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Gutter to Gulf

Begun in 2008, Gutter to Gulf is a research, teaching and public information initiative on ecology, infrastructure and design in post-Katrina New Orleans. The project arose from Professor Jane Wolff’s observations, starting in 2007, that responsible plans for rehabilitation in the city were impeded by the lack of clear, reliable information about the city’s landscape conditions, systems, and operations. She and her LAN 2014 teaching partner Elise Shelley realized that the intensity of the New Orleans’s circumstances made it an ideal place to teach students about the technical, political, and ethical questions that arise in contemporary landscape and urban design. With their colleague Professor Derek Hoeferlin of Washington University in Saint Louis, they have organized ongoing design studios at each school. Students’ primary-source research work contributes to scholarship and public discussion about the future of New Orleans. Their design proposals offer rigorous, technically defensible ideas for a more sustainable environment at scales from the building to the region. 

Gutter to Gulf emerged from an awareness of the need for public understanding about the city’s circumstances, and Professors Wolff, Shelley and Hoeferlin have curated and synthesized their studios’ work in a website, www.guttertogulf.com. The goal is to make sophisticated, legible information about water infrastructure in and around New Orleans available to the many audiences—citizens, designers, policymakers, and politicians—with a stake in the city’s future. Organized in informational layers of increasing technical specificity, the website raises four questions that everyone concerned with New Orleans should learn to answer: Why is New Orleans sinking? Why does the city fight gravity? Why do wetlands matter? And what can we do? The site comprises otherwise unavailable information including historical case studies, a taxonomy of water infrastructure today, tools to compare physical and policy structures in the city, design proposals, an interactive photo-map, field guides and reports and information about the Gutter to Gulf initiative. Now in use as a technical and scholarly resource in the development of a water management strategy for metropolitan New Orleans, Gutter to Gulf demonstrates the power of landscape research to enable critical action. The initiative has received support from the Royal Netherlands Embassy of the United States, and its work has attracted international attention and awards from organizations including the ASLA, AIA and ACSA.

Gutter to Gulf is a case study about an extreme condition: New Orleans demonstrates vivid examples of dilemmas that occur in every North American city, and the initiative’s approach provides a generalizable method for dissecting the relationships among ecology, infrastructure, and design. In 2013, the initiative will shift locale to Halifax with the goal of exploring delta-related landscape issues here in Canada.