Since its foundation in 1909, the Department of Parks and Parkways has gone from a neighbors-only, volunteer-led campaign to a centennial overhaul of the city's green space. But the department wears many other hats, including playground groundskeeper, doctor to the city's live oaks and bookkeeper for Jackson Square weddings (booked solid through the year). Director Ann Macdonald says the department is finally bouncing back after the massive blow dealt by Hurricane Katrina — just in time to celebrate its centennial.
Q: How did Parks and Parkways go from neighbors and volunteers to a fully commissioned part of city hall?
A: It kind of started off small, where they wanted to plant trees in front of peoples' homes. Then eventually the city government was able to offer assistance financially and recognized it needed to organize and consolidate all the various groups that were working on the beautification effort, so then it became a commission.
Q: What were some of the challenges in maintaining the parks after Katrina?
A: Post-Katrina, we saw major challenges. Our personnel had been reduced by 50 percent. Our buildings where we operate were flooded, so we're operating out of trailers. We no longer have a consolidated workforce where most of the workers report to one location in the morning before they go out. We've had equipment challenges. But I hate to focus on the negative, though that's been a major impact. I'm so proud of the work the men and women of this department have been able to do, because while our budget has been reduced, our footprint and basic responsibilities have not, and we've still managed to get the job done. It's not an ideal situation, by any means — it's increasingly more challenging every day, but we've been very strategic with regards to our major green space.
We certainly see the desire in the community for green space, and passive green space, and opportunities for picnics, family reunions.
Q: What are some of the major contributions Parks and Parkways has made to New Orleans' environment — things the casual observer may take for granted.
A: Our guidelines and strict regulations in regards to the protection of our urban canopy. Trees are very important, and with major street projects, Sewerage and Water Board projects, Parkways has strict guidelines for protecting ... the roots system, the drip-line of the tree. There are guidelines in place to ensure the protection of the tree. If you do have to do any digging or excavation, there's a protocol of termiticide treatment so that the tree has the least amount of stress and has an opportunity to recover.
Post-Katrina we've learned the value of partnering with citizen groups. Parkways Partners is the nonprofit sister agency that's worked with the department for 25 years. And the Lafayette Square Conservancy came in... (to work on) the beautification of Lafayette Square (Park). Neighborhood groups have been more and more empowered. We work closely with Lakeview Civic (Improvement Association). (President) Al Petrie has planted thousands of trees in Lakeview, and Parkways has served as a technical advisor, making sure the trees are planted in appropriate locations.
We've also partnered with Hike for KaTREEna. Monique Pille has planted more than 5,000 trees in the city post-Katrina. And I hate to name names, but I've got to highlight Monique and what she's done, 'cause she's a one-man show. Citizens can contact her if they want a tree planted in front of their home, between the sidewalk and the curb — the Parkways strip. What she has done is get groupings. When we're not getting a call from 20 people in a neighborhood, she'll go out and meet with the community and bring (us) 40 locations. Then we can go out and inspect the sites, give them back to her. She's streamlined the process tremendously and been able to offer more bang.
Q: What's in store for maybe the next 100 years?
A: I hope it continues. In a lot of cities, the recreation and the parks departments are merged, but I think that happens in cities where they don't have nearly the kind of green space we have. The importance of having a Department of Parks and Parkways and our Urban Forestry division is what sets us apart. In some cities, you've got the forestry division as part of the (Department of Public Works). They do road work projects that affect trees, and it would be very difficult for an urban forester to say to his boss, "Well, you've got to spend another $10,000 to protect the live oaks on this corridor." It's an important (system of) checks and balances. And in some cities, every single park has been programmed with a soccer field, a baseball field, a football field. Some people just want a park. That's the beauty of Lafayette Square or Armstrong Park. When you walk through those locations, you can just go sit in the grass or under a tree and enjoy the silence of a park.
The Department of Parks and Parkways celebrates its centennial in May by honoring past directors, staff and others. Visit www.cityofneworleans.com/portals/parkandparkways for details.