fact is that in situations like this, landscape architecture “projects” aren’t awarded; they are created. Yes, Jones Allen is calling the port and the city, trying (so far unsuccessfully) to get them to recognize this opportunity in a woefully underserved area, but she is also going right on ahead and designing the space on behalf of the community—with no municipal contract currently on offer. “If environmental justice is what you want to do as a landscape architect, you have to work with people pro bono,” she says. “Hopefully an RFP will come out of this, and we would go after it, but at least I know that I helped make it happen. You balance it, because you have to eat. So you do some of the paid things and you do some of this.”

Diane Jones Allen is a petite woman who zooms like a hummingbird from one meeting to the next. I followed her around for two days last March, from the Lower Ninth Ward to Uptown to the Mississippi River levee to Baton Rouge, where she teaches a design studio at Louisiana State University. She is poised, almost stern, when discussing topics like transit deserts (the subject of her forthcoming book), but regularly breaks into a laugh that puts everyone in the room at ease.

Jones Allen grew up in Baltimore, a city with a long and ongoing history of racial tensions. She moved to New Orleans in her twenties and has since lived off and on in both places, always maintaining strong links to both. Her choice of landscape architecture as a career began while she was pursuing an undergraduate degree in painting at Washington University in St. Louis. She was intent at the time on becoming an art conservator, and had been accepted to the Maryland Institute College of Art, one of a few institutions offering a degree in art restoration. She took the GRE and, to her surprise, got a letter from the Harvard Graduate School of Design inviting her to a summer career discovery workshop. She’s still not sure exactly how she was identified for this opportunity, but thinks it might have to do with certain aptitudes and interests apparent from her testing. She remembers it as a bit of a lark: “I thought, ‘Why not just try that for six weeks, and then I’m going off to restoration school.’” But she never went to restoration school.

After applying to several graduate landscape architecture programs, she was on the way to the post office to send a commitment to enroll in the master of landscape architecture program at Harvard when she crossed paths with the mail carrier, who was delivering a letter from the University of California, Berkeley, offering her a graduate minority fellowship—a full ride, basically. So she went west. And she encountered Randy Hester, FASLA, and Clare Cooper Marcus, Honorary ASLA, to whom she attributes her passion for community engagement and environmental justice.

After a stint back in Baltimore doing grading plans for housing subdivisions during the 1980s housing boom, she got a job with the Howard County, Maryland, recreation and parks department. Then she met and married a prominent New Orleanian, and he wanted to go back home. “I went kicking and screaming the whole way,” Jones Allen remembers, “but when I got here, I fell in love with the city.” When Jones Allen and her husband divorced, she stayed. She started her own small firm and muddled along, as small firms do, and in 2005 went back to Baltimore to work as a land planner at a large multidisciplinary firm and to teach at Morgan State University.

Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf. One cannot underestimate the effect that storm still has on New Orleans. It is part of the city’s fundamental identity and history, as has been heavily reported in this 10th anniversary year. During my time in town, I rarely had a conversation in which the storm didn’t come up unprompted. Katrina laid bare 200-plus years of racial inequity and injustice. Before Katrina, everyone knew that simmering tension was there, but now everyone is talking about it.

As Jones Allen watched the news coming out of her beloved city with horror, she decided to return. She began working pro bono on a vision for Claiborne Avenue, one of the city’s major cultural thoroughfares, and then joined a consultant team led by Kittelson & Associates and Goody, Clancy & Associates to help create that vision. She started DesignJones LLC in 2009 and split her time between Baltimore and New Orleans until 2014, when she completed her transportation engineering doctorate.

Claiborne Avenue runs generally east–west through the heart of central New Orleans. Before 1960, it was a wide boulevard with a grassy median flanked by majestic live oak trees. It was the main street of the Tremé, a middle-class African American neighborhood. The famous Mardi Gras Indians and various African American social clubs used the street as a festival ground. When Interstate 10 was proposed in the early 1960s to run along the Mississippi River through the French Quarter, boosters there successfully lobbied to have it routed along Claiborne instead, as an elevated freeway. As was the case in many American cities during the interstate highway era, the poorer, less powerful minority neighborhoods got the freeway.

