Q&A: Tim Duggan on Make It Right’s Plans for New Orleans

Landscape Architect Tim Duggan talks with Martin Pedersen about his life, career, and whether we should rebuild New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

Although 2012 Game Changer Tim Duggan would never describe them that way, the series of events that led him into landscape architecture almost feels like some sort of divine intervention. Some time in the late 1990s, Duggan was working on a backyard project in suburban Kansas City (Tim’s late father was a concrete contractor). It involved moving three hundred pound stone stairs. A nosy neighbor walked over and asked, “Who did this design?” Duggan said, “I did” and showed him the drawing. “I hear you’re going back to K-State and I wanted to let you know that they have a pretty good program,” the neighbor said. “So if you want to move these rocks around the rest of your life, that’s fine. But if you want to draw those rocks and tell other people where to put them, then you should look into landscape architecture.”

Soon afterward, Duggan showed up at the offices of the school of architecture, at Kansas State University, on a rather naïve mission. “I walked in ten days before school started and said to the assistant dean that I wanted to become a landscape architect,” Duggan recalls. “She informed me that she didn’t think that I could make it this round because I hadn’t gone through the process: portfolio, interviews, references. During our meeting the phone rang and she found out that two of her admitted students were going to different programs. While she was on the phone, I looked up on the wall. At the time I had a serious girlfriend who was into horse shows and equestrian activities, which meant that I became interested in horse shows and equestrian activities. I started taking pictures, as a show photographer. Sure enough, up on the wall, a picture of her husband on a horse, at a cross-country event in Kansas City. I’d taken that photograph. So she gets off the phone and said, ‘Well, this is strange. We just found out that two people cancelled.’ Immediately I chimed in, mentioning that I’d taken that picture on her wall. It happened in the blink of an eye, because her husband walked in at that moment, and she introduced me to her husband, who was a landscape architecture professor, as one of the newly admitted students at the College of Architecture, Planning and Design.”

Clearly, Duggan has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, but it’s more than that: he’s a master at seizing opportunities, and then running with them, full-sprint. He has been instrumental in connecting Make It Right to the larger community. His official title is landscape architect, but his role seems to encompass so much more than that. For my profile on him, I interviewed him for nearly two hours at the Make It Right offices in New Orleans. Here’s an edited version of our far-ranging talk:

Since joining Make It Right you’ve worn a couple of hats, landscape architect and de facto planning director. How did that role evolve?
Yes and no. I have always remained steadfast that my title is landscape architect. A lot of issues arise when titles become involved. Being a landscape architect, that’s a cool enough title for me. That said, planning and landscape architecture at Make It Right are intertwined. What we were allowed to do from the start was create a site sustainability plan. We couldn’t do a formal “master plan,” because the fears of gentrification and land grabs were just too great. So we had to flip planning, as I knew it, on its head and ask: If we place houses here at this exact site, can the development propagate out? Micro or incremental planning is very different from macro planning.

So you don’t have a predetermined series of lots where one hundred and fifty houses will go?
No. Not even today we don’t. Even though we know we’re going to build a hundred and fifty houses.

But you don’t know exactly where Houses No. 111, 117 and 121 will go?
We have sites for the next scattered few, but it’s very organic. We definitely know where major nodes are. We know where major connections and linkages are. We know that this is situated on a regional and a local transit-oriented development. We know where our major storm water trunk lines are, for open space. We know the entire plan in and out. But how the pieces fit together is flexible. It would drive most planners crazy. But we’ve decided to say, “We’re just going to let this one roll out.”

That’s how cities form anyway, organically. As a planner in this situation you have to let a bit of your ego go and say, “Plan it only up to a certain point and let happenstance fill it all in.”
Exactly. That’s what so important about our pilot streets project. We’ve done site sustainability at every lot, as best we can, but the first semblance of a master plan is the design of the public right of way.

How did the pilot street happen?
One of our founders, Bill McDonough, strongly recommended early on—which may have led to my job—that we collaborate with landscape architects and civil engineers to develop a sustainability program for the site that matched the architecture. He also said we needed to figure out solutions for storm runoff. And so, coming from a city where I was fortunate to assist with hundreds rain gardens—I designed the first rain gardens in downtown Kansas City—this was very intriguing. How do we replicate this idea of storm water management in a climate that gets two and a half times the amount of rain, with poor soils?  Fortunately we had the luxury of being able to experiment. We started with a single a pervious concrete installation: the playground sidewalk. The New Orleans Department of Public Works agreed to let us do it, and if it failed, we would replace it with regular concrete. We started with one, and it worked, so we installed them on the first six houses, and they worked. Then we brought the Public Works director out. We showed him the whole project and said, “We’re gonna do these on all of the houses. This could have a big impact on a city that spends almost fifty million dollars on electricity pumping water over the levee.”

Were they skeptical?
This is a six-month contract that has taken three years to get permitted. It started with sidewalks and driveways, and once we got permission, we thought, we’ll ask for other permissions later. And we just scaled it up. When we brought in engineers to measure the impacts, just of the driveways and sidewalks, it peaked enough interest that Public Works said, “Do you think that you could do a demonstration project?”

