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Breaking it down and building it up in New Orleans: U.S. EPA Region 2 EFC team participates in, analyzes Historic Green project

May 08, 2008

Khristopher Dodson

Khristopher Dodson

Members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 2 Environmental Finance Center at Syracuse University (Region 2 EFC) learned there's more than one way to use a hammer when they helped with reconstruction -- and deconstruction -- of the Holy Cross neighborhood of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

The Region 2 EFC, a member of the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems, was invited in March to observe and evaluate the Historic Green project ( Specifically, the team analyzed the components -- the people, resources and plans -- involved in this unique recovery project in a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The Region 2 EFC team -- led by Director Mark Lichtenstein -- included Associate Director Sara Pesek and Maxwell School graduate student Nicolette Mueller. The team met with organizers and project stakeholders, interviewed participants, attended community meetings and toured project sites. The team members also worked side by side with community members and volunteers from across the nation.

"It was important for us to get our hands dirty," Lichtenstein says. "Swinging a hammer really increased our credibility. We didn't want to be perceived as some sort of big city group, coming from New York, that just observes. We needed to get involved."

Historic Green caught Pesek's attention in December 2007. "When I learned about the project, I was by impressed by its innovation and relevance to social and environmental justice, as well as its pertinence to projects Region 2 EFC conducts in Central Upstate New York," Pesek says.

Historic Green is an extraordinary collaboration between Holy Cross community members and local organizations and nonprofit groups, as well as a national network of students and others involved in green building -- a growing movement within the architecture, engineering and construction industries that focuses on making buildings more energy efficient and environmentally sound.

"It's amazing how the Holy Cross neighborhood group has people organized locally and mobilized nationally," says Mueller. Eight months after Hurricane Katrina, neighbors in Holy Cross decided to take the fate of the neighborhood into their own hands. They developed a plan for a sustainable, zero-carbon community based on the greater City of New Orleans principles of equity and economic recovery.

News of the Holy Cross plan reached Kansas City, where a group of young Emerging Green Builders (EGB) was inspired to join in. The EGB group reached out to other professionals, volunteers and students nationwide. In all, some 500 volunteers from all over the United States visited the Historic Green project in March.

Historic Green is innovative, according to Lichtenstein, because it focuses on what the community wants to do. "It isn't about experts telling them what they need; it's about reaching out to the community and asking them what they want," he says.

For instance, Holy Cross residents wish to preserve the historic look and feel of their community, so community members, the Preservation Resource Center and emerging green builders are working together to deconstruct and reconstruct these historic homes. Actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation ( already has one new "green" house built in a part of Holy Cross that was destroyed by flooding. The majority of the green building is being done on homes that survived the storm. The reconstructed homes will be more environmentally friendly and are likely to save homeowners thousands of dollars in energy savings over the lifetime of the house.

Originally, the Region 2 EFC was invited to New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina, but Lichtenstein wasn't sure how to effectively take part in the aftermath. "Still, I desperately wanted to help, and this project fits with our mission," he says. "We have skills here that fit with what Historic Green is doing."

"We knew we could help Historic Green for three reasons: our mutual focus on green building, community planning and disaster recovery," says Pesek, who notes that lessons learned in New Orleans can be applied to Central Upstate and other regions served by Region 2 analysis of Historic Green's organizational and institutional dynamics -- for instance, for disaster recovery and community revitalization efforts.

Therefore, in addition to a case study report based on information gathered during Historic Green, Region 2 EFC is considering creating a framework that could be applied to other communities affected by disasters, even on a small scale. "Whether it's an ice storm in Syracuse or flooding in New York's Southern Tier, the experiences of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward will provide insight for our own communities," Pesek says.

"Hurricane Katrina may be only the beginning of extreme weather events causing massive human disasters at home," Pesek notes. However, members of the EFC team agree that collaborative, innovative projects to deal with a disaster's effects, such as Historic Green, may be the wave of the future. And the Region 2 EFC's forthcoming report on Historic Green is likely to find that a rebuilt community is much more than the sum of its parts.

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