Today, Claiborne runs underneath I-10. The oaks are gone, and the former grassy median is a linear concrete slab under the highway. As early as the 1970s, the Federal Highway Administration studied how to mitigate the freeway’s impact on the neighborhoods, and several other “visions” for improving the corridor have emerged over the years. Though Claiborne Avenue and the Tremé neighborhood did not experience major flooding during Katrina, the catastrophe reminded locals of injustice done when the elevated highway was built. After years of groundwork, New Orleans received a Livable Communities grant to hire the Kittelson team. Jones Allen was brought to the team to manage the community engagement and to contribute to the cultural analysis and planning.

The plan is nice. It has big visions. It proposes a suite of options ranging from ideas that can only be described as cosmetic to a removal of the elevated freeway. It’s the kind of thing well-intentioned landscape architects draw all the time. And it doesn’t satisfy Jones Allen in the least. “I’m tired of being a part of these teams where you come in and do a study and then you leave, and the people have a study,” she says, spitting that last word like a curse. “I want to do something.”

She’s not alone. Right after Jones Allen picked me up at the airport, we went to the Circle Food Store, a grocery store/café/community gathering space on the corner of Claiborne and St. Bernard, where the surface street kinks to the southeast to follow the river-aligned city grid and the elevated road continues northeast. We met with Jacques Morial, a prominent community leader with deep roots in the neighborhood. Morial was involved in the Claiborne project as a citizen. “One of the problems with the public involvement was that there was a whole lot of fatigue among people,” Morial says. “They had already sat around a bunch of tables; they had spent countless Saturdays. And they didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in the outcome.”

Jones Allen and Morial see two main problems with the typical community engagement process on big planning projects like Claiborne. The first concerns the question of what is actually going to come out of the process: another study or real action? The second relates to whether people can really share what they think. Jones Allen organized one-on-one meetings with community leaders early in the process, which were helpful, and Morial helped organize two smaller events: one with social aid and pleasure clubs—the benevolent societies and parade organizers that are at the core of community connections in New Orleans—and one with the Uptown Mardi Gras Indians. At some of the larger meetings, Jones Allen’s husband and business partner, Austin Allen, ASLA, who is a landscape architecture professor and videographer, hosted a video room, where he filmed people sharing their stories and desires for the corridor and neighborhood.

Jones Allen wanted to do more of this kind of engagement. “We were trying to get [the lead consultants and the city] to do smaller, kitchen-table meetings, where you get people to invite their friends, talk in smaller groups, really find out what the community wants,” Jones Allen says. “But mostly they ended up going with three big public meetings.”

Throughout our discussion, Morial seemed frustrated when remembering the process, but also somewhat resigned, as if the idea of consultants flying in and making a big plan was expected. After Katrina that happened a lot. “I thought that the smaller meetings, especially if people were willing to host them in their own homes, could have more substantive outcomes,” Morial says. “People would feel like real stakeholders, and they would build common cause and consensus among their neighbors.” Jones Allen adds, “We wanted to go to the next level and have one here [at the Circle Food Store] and let the lady who works in the market invite people she knows. Have one at the barber shop. We wanted to do that, but it didn’t get to that level.”

The project concluded with three scenarios. One would remove the freeway entirely; one would take down some of the on-ramps; and a third would leave the freeway in place and focus on economic development and community connections. Jones Allen thinks this is no conclusion at all, and was done so as to “not ruffle any feathers.” She believes it gives the city an excuse to do nothing—again. “I’m sorry I’m not giving you a success story,” Jones Allen says. Kittelson & Associates could not be reached for comment on the Claiborne Avenue project.

In truth, when it comes to environmental justice and racial equity work—the two terms are so inextricably linked as to become almost interchangeable—success stories are hard to identify. Successful projects don’t always lend themselves to jaw-dropping professional photography. They defy one-page summaries and never offer instant gratification. There are no ribbon cuttings. Racial equity is a slog. A success story at Claiborne would have required endless kitchen-table meetings, careful and empowering negotiation, and likely years (or decades) of work. The West Philadelphia Landscape Project by Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, is a key example of a landscape architect doing this work, and it has been going on for three decades. The fundamental inequities in our system have existed since the birth of our nation—probably longer—and they cannot be unraveled in a nine-month planning project.

