PROJECT STATEMENT: Viet Village Urban Farm is an urban farming project located in New Orleans East, an area hard hit by Katrina. The design team assisted the community with the design of the environmental infrastructural systems needed to support an organic urban farming operation, the design of a market area to serve as a community resource and economic catalyst for the community and the development of a flexible, strategic plan for seeking funding for the project and incorporating various labor resources.
PROJECT NARRATIVE: Viet Village is a thriving Vietnamese-American community located in New Orleans East that was established in the mid-1970’s. One of the first activities of the early Vietnamese in New Orleans was the establishment of home-based gardens to grow the traditional fruits and vegetables that weren’t available locally. These gardens were informal and widely scattered across the community: in vacant lots, along the edge of levees, in backyards, anywhere that had decent soil and access to water. Before the devastation of Katrina, there were over 30 acres being farmed throughout the community. There was also a well-established tradition of informal markets in the community, developed as an outlet to sell produce the local growers did not consume in their homes.
Project Goals: The Viet Village Urban Farm project represents an effort to reestablish the tradition of local farming in this community after Katrina. New Orleans East was one of the most damaged areas of the city during the storms of 2005. In response to the devastation, the community has organized around the idea of creating an urban farm and market as the center of the community. The farm, located on 28-acres in the heart of the community, will be a combination of small-plot gardening for family consumption, larger commercial plots focused on providing food for local restaurants and grocery stores in New Orleans, and a livestock area for raising chickens and goats in the traditional Vietnamese way. The proposed market on the site will provide a location for the individual farmers to supplement their income as well as serve as a central meeting space for the larger Vietnamese community along the Gulf Coast. Based on the history of the markets in the area before Katrina, as many as 3,000 people are expected to come to the site for a Saturday market, perhaps more on traditional festival days. Specialty vegetables and foods used in Vietnamese cuisine will be sold at the market. Local Vietnamese restaurants will have a space to sell prepared food during market days as well.
Another goal of the project is to bring together the different generations with the local community through the shared endeavor of the farm and that the traditional skills and practices of the culture brought from Vietnam to America are passed down by the generation of elders. Thus it is also important that the farm also acts as a community center and areas for sports and playgrounds are proposed for the site. The community sees this project as the centerpiece for the rebuilding efforts in the New Orleans East.
The community also established a set of more specific goals for how the project is developed that address the environmental health of the farm and the surrounding community.
- Establish a Certified Organic farming practice that includes integrated pest management, composting, crop rotation, and cover cropping among other organic practices
- Become a model for low-tech sustainable site development in the New Orleans area through the use of bio-filtration of water resources and alternative energy sources such as wind, and passive and active solar power
- Establish relationships with area restaurants and grocery stores to provide locally grown produce as a part of the localvore food movement
- Create an economic and cultural resource for the community
- Create a cultural resource for Vietnamese-Americans along the Gulf Coast
Planning and Analysis Issues
The site, a portion of which was donated by the City of New Orleans, has significant water and soil issues. It is located in an area with a high water table and frequent flooding during storm events. The site is essentially flat and lacks positive drainage. At the beginning of analysis for the project, the movement of water across the site quickly became one of the key considerations for how the site is to be developed. Water for irrigation of the crops needs to have multiple access points, especially in the areas of small community garden plots where 40-50 individual access points are needed. The runoff from irrigation must be drained back to the central location through a series of bio-swales to aid in water cleansing. A secondary system for stormwater runoff during heavy rains must be established to prevent the farm sites from flooding and ruining the crops. The soil on the site, the locally notorious Kenner Muck, is a poorly draining soil that exists throughout this entire area of New Orleans. The slow permeability and great depth of this soil series requires careful consideration of how the water on the site operates to prevent waterlogged soils.
In addition to site issues, the project has a complex array of funding and labor resources that it must coordinate to complete the project. Understanding the different sources of funding the community was pursuing and the nature of the funding agencies was a key piece of analysis in this process. The group had resources ranging from high school students that wanted to volunteer a weekend to work on the project to large foundations and government organizations with sophisticated applications and funding rules. The community needed to develop a strategic plan that could integrate these resources in a way that was complementary.
Approach to Project
Through a series of public meetings with the local community the project goals and relative size of the major program areas was established. From these overarching goals a strategy for the design of the site was established. The design strategy was based on the idea that the site must be developed as a series of fully functional sub-projects that could be funded incrementally, yet come together to create a comprehensive system to deal with the programmatic and water/soil issues. The design approach is organized around 3 principals:
- Create a series of sub—projects that are fully functional in terms of program
A typical requirement of the funding sources that were interested in the project was that the funding they provide not be provisional. The success of each individual project funding cannot be dependent the acquisition of future funding. However, no single funding agency is likely to fund more than 20% of the entire project at once. The design team created a series of sub-projects that establish all of the major program elements (small-plot farms, commercial farms, market and play areas) in the first phase. The program elements are less developed, and often on different areas of the site, than they are in the final phase. The subsequent phases expand the program to other parts of the site as future funding becomes available. Different sub-projects are linked to different levels of funding, so a funding agency can provide money for almost any size project.
- Organize the site into a series of sub-watersheds that can be expanded as the site grows
The most significant environmental issue on the site is the movement of water. The site is designed as a series of sub-watersheds that can be expanded as the site grows. Water will be distributed to the farm sites for irrigation and post-irrigation water will return to a central reservoir through a series of bio-swales. Each of the discrete watersheds can supply water for irrigation independently if there is a break in the larger system through the use of a portable pumping system. The main supply power for the pumping of water throughout the site will be a windmill / water tower system backed up by electrical pumps.
- Divide projects into sub-projects in terms of labor resources
Beyond monetary funding, there has also been a significant amount of volunteer labor donated to the project. This volunteer labor was often a source of stress to the community because there was no plan for how to use the volunteers. On the other end of the spectrum, energetic community members were suggesting they attempt work that needed professional contractors to ensure accuracy. The design team created a strategy for establishing which projects, or portions of projects, aligned with the various types of labor resources. The team divided labor resources into low-impact volunteer, high-impact volunteer, skilled volunteer and professional. Each of these volunteer resource groups can find a discrete project to focus their attention on, allowing the community to better harness this energy towards their goals while identifying key elements in the project that funding is needed to complete with outside professionals, such as the construction and grading of the water canals.
Implementation and Future of the Project
The first round of funding has been applied for and committed to in principal to complete Phase 1 of the project, which is approximately 15% of the entire project. Phase 1 will establish the backbone of the larger watershed system (the central reservoir and bio-filtration canals), develop pedestrian and service circulation to this part of the site, establish the first small-plot and commercial-plot farms, and create a central organizational boulevard for temporary markets. A well-known local chef has met with the community to discuss growing vegetables for his New Orleans restaurants on the site. The group is continuously seeking further funding using this “discrete projects” approach and volunteer work on the site continues. The design team will continue to provide site-specific design assistance with individual projects as they are funded.