Your report on storm water management for the city was great. It was a shrewd political document. You must have said, “We’ll always need pumps” at least three times.

What we are saying is that these approaches will allow you to create a better pedestrian realm. And a better pedestrian realm creates a safer environment, higher property values, and economic development. It creates all of these things that you would never relate to pervious vs. impervious concrete. At that point we said, “We’ll work a local engineer of your choice, and bring in collaborators like Bill McDonough, Walter Hood, Bob Berkebile, Pete O’Shea and Diane Jones. Everyone will want to work on this project because of the impact that it could have.” Everyone said, yes. Then it hit what I call the “bureaucratic wheel of impediment.” It just stopped. We had to one by one do the dog and pony show to every bureaucrat in the city. It was like hitting your head with a hammer multiple times. But we kept on doing stuff and then we saw a window opening to actually do a whole street.

Who did you present to?
Public Works, the Department of Transportation, City Council folks, local contractors. When we first started the closest pervious concrete installer was in Mississippi. Now there are twenty-plus installers in the city of New Orleans. And I’d say a majority of those worked on at least one installation in our target area. The moment that you can tie these to the impact and then connect them to jobs, it’s a win-win argument.

What happens to Make It Right after you’ve completed all 150 homes?
Make It Right as an organization is currently going through a strategic plan to have everyone who’s invested in this project add their two cents and to create a vision for 150-and-beyond. I think the moment you get to 150, the collaboration can write itself. If you don’t get to 150, then you didn’t meet your goal, and the project is not as special.

The neighborhood needs a lot more than 150 houses. If you told me the number was 1500, I’d say that was about right.

Density has been the biggest concern of the directors in our organization. They’ve seen good and bad effects of shotgun blasts of doing houses here, here, and here. They’ve mandated from the start that we find a way to achieve a certain density before we leave this box. That directive came straight from Brad and Tom. It’s only been recently that we’ve begun to see a cadence to the neighborhood: houses, Christmas decorations, school bus stops, the beginnings of a community. That’s when I’ll stop and say, “Hey, you stubborn old director, you made us think about density and you’re absolutely right.”

Early on I was one of those people who thought the Lower Ninth shouldn’t get rebuilt. The debate still rages.
I don’t think people are opposed to the city shrinking, but everyone should have the right to come home. That’s just been engrained in me every time I see a homeowner get the keys to their new house. A lot of the houses in the Lower Ninth were transferred down in family lineage, so the neighborhood had deeper meanings, both sentimentally and physically. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Why are you rebuilding there?”

You hear it from architects.
Yes, always. Why are you rebuilding there?

What’s your response?
If we’re going to rebuild in a floodplain, we’ll have to do it differently, and we’re showcasing how to do that. Now, if you’re implying that less fortunate and low-to-moderate income families don’t have the right to return to their homes, like other more affluent people do, then that’s a different conversation.

No one dares have that conversation.
No one will say that. They sheepishly back away when you challenge them. They’ll be cavalier and imply it, but when asked to say it out loud, they shrivel. That’s what it comes down to. Because most people don’t know that the Lower 9th Ward is not the lowest spot in the city. They automatically assume that.

What is?
Lakeview is the lowest spot in the city. The Lower 9th is within eighteen inches of the French Quarter, so it’s actually highly desirable land. The neighborhood fears a land grab. They think it’ll be a casino, a golf course, a mixed-use resort for affluent white people. That’s been their fear from the start. The first time I attended a community meeting, I was asked, “Tim, how is Make It Right not colonizing our neighborhood?”

Did you have an answer for that?
I told them I had to answer this question through the lens of a landscape architect, so I kind of defaulted a bit. I said my experience in the world of landscape architecture is that monocultures and landscapes cease to exist, but diverse solutions in landscape thrive and balance each other out. If we don’t create a community that has a diverse framework, then the neighborhood could cease to exist.

Where do you see the Lower 9th Ward going in the next three years?
New Orleans is a neighborhood-centric city. Every piece of this city has a very eclectic neighborhood framework and structure. And so I think that the two biggest opportunities and constraints are related to access and public transit. If the streetcar can reconnect all the way downriver to Jackson Barracks, connect to major tourist destinations, centers of employment, downtown, then its going to continue to be a special place. It could be one of the greatest places
in the city to live. Because the bigger opportunity in the 9th ward, is related to eco tourism and eco living. It’s connected to 31,000 acres of protected wetlands. You have an 8-mile linear park that connects the bayou to the river. In theory, people on a two, four, or eight mile walking trail could be connected to 30,000 acres of boardwalks and protected wetlands, with a skyline view along the Mississippi. With resources, it could easily be the best place in the city to live.

Right now there just aren’t enough people. The city could ignore the Lower Ninth basically because there was no one there to object.
And that’s where you have to start with a node. You have to start with something, otherwise it’s just gonna die. And there’s so much character and culture, so many special people there. Frankly, it’s New Orleans’s urban coast. The economic development opportunities around water resources, wetland restoration and remediation, hydro power, the green economy, can be completely planted in the 9th ward.

To learn more about Tim Duggan as a 2012 Game Changer, see the magazine article.

Categories: Landscape

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