Community Gardens as Healing Spaces: Addressing the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina In New Orleans

Julia Africa (MDesS)

Project Overview

In New Orleans, the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among residents rose following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. There is a shortage of mental health care resources in the city that pre-dates the Hurricane and remains insufficient to meet current regional demands. Conversations with local residents suggest that the roughly 40 recognized community gardens in New Orleans do not currently tout improved mental health as one of their benefits. Community gardens have sprung up on derelict sites throughout the city and are celebrated for their nutritional, social and ecological benefits. In mid-February 2011, I conducted site visits and interviews with garden managers to document their perception of the role of community gardens in augmenting more conventional mental health resources at three sites: the Teche Street garden run by Common Ground Community Health Clinic (Algiers), the Backyard Garden Network plot (Lower Ninth Ward) run by Jenga Mwendo, and the Edible Schoolyard (Samuel J. Green Charter School (Uptown neighborhood in New Orleans). The gardens serve different (but predominantly African-American) populations ranging from patients of a clinic to neighborhood residents to school children respectively. All of the gardens include the production of herbs and food crops; only the Teche Street garden also produces medicinal herbs grown for tinctures prepared by Common Ground staff herbalists. Although all three garden managers understood the potential for gardens to have a psychosocially therapeutic effect, the manager of the Edible Schoolyard site seemed to have the most flexibility in making that intention transparent to the community. Barriers to transparency include the stigma associated with mental health issues and the scarcity of accessible and affordable mental health care in New Orleans. None of the garden managers were familiar with specific design interventions that might encourage a ‘healing’ experience although all recognized the value of facilities that support community engagement and socialization.

Project Information

Changing landscape:

Housing initiatives and radical demographic changes have redefined the political, social and ecological landscape of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The population of New Orleans peaked in 1960 at 627,525 people; the 2010 census count stands at 343,829 people with a net loss of around 110,000 residents attributed to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina ( A recent report notes that the vast majority of New Orleans neighborhoods lost population over the last ten years, whether or not they flooded in 2005 ( In many areas, there has been a larger loss of children than adults and of African-American residents than residents of other ethnicities ( Thousands of excess homes, commercial and institutional buildings remain abandoned; the 2010 census counted an estimated 48, 860 (down from 65,428 in March 2008) vacant or derelict lots in the city (, predominantly in neighborhoods that were considered distressed before the 2005 flood. Increasing pressure to restore blighted areas of the city has resulted in numerous programs to buy-out or refurbish derelict properties (notably the Road Home program and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority); where these efforts have failed, the ghostly concrete footings of houses which have been demolished punctuate city blocks. These lots range from weed-choked to cursorily mown, while still others have slowly been transforming into ad hoc community gardens.

Although many residents have moved on and rebuilt their lives, the legacy of Hurricane Katrina endures. The exodus of residents that followed the storm has hampered attempts to capture the true mental health effects of exposure to the storm; for those who remained or have returned to the city, the dearth of well-coordinated and comprehensive social services deepened the sense of abandonment. The incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was widely predicted to rise throughout the city following Hurricane Katrina; mental health surveillance to date has validated this prediction (one study[i] found a PTSD diagnosis rate of 63% which is far above the 3-4% believed to exist in the general US population). The sheer number of affected residents suggests that a variety of explicit and implicit treatment methods would be necessary to help individuals regain their sense of security and safety. My conversations with community gardeners suggests that while the clinical terms ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ and ‘depression/anxiety’ are in wide circulation, community gardening is not understood as a therapeutic intervention. Against this backdrop, the resurgence of community gardens has the potential to serve (among other functions) as a way of reaffirming a sense of control, social agency and (for lack of a better word) rootedness that can be therapeutic in the wake of Katrina-related trauma.

There are 25-30 community gardens administered by Parkway Partners (, a local non-profit that provides that provides resources ranging from “a horticulturist who partners with community residents to transform blighted, vacant lots into productive vegetable gardens and green spaces” ( to seeds, cuttings, educational workshops and liability insurance. Although there are other community gardens that are not affiliated with Parkway Partners, the total number of active gardens in the city is not thought to exceed 40-45 (Macon Fry, personal conversation, 2.11.2011). According to Macon “Garden Guy” Fry, a master gardener who works with the New Orleans Food and Farm Network at Hollygrove Market and Farm (, many of the community gardens before Hurricane Katrina were tended by older residents of the city. The garden managers were generally 60, 70, 80 years old, he said; many either didn’t make it through the storm or never came back afterwards. Jenga Mwendo of the Backyard Gardeners Network in the Lower Ninth Ward agreed: interest in gardening seemed to skip a generation, she said as we stood in the smaller of her two gardens which is named for now deceased Lower Ninth Resident Laurentine Earnst. Community gardens must improve neighborhood food security and sustainability by passing on the tradition to young people ( In neighborhoods that are under-populated, finding adult residents who will take responsibility for a plot can be a challenge (although people who came back after the storm have sought to revitalized their neighborhoods in many other ways).

