New Orleans Is Trying To Turn Around Its Blight With These Smart Designs

Vacant land is a big problem in the city, but it could be an even bigger opportunity.

More than a decade after Hurricane Katrina–and after decades of dwindling population even before the storm–New Orleans is filled with empty houses and vacant lots. Last summer, the city started auctioning off hundreds of those lots online. But now the city is rethinking its approach to vacant land.


In a design competition called Future Ground, held by the design nonprofit Van Alen Institute and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, three teams each spent six months coming up with new ways New Orleans can deal with blight.

One key insight: Selling off lots one by one probably doesn’t make as much sense as thinking of vacant land on a larger scale, with bigger social, environmental, and economic opportunities.

One team focused on ways that vacant land could transform into a place where someone without a college degree could get a job that paid a living wage. “You have significant unemployment issues in the city,” says Chris Reed, founding principal of the design firm Stoss, which led a group working on the project. “A lot of the folks who are unemployed are the ones who don’t have an extensive education. But what we discovered is that the types of businesses that those folks could work in, needed lots of a particular size that weren’t available in the city of New Orleans. In other words, all those little lots were too small.”

Team LEX

Bundled together, a group of vacant lots could suddenly work as a business. The type of business would depend on the configuration; some neighborhoods might turn into a network of lots owned by a nursery or a food business. A group of adjacent lots might be combined into a hub of business-to-business organizations (something that the team found a need for in the city) or a food hub.

The designers also suggested wilder ideas, such as “Air TNB,” a pop-up business that would use tents on vacant lots to host visitors for music festivals or Mardi Gras. A “helicopter oriented development” could fly in workers from oil rigs who spend two weeks on land at a time, and currently can’t find housing in the city.

Designers also considered ways that the city could engage the public more creatively to think about the potential of lots. Team Stoss suggested block parties; Team Nolex suggested a game to help role-play negotiations.


The designers from Team Nolex also looked at how the city could help bring unlikely partners to vacant land, by reaching out to various groups–bike advocates, arts organizations, wildlife nonprofits–and figuring out their priorities, and then matching them up with areas that might be a good fit.

Team Pad (“policy as design”), led by the New Orleans-based design firm DARCH, suggested looking at vacant land at a regional scale, and how empty lots in the city might help broader efforts to provide wildlife habitat, stormwater management, and transportation. The designers also looked at new visions for the future–instead of a Lower Ninth Ward full of homes, maybe the neighborhood will alternate between homes, farms, tree nurseries, and trails.

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is rewriting its strategic planning with some of the ideas, and already implementing others. A new acquisition program will gather multiple lots into larger sites. A new regional committee on resilience will look at how individual properties and blocks relate to the broader area. And a new “resilience district” will turn vacant lots in the Gentilly neighborhood into parks.

The ideas could also be useful elsewhere, say designers–not just in those with shrinking populations, like Detroit, but also in parts of cities like Atlanta, where some similar problems exist. “There’s an opportunity here that goes far beyond New Orleans,” says Reed.

All Images: via Future Ground


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."