Making an Environmental Difference
“So much of what we see and eat and do in southeast Louisiana is water based, yet we disrespect water,” said Dana Brown, founder and president of local landscape architecture and planning firm Dana Brown and Associates. “Part of that is not seeing a connection. People become physically and visually disconnected from water, and don’t even think that the water from their house ends up in Lake Pontchartrain.”
Brown works to resolve the interconnected issues of water in our region from a variety of angles. She helps parish governments write land development codes and plans, making sure that water management is woven through these essential policies. She collaborates on water management planning and projects on a larger scale. And she does everything her power to ensure that water quality and management features are included every landscape she designs, large or small, commercial or residential.
Brown is a native New Orleanian, but began practicing her craft in Southern California. While the western United States obviously get considerably less rainfall than the South, she learned vital lessons about subjects such as water quality and floodplain management.
“I came home in 2002 and taught at LSU,” she recalled, “and there wasn’t anyone here talking about water quality and management. Things have changed dramatically from when I was a kid. The weather was very predictable, the afternoon thunderstorms. Now you have very different schedules and intensities, and you have to manage around that.
“Water management deals with each rainfall event, and managing that water,” she continued. “Drainage is exactly what it sounds like, getting rid of the water. But a closed [drainage] system has a limit on what it can handle. Stormwater management is about trying to manage that water as close to where it falls as possible. Let it evaporate, sink into the soil, be absorbed by plants.”
Coming from her landscape architect perspective, Brown sees multiple advantages to this approach. The most obvious benefit, of course, is preventing the drainage systems from being overwhelmed and causing major flooding – and damage. Less often considered is the pollution reduction aspect.
“Roots do an amazing job of filtering and cleaning the water, taking away the pollutants, breaking down pathogens into non-hazardous elements,” she explained. “Plants can store heavy metals in their leafy parts.”
Brown emphasized that these tasks are best accomplished by indigenous flora. “I wouldn’t plant anything but native plants,” she vowed. “Natives are adapted to the amounts of water, the kinds of soils we have, the heat. Roots of native plants go much deeper than introduced species. This makes them more stable in high winds, and they aerate and improve the soils.”
Landscape architecture goes far beyond simply choosing the foliage, and how the space is designed also has direct impacts on how water on the site is managed. “We avoid raised beds. We avoid using parking lots to drain water away, avoid dumping into storm drains,” said Brown.
Needless to say, some projects accommodate these priorities better than others. Brown’s firm was involved with the recent work redeveloping the area from the Canal Street ferry terminal past the Four Seasons Hotel to Spanish Plaza. In this situation, with multiple properties and much of the space already laid out, Brown was limited to selecting the right tree species and using lighting to create connections between the disparate areas.
“But if we can be involved early,” she noted, “we can take advantage of how the site is already draining, how water flows to and from adjacent properties, and do more to manage it.”
While large-scale projects offer greater water management options, Brown sees plenty of opportunities in installing green infrastructure in smaller but nearby and/or connected sites. “Individual rain gardens, bioswales and absorbent plants add up to make a real difference,” she pointed out.
While water quality and management are core principles in her work, Brown also knows that the spaces she designs must meet aesthetic standards as well. “We try to create a sense of place that reflects our culture, even down to the character of the individual neighborhood,” said Brown. “We try to be good stewards of our environment and our culture.”