CITY PARK AND WISNER TRACT
New Orleans’ City Park is a 1,300-acre regional destination with botanical and sculptural gardens, trails, tennis courts, golf courses, stadiums, an amusement park, a children’s museum, and one of the world’s largest stands of mature Live Oaks. Like the Lakeview, Mid-City and Gentilly neighborhoods around it, City Park was able to grow thanks to turn-of-the-20th-century pump technology that drained the wetland environment. The park’s extensive lagoons are themselves engineering feats dug by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.
Wisner Tract, 100 acres in the park’s center, is a former cypress swamp that became a golf course in the early 1900s. Though City Park is a public amenity, historically the park has received no regular funding or operational support from the city or state, relying instead on private fundraising and park-based revenue-generating programs. Wisner Tract was one of four golf courses that generated revenue of approximately $3 million per year before Hurricane Katrina.
After Katrina, City Park sat under floodwater for weeks, causing more than $40 million in damages. Fifteen years later, Wisner Tract is the only piece of City Park to remain unrestored, and its future is being envisioned within a complex ecosystem of post-Katrina design and planning imperatives.
PUBLIC PROCESS AND A NEW VISION FOR WISNER TRACT
When the Katrina floodwaters receded, Wisner Tract’s resilient lagoons and wetlands were surrounded by derelict fairways, greens and golf cart paths. But the tract was far from empty. Park neighbors who’d had no reason to visit the Wisner golf course found a refuge in the urban wilderness, playing on the open greens and making daily use of the quiet golf cart paths.
During the first phase of the Wisner Tract community engagement process, more than 400 participants confirmed that New Orleans had formed a strong attachment to the de facto passive park that had grown in place of the manicured golf course, urging designers to “keep it wild.” Of those who attended the public workshops to share their vision for the site – and to design it themselves using the hands-on “Chip Game” engagement tool – 37% lived within walking distance of the park, and an additional 50% lived in the City of New Orleans. There was consensus that Wisner Tract should remain a fully public and accessible urban wilderness, and that view was confirmed by hundreds of additional participants at public workshops held to review the master plan concepts in January 2020.
Less than two months after the January workshops, the global COVID-19 pandemic changed the relationship between people and their parks. In City Park, demand for revenue-generating programs – such as the stadiums and amusement park – plummeted, while the demand for passive open space and trails became more urgent than ever.
DESIGN AND PLANNING IMPERATIVES IN POST-KATRINA CITY PARK AND NEW ORLEANS
Hurricane Katrina devastated the City of New Orleans and shone a harsh light on the limitations of the highly engineered pump, canal and levee system that had allowed the city to grow within its delta environment. In the short term, this system had produced developable land beyond the earliest settled ridges and backslopes. In the long term, it produced a disastrous citywide cycle of land subsidence and vulnerability to flood.
Hurricane Katrina prompted a flurry of planning efforts for the rebuilding and future protection of an iconic city. Most pressing for the Wisner Tract planning process was the 2013 Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which called for a new approach to urban water management with an emphasis on green infrastructure to allow rainwater to infiltrate local soils – lightening the load on canal-and-pump drainage systems while restoring groundwater levels and creating opportunities for public water access. Parks are critical to this living-with-water approach.
City Park has been proactive in identifying opportunities to support this citywide vision – and reduce the impact of flooding on its neighbors – by implementing stormwater management best practices. The Wisner Tract planning process is part of a coordinated effort to improve the park’s lagoon system – deepening, reconfiguring and connecting the waterbodies to boost their stormwater storage capacity in addition to their hydrological health and recreational value.
A 21ST CENTURY PARK FOR NEW ORLEANS
The Wisner Tract planning process demonstrates how 21st-century parks can offer layered benefits of ecological health, stormwater mitigation, recreation opportunities, and overall public health and wellbeing. The landscape architects worked with a local ecologist to study the site’s history, soils, hydrology, invasive species and Live Oak canopy strongholds and to analyze the suitability of plant and habitat communities native to the site’s ecoregions. They designed a mosaic of interweaving south Louisiana ecosystems – lagoons, Cypress and Live Oak forests, freshwater marshes, and marsh-fringe and coastal prairies – that honor the site’s ecological history and sense of place while offering abundant opportunities to educate and delight the senses of park visitors.
The landscape architects worked with local civil engineers to ensure the site plan would significantly increase Wisner Tract’s ability to absorb neighborhood floodwaters and forge new connections between park visitors, the water, and the resilient hydrological ecosystems of south Louisiana. These efforts will relieve pressure on the drainage system of the Jefferson-Orleans Basin and increase the resiliency of surrounding neighborhoods to flood.
The team identified opportunities to improve water quality and fish habitat for the existing site lagoons by terracing their edges and replacing invasive species with native plants, stabilizing the shoreline and increasing storage capacity. The plan also calls for expansion of the lagoon in the heart of Wisner Tract – creating 41,000 cubic yards of additional storage volume, wildlife habitat and public water access. Along Wisner Drive, a constructed wetland and forebay will capture sediment and allow filtration before stormwater circulates to the site’s wetlands and lagoons. These enhanced hydrological connections will further improve water quality and habitat for fish, birds and invertebrates while limiting the spread of invasive species.
The design creates a trail system that offers generous and varied public access throughout the site. It is designed to protect the most sensitive environments and to accommodate a series of corridors that promote long-term habitat health for indicator species including the Red-Eared Slider and Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.
This layered and collaborative planning process writes a new chapter in the evolution of Wisner Tract – not a return to any of its previous natural or built conditions, but a design that elevates the best of the site’s past lives in public amenity and ecological function.
The commitment of City Park leadership to a passive park vision for Wisner Tract was an extraordinary affirmation of the park’s mission to serve the people of New Orleans and the region. Rather than return the 100 acres of Wisner Tract to a fee-based park program, City Park listened to the wishes of its community and supported a plan that is low in revenue-generating program but rich in ecological and public value.
All of which puts City Park in uncharted territory for implementation of the visionary Wisner Tract plan. On the one hand, given its historical need to raise and generate its own improvement and operating budgets, implementation depends on the park’s ability to raise significant new funds, minus the revenue it previously generated from the Wisner golf course. On the other hand, the Wisner Tract plan is the latest proof of City Park’s critical public value and another argument in favor of public support, setting the stage for a new financial framework that includes both onetime and ongoing city, state and federal funding.
Already City Park, due to grassroots public support, has secured $2 million in ongoing city funds to begin in 2021. The State of Louisiana approved a one-time allocation of $2.5 million to help fill the park’s pandemic-related loss of revenue. And the park stands to receive significant federal support through Hazard Mitigation and other grant programs for its multiple-benefit stormwater mitigation projects.
Documents and Media
Planning Docs (if applicable):