There has recently been a shift in thinking about racial equity. Instead of focusing on making sure people aren’t racist, some organizations are instead trying to break down institutional bias—decisions by government, for instance, that unfairly affect a particular group, intentionally or not. Groups like the Local & Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity and Race Forward believe decision making can be improved through the use of tools like racial equity impact assessments (see “A New Lens for Public Services,” Now, LAM, November 2014). But first, there must be an admission that for a very long time decision making has been deliberately biased. “Our cities are organized intentionally,” Jones Allen says, “and politically.”

On my second day in town, Jones Allen, Austin Allen, and I drove up to Baton Rouge where Jones Allen teaches a studio at Louisiana State University and Allen is an associate professor and graduate coordinator for the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture. Jones Allen and Allen first met in 1991 when she was living in New Orleans the first time, and Allen was working on his film Claiming Open Spaces, which considers how official planning policies often conflict with the use of public parks by African Americans. He connected her into his Lower Ninth recovery efforts in 2009, and they were married a year later. Allen has taught courses to landscape architecture students on environmental justice, and last fall he took class time to discuss the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, focusing in particular on how that place (landscape architects, after all, design places) had become unjust and inequitable. Allen says that landscape architecture can advocate for people having more say in the design and planning of their neighborhoods. He and Jones Allen both think landscape architecture has focused on environmental design somewhat to the exclusion of communities. “It’s not enough to know how to control the water, manage the water,” Allen says. “In order to do that you might be taking homes, or open space.”

That, of course, makes a complex environmental vision even more complex. “Sometimes issues around environmental justice get dismissed because they’re too big to put your head around,” Allen says. But, he is quick to add, landscape architects have not shied away from other big topics such as climate change, and have not feared taking on massive landscape urbanism projects. In fact, landscape architects have advocated over the past decades for a more prominent role in environmental projects and have regularly pushed projects in a more environmentally sound direction. The profession prides itself now on its environmental advocacy. Why should community engagement and environmental justice be any different?

But, Jones Allen says, on issues of racial equity and community engagement, landscape architects have lately been forced into a backseat. This is in part owing to the somewhat misinterpreted legacy of Ian McHarg. Though McHarg did in fact study inequities within urban areas (on health issues in particular), he is most often held up as the father of large-scale geodesign. Advancements in this area have allowed the profession to move into environmental design at a very large scale. This is the area of f

acts, analysis, and modeling. But, Jones Allen says, it misses the fine grain—the desires and needs and quirks of the community, the real people—living right where these big environmentally sustainable ideas will play out.

“Is green a gentrifier?” Jones Allen asks. “You can design your wonderful park, design your wonderful High Line, and just not think about it, and the consequences are the consequences. And a lot of landscape architects do it because, well, I would have loved to design the High Line.” She continues, “But you have to put a blind eye to the communities where these things are happening, and to the greater impact. If you can live with that, which I have, sometimes, then fine.”

As the teenagers of the Lower Ninth trickled into the Guerrilla Garden—all of them African American—Jones Allen showed them her drawings for the vacant lot across the street. Jones Allen refers to it as Restoration Park. Mwendo explains to them that Jones Allen is a landscape architect and gives the teens a brief overview of what that means. Some seem intrigued. Some have specific suggestions on the design, or ideas about what might happen in the space. But they’re teenagers, and soon they are ribbing each other, flirting a little, and getting going on their garden tasks.

At some point in the discussion, I ask if it shouldn’t be the city’s responsibility to do something about that lot. Jones Allen and Mwendo look at each other for a brief beat and then burst out laughing. The two women look at me with a mix of pity and wistfulness. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” is the implied sentiment. They don’t get much help, it seems.

“Sometimes you have to just make things happen,” Jones Allen says.

Adam Regn Arvidson, FASLA, is director of strategic planning for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. He is a regular contributor to LAM.

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