Tim Duggan: The Tenacious Landscape Architect Reviving New Orleans

Tim Duggan, the Make It Right foundation's resident landscape architect, is helping revive New Orleans through ambitious experiments in landscape design.

OCCUPATION: Landscape architect
LOCATION: New Orleans

Tim Duggan stands in the middle of North Prieur Street, in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. Although it certainly doesn’t look like it to the untrained eye, Duggan is here to demonstrate a Make It Right initiative every bit as radical as the Brad Pitt–sponsored starchitect houses dotting the landscape. This experimental street—built in collaboration with the city’s Department of Public Works and the University of New Orleans—dead-ends at the foot of the Industrial Canal levee, site of the infamous breach that inundated the neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina. Duggan, a bearded landscape architect built like the high school baseball catcher he once was, uncaps a water bottle, extends an arm, and pours. “The city spends almost fifty million dollars a year on electricity to pump excess storm water over the levees,” he says. “But the pervious concrete you see here is still forbidden in the city of New Orleans.” He lets that sink in, literally, as the water quickly becomes a moist blotch on the pavement. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve had to get a variance for.”

His official title at Make It Right is “landscape architect,” but the unique nature of the project, the complicated planning issues, and the emphatic personality of the man made a larger, more expansive role almost preordained. “Tim is tenacious,” says Duggan’s mentor and former boss, Bob Berkebile, one of the fathers of the green building movement and a founding partner of BNIM. “He sees the links and acts on them. I would clone him if I knew how.”

Duggan’s route to Make It Right ran directly through his mentor. While working for BNIM in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, he designed an “eco-playground” for the tornado-stricken town of Greensburg, Kansas. That effort was featured on a special segment of CBS’s The Early Show; producers there were so pleased with the resulting story that they asked about building a similar playground in an urban setting. Through Berkebile, BNIM was already advising Pitt in New Orleans, as well as designing one of the first Make It Right houses. Once he arrived on-site in 2008, Duggan, the son of a concrete contractor, quickly became indispensible, especially in the chaotic early weeks of the project. “We built the first solar-powered eco-playground in North America, while they were constructing the first six houses,” Duggan says. “So we’d be building the playground with pervious concrete, solar panels, wetlands, and a rain garden, then I’d hop in the Bobcat and drive to the other side of the development and help them grade a house site for landscape installation.” It wasn’t too long before Berkebile received a call from a Make It Right official asking, “How would you feel if we borrowed Tim for a while?”

Duggan’s work—which, he stresses, is “highly collaborative; I don’t do it alone”—operates on three interconnected scales: the neighborhood (Make It Right), the community (the Lower Ninth), and the city. “The first time I attended a community meeting, someone asked, ‘Tim, how is Make It Right not colonizing our neighborhood?’” he says. “That was the very first question I was asked as an employee. It caught me a little off guard.” That question—and those raw wounds—were the impetus behind the Community Beyond Housing project, which pulled together a long and impressive list of collaborators, including the landscape architects Walter Hood and Elizabeth Mossop, to create a series of community gardens throughout the Lower Ninth. “Tim really spearheaded that effort and it’s ongoing,” says Tom Darden, Make It Right’s executive director. “The gardens we install are fully maintained by the community and the homeowners.”

Duggan realized early on that he would need some buy-in from the city of New Orleans to accomplish his goals—or, at the very least, a slew of variances, since much of what he proposed (like pervious concrete) was, strictly speaking, illegal. There were entrenched cultural biases as well. “When I first got here, I was fluent in the language of rain gardens and bioswales,” Duggan says. “I’d walk through the streets and point out natural bioswales, and I was quickly told that those were in fact ditches, and that ditches were in neighborhoods for poor folks in New Orleans, whereas curved gutters were for the affluent.”

But Duggan is nothing if not politically adroit. He has given dozens of demonstrations to skeptical city officials. In 2010, he collaborated with design colleagues at Make It Right to create a remarkable document for the Department of Public Works that laid out a new vision for storm-water management—a huge issue, since the city gets nearly 70 inches of rain a year and spends millions of dollars pumping it out. “And because the whole city is impervious, it does not recharge any of its groundwater,” Duggan says (referring to the process whereby surface water filters down to groundwater). As a result, the city is sinking at a rate of about an inch a year. The presentation, “Sustainable Stormwater: A Kit of Parts Approach,” illustrated a set of best practices, with examples from Make It Right, and then applied them to specific street types common to New Orleans. Though just 24 pages, the corresponding report is comprehensive and think-tank worthy in its breadth, and it makes a compelling economic argument for change.

Dealing with city politics, however, can be frustrating. “I call it the bureaucratic wheel of impediment,” Duggan says. Still, it’s clear he does have people’s attention; the North Prieur Street experiment is a case in point. “We did a hydrology model that showed that our street project, if they let us do it, would capture 375,000 gallons of water every time in rained, just for that little 400-foot stretch of road,” he says. “The official from Public Works said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ And I said, ‘Here’s the model, here’s the seal from the engineer.’”

The potential cost savings prompted the city to embark on an ambitious experiment. They divided the street into eight sections, each with a slightly different mix of pervious concrete and structural reinforcement, and then tested them for durability and water retention. “Our understanding is that the initial results were strong,” Darden says. “These could be viable replacement options for other streets.”

These types of experiments have become commonplace at Make It Right, and they might, in the end, be the project’s most lasting legacy. “I think the ultimate goal of Make It Right is to complete our initial commitment and build 150 homes,” says Duggan, who, in addition to his continuing work in New Orleans, recently started his own firm, Phronesis Design. “But its secondary goal is using innovation in new ways that can lead to replication.”

Categories: Cities, Landscape