Some of the greatest achievements in history have been born of tragic events. It’s one of the most inspirational aspects of human nature: our ability to transform both devastated spirits and landscapes into fertile grounds for innovation and positive change. The key is having the vision and determination to build a better way in the face of ruin.
Four years ago today, Hurricane Katrina unleashed unspeakable loss on hundreds of thousands of Americans. On the ground and across the globe, we shared a sense of powerlessness as the storm flooded communities with not only water but injustice. We now have the opportunity to not only make things right in New Orleans, but use the lessons learned to profoundly impact the world. The vehicle for such momentous change? Affordable, safe, green houses. Or, in other words, houses that “Make It Right.”
The art of building is at its core a creative and constructive act — so when the Lower Ninth Ward was swept away by Katrina, it wasn’t surprising that many people’s first instinct was to literally help rebuild. When homes are razed, families displaced, and ground laid bare, what else can inspire hope and bring a community back together like the act of building?
From the start, resurrecting the Lower Ninth wasn’t just about putting four walls and a roof back together. It was about restoring community and bringing fairness and dignity back to the people who suffered most during Katrina and its aftermath. And so, the Make It Right Foundation (the vision of actor Brad Pitt) was born, and we brought the community together with the brightest minds in architecture to bring the people of the Lower Ninth Ward back home.
When we asked residents what they needed, they were quick to tell us. Houses, to be sure, but structures that would keep them safe from future storms. They needed to be affordable; rising energy costs strapped families with prohibitive utility bills that made homeownership out of reach. And was there a way, many asked, to make homes that would keep families safe not only from storms, but from toxins and other environmental threats as well?
Conventional wisdom would have you think this to be an impossible feat; that green architecture is only for the well-off. Yet two years after those initial community conversations, 13 LEED Platinum certified homes are standing where there was once six feet of water. By the end of 2009, more than 80 Lower Ninth Ward families will own or be in the process of buying their own high-performance Make It Right home, and 150 homes will stand by 2010. When they move in, these people are the new owners of storm-resistant, non-toxic, energy-efficient, beautiful houses which often cost less than $20 per month to run. Such homes were non-existent in the Lower Ninth Ward before the storm.
When Katrina swept through the Gulf South, it left in its wake tremendous grief and loss for thousands. But within the devastation was opportunity: to build something better than what existed before. The Lower Ninth Ward is now the “largest, greenest neighborhood of single family homes in America,” according to the US Green Building Council. It is a model that works – and one that can positively transform other neighborhoods across the U.S. and the globe.
I’ve always thought of buildings as pieces of art that you get to walk through and experience. In the case of the Lower Ninth Ward, these homes and neighborhoods are not only edifices of art, but of the future. Katrina’s legacy may not be the devastation she unleashed, but how she inspired us to usher in this new way of interacting with the world. We are all neighbors on this planet. Equipped with passion and purpose, we can work together to not only Make It Right, but build a better way.
This anniversary, what will you do to Make It Right for New Orleans?