A favorite part of my return to New Orleans is to revisit some of my earliest projects as an aspiring landscape architect.  It’s always humbling to see what you thought was so brilliant at the time has now either been replaced, or is falling apart.  There is probably no tougher testing ground than New Orleans, where deferred maintenance, or no maintenance, is a fact of life.

But I was pleased to see that Lafayette Mall, one of the first public realm projects I ever did, was still intact and holding its own.  More importantly, it struck me that 30 years ago, I understood that narrow streets were one of the best ‘big moves’ we could make to improve the quality of the urban environment.  I remember early battles around that project to keep cars in the right of way, but to narrow the lanes as much as possible.  The reason we decided to keep cars in the corridor was for all the reasons that the failure of most pedestrian malls have borne out – without the animation, security and ease of movement for vehicles, pedestrian- or transit-only spaces can’t thrive.

At the time we were designing Lafayette Mall (more of a streetscape than a ‘mall’ actually), it was one block off bustling Poydras Avenue, and on the frontier of the emerging Warehouse District.  We chose to narrow the lanes to 14’ in width (who’d have thought?) and then narrow it further – visually – by reusing ballast stone salvaged from the demolition of the existing roadbed. We also salvaged and reused the original granite curbs from the 1880’s that were part of the original street section.  These gave the ‘new street’ an immediate patina, while reflecting its history. (In today’s world we would have probably picked up a lot of ‘green points’ as well).  We solved delivery issues within the narrow street by building a roll up curb every half block, with a thickened slab for temporary trucks parking.

I remember the conversations with the fire department that everyone now has, but at the time I was too naïve to worry about them.  We just painted the proposed radii on the pavement and had the trucks come out and drive it, and everyone saw that it worked.  Looking back, after all the battle scars I’ve earned since then on road widths, I’m kind of shocked at how easy it all was.

Almost thirty years later, Lafayette Mall still sits there.   Its brick sidewalks are a little worse for wear, but the armature that it was intended to provide – an enduring framework that would allow development to occur along its edges over time – is still very clear.   And consistent with what I now believe, the role of making selective investments in the public realm to facilitate incremental regeneration by the private sector is good policy – and it was a pretty good opportunity for a young landscape architect.  

Image credit UrbanGreen 2013