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College of Art & Design Efforts Helping to Rebuild New Orleans

LSU’s championship spirit extends beyond the end of football season and infuses our nationally recognized programs all year long. Our championship spirit both on the field and in the fields of research, education, and community service represents some of the University’s most important victories.

If you look at the rebuilding efforts under way in the metro New Orleans area, you will see numerous examples of projects spearheaded by students and faculty from LSU’s College of Art & Design. They are building new homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, designing schoolyards in Orleans Parish, and drafting a blueprint for the redevelopment of the Jefferson Parish lakefront. It is an impressive set of endeavors, and College officials are not shy about saying so.

“It’s really exciting that so many different departments in our College have been able to play such a vital role in helping rebuild New Orleans,” said David Cronrath, dean of the College of Art & Design. “It has been a phenomenal learning experience, while also providing us with an opportunity to perform much-needed community service.”

The most high-profile project has been the construction of the first two new post-Katrina homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, which were built under the direction of communityworks. Formerly known as the Office of Community Development, communityworks is an interdisciplinary community research center under the auspices of the School of Architecture that provides technical assistance to non-profit organizations and communities in need.

Communityworks embraces an active approach to teaching and learning. There, students provide pre-professional architectural services in a best practice studio setting. Central to the working philosophy of communityworks is the concept of an integrated learning community consisting of the client, community stakeholders, students, and faculty working together.

To that end, communityworks partnered last year with ACORN Housing Corporation to build two new model homes on flood-damaged property in the Lower Ninth Ward. Fourth-year architecture students and previously unskilled New Orleans residents from substance abuse rehab facilities constructed the homes. The residents have since been trained in the construction field.

For three days each week during the fall 2006 semester, the group of 13 students made the 90-minute commute to New Orleans, where they worked from dawn till dusk on the Delery Street homes. They participated in the design and construction of the houses, as well as in the landscaping.

The homes were completed in mid-February, and property owners Gwendolyn Guice and Josephine Butler were able to move back to their neighborhood of 25 years. A ribbon cutting ceremony attended by political officials, community leaders, and the national media marked the completion of the project.

“It’s been a very rewarding experience,” said Marsha Cuddeback, a professor of architecture at LSU and director of communityworks. “We’ve been able to demonstrate that it is possible to come back and that the city is coming back.”

From homes to schoolyards

In another rebuilding effort, students in the Robert S. Reich School of Landscape Architecture have redesigned schoolyards at several New Orleans public schools. The students’ work was part of the New Orleans Schoolyard Project, an ongoing effort within the School of Landscape Architecture to rebuild flood-damaged or long-neglected schoolyards throughout they Crescent City.

While that project is noteworthy in and of itself, it has particular significance because it is the first major initiative of the School’s new Urban Landscape Lab – a traveling design studio and high-tech classroom that enables students and researchers to work in the field using the latest in graphic and design technology. Under the direction of professor Wes Michaels, the lab focuses on realizing innovative landscape design projects for communities in need.

“We’re thrilled to be able to utilize the Urban Landscape Lab for such an important project,” said Elizabeth Mossop, director of the Robert S. Reich School of Landscape Architecture .

During the 2006-07 academic year, students from various undergraduate and graduate courses tackled four schoolyards in New Orleans – the Priestly School of Architecture and Construction, the Math and Science High School, Wicker Elementary School, and the Colton Academy site, which was originally for the Martin Luther King School from the Lower Ninth Award. Of the three, designs for the Priestly School are the farthest along.

Students began working on the Priestly project last fall as part of an undergraduate studio course taught by Mossop and Karla Christensen, coordinator of the New Orleans Schoolyard Project. They conducted research and met with a group of Priestly students to better understand what the high school students would like to see in a redesigned schoolyard.

Last December, the LSU students traveled to New Orleans and presented their designs to Priestly families, faculty, and administrators who selected their three favorite designs. Those designs were also displayed earlier this year at the Contemporary Arts Center. The exhibit, “Rebuilding New Orleans One Schoolyard at a Time,” marked the first time that the work of LSU students was featured at the CAC.

“These projects are very exciting,” Mossop said. “Not only have they given our students a tremendous opportunity to participate in service learning projects, but they have also enabled us to showcase the advantages of the Urban Landscape Lab.”

Work will continue on The Priestly School throughout the next year, as well as on the others. While none of the schoolyard plans have been implemented, the goal of The New Orleans Schoolyard Project is to ultimately help as many of the plans as possible become a reality.

“The intention of these projects is that they will be an ongoing collaboration between the schools and their pupils, the faculty and students of the School of Landscape Architecture, and the local communities,” Mossop said. “We hope that as the schools are able to raise money, we will be able to build a number of the schoolyards beginning in fall 2007.”

Helping Jefferson Parish, too

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While Orleans Parish sustained the most damage from Hurricane Katrina, Jefferson Parish was hard hit as well. Landscape architecture professor Bruce Sharky has drafted a plan to help that parish rebuild its vulnerable lakefront – a plan that parish leaders have formally adopted as the blueprint they will use to seek state and federal funding for their lakefront reconstruction efforts.

“I hope the students recognize the significance of this,” said Sharky, a 16-year veteran of the Robert S. Reich School of Landscape Architecture . “This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often.”

Sharky and associate professor Kevin Risk began working with their students on the project last fall, taking half a dozen trips to New Orleans. They met with parish leaders and toured the area to get a firsthand look at the levees and the neighborhoods around them. They also did extensive research, using online resources that provided maps and satellite imagery. By late October they had a draft plan; by early December, it was complete.

The plan is formally entitled “Jefferson Parish Lakefront: Rebuilding for a More Flood-Resistant Future.” It is a 40-page report written in sections by individual students, complete with state-of-the-art graphics and computer generated renderings. Essentially, it proposes rebuilding the wetlands and coastal marshes that once lined the lakefront as a way of providing a natural barrier to the levee system and the inland areas it was designed to protect.

Sharky points out that during Katrina, the Jefferson parish levees did not break, though they were seriously weakened. While they need to be strengthened and upgraded, that will take time and money. A more reasonable and timely solution is to create a protection system for the levees themselves – terraced breakweaters and barrier islands in and around which human-made wetlands can be cultivated.

The plan proposes several alternatives all centered on the basic concept of wetland recreation. Additionally, it suggest various ways of developing recreational facilities like parks and bike paths, wildlife habitats, educational centers, and commercial areas for shopping and dining. It also suggests that such environmentally responsible solutions can improve the cost-benefit of the project because of the added uses, which could increase property values and the livability and quality of life.

“The students came up with a range of possibilities and they’re all very impressive,” Sharky said.

The Jefferson Parish Council certainly thought so. It formally adopted the plan late last year, meaning the LSU plan becomes the blueprint the parish will use as it seeks state and federal funds for rebuilding the coastal lakefront. Though a professional consulting firm will eventually be brought in to implement those designs, the work of Sharky, Risk, and their students will provide the foundation on which those designs are eventually built.

“I really believe in service learning,” Sharky said. “That’s what this is all about, teaching students how to use their profession to make a meaningful difference in society.”

Stephanie Riegel | School of Art & Design | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Spring 2007

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