Who gardens:

The efforts of garden managers like Mr. Fry and Ms. Mwendo have been augmented by a tremendous influx of federal and state funding that supports local and nationally-sourced volunteers. It is perhaps telling that on the day of my visit Hollygrove Farm, I spoke with Mr. Fry as he worked with two AmeriCorps volunteers to shovel compost out of the back of his flatbed truck, and when I met Ms. Mwendo on the weekend she had organized a “community workday” staffed by two shifts of undergraduates from other areas of New Orleans to help sift rocky soil and excavate a rain garden alongside the road. The only neighborhood resident who was present was a young man who had moved to the Lower Ninth Ward following the storm as a volunteer in sustainable housing non-profit; he seemed to genuinely care about the neighborhood, but also mentioned that he’d be moving on in the next year. Speaking generally from his 20 years of experience in the local garden community, Mr. Fry said that while gardens doubtless improve their neighborhoods and rely on the support of local residents, the tremendous influx of funds and volunteers following the 2005 Hurricane has been a significant factor in revitalizing many of them throughout the city. Many of these volunteers are also young and relatively well-educated, particularly with respect to ideas about “urban sustainability” and “greening” neighborhoods; in some areas, this represents a cultural shift in the tenor of the population that is driving urban gardening in New Orleans which may percolate through to residents who have more conventional gardening objectives. This certainly seems to be the case for the Backyard Gardeners Network. My visit to Ms. Mwendo’s garden and subsequent updates via her BGN facebook page ( suggest to me that her masterful coordination of volunteer resources from outside her community and vision for her neighborhood (at a time when it may have difficulty re-envisioning itself) has been key to her relative success[ii], but I have a less nuanced sense of how many neighbors in her immediate vicinity have a strong stake in the garden. Materials she provided for me on the history of the small Laurentine Earnst garden and the much larger Guerilla Garden suggest that community partnerships have been essential in securing a titles for the land and donations towards a house that has been refurbished as a garden center. At the time of my visit, neither garden seemed to have actively tended plots; indeed, at the Guerilla Garden much of the work still involved soil conditioning and laying out the plots. Ms. Mwendo said that the summer of 2011 will involve a major push for community members to take responsibility for plots in the two gardens, and at that time their permanent design will become evident.

Why they garden:

While combating blight, increasing the accessibility of nutritious food and providing attractive open spaces are all commonly cited reasons for maintaining urban gardens, any belief in the more subtle benefits of gardening for the psychological health remained largely unspoken during my conversations with garden managers. Ms. Mwendo seemed particularly interested in the idea of ‘healing gardens’, particularly insofar as the phrase denoted a space that effectively consolidated and strengthened fractured community ties, but she demurred when asked if that was a conversation she could have with her fellow gardeners. The name “Backyard Gardeners Network” reflects her memory of ubiquitous gardens from her childhood in the Lower Ninth Ward; she hopes that the practice will become more common again, and feels that residents in her community would be turned off by an association with vulnerable mental states. Mr. Fry suggested that New Orleanians are very wary of being understood as victims and, at this point, “just want to move on with their lives”; acknowledging how the Hurricane compounded pre-existing troubles like intergenerational poverty, racial divisions and bureaucratic mismanagement won’t necessarily make it any easier to envision rebuilding vibrant communities.

As compared with other communities that have explicitly acknowledged the mental health benefits of gardening (including potential design suggestions which may support positive clinical outcomes as documented here: (, I initially found the lack of discussion of the therapeutic effects of gardening puzzling. Alice Craft-Kerney, Executive Director of the Lower Ninth Ward Community Health Clinic (, put it simply: it’s very difficult to talk acknowledge mental health issues, particularly in a community of color that is struggling to get back on its feet. She told me about patient interviews where the word depression was not used, but the symptoms under discussion – crying jags, a lack of motivation, chronic neck and back pain, digestive difficulties – were the somatic mirror of the diagnosis. I asked if the clinic ever referred residents to a local garden (as part of a holistic suite of psychosomatic interventions), and wondered if a relationship with the BGN might emerge with time; although she seemed interested in the idea and aware of Ms. Mwendo’s garden, gardening as a therapeutic intervention wasn’t currently part of their program. Unfortunately, the Lower Ninth Ward clinic closed in January of 2011 due to ‘lack of funding’, so I wasn’t able to continue this discussion with her in New Orleans as intended.

I visited the Common Ground Community Health Clinic garden at Teche Street in Algiers in the hopes of finding a more straightforward connection between public health practice and therapeutic gardening. Lanette Williams (of Common Ground) and her husband Tony (of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network) kindly showed me the small plot tucked away in a quiet neighborhood. Rows of winter greens and were arrayed alongside medicinal herbs used by clinic herbalists for various tinctures and salves, and a tree shaded seating area in the far corner provided a place for people to congregate. Although Tony readily volunteered that gardening had helped him after a work related accident forced him into early retirement, Lanette didn’t think Common Ground ever referred patients to work in the garden as an adjunct component of their treatment for depression, anxiety or PTSD.

My conversation with the garden manager Donna Cavato at the last garden that I visited – the Edible Schoolyard[iii] at the Samuel J. Green Charter school – yielded the most direct connection between gardening and a perception of community mental health benefits. The school serves 1,760 students in pre-K through 8th grade, 98% of whom are of African-American descent and nearly all of whom are eligible for free of reduced meals. After the storm, the superstructure of the building was relatively intact but the schoolyard was strewn with garbage, building debris and boats lofted miles from the nearest harbor. The myriad social and economic uncertainties following the storm further destabilized many of the families in the neighborhood. Ms. Cavato was quick to acknowledge that there was a general shortage of pediatric mental health care available in the city and that school social workers were often stretched to the limit. In its reincarnation as a Charter school, a productive organic garden, compost pile and wetland on a 1/3rd acre plot are integrated into the school curriculum through on site cooking classes, daily cafeteria meals and biology labs. Ms. Cavato identified the garden as providing a haven for the school children, and speaks openly with parents about the nutritional, intellectual and emotional benefits of engaging with tending plants in the context of the school community. A pamphlet on the project states “our goal is to improve the long term well-being of our students, families and community”, and mental health is a visible component of that assessment.

Healing garden design principles:

 In the last thirty years, the work of a number of environmental psychologists – notably Roger Ulrich of the University of Texas at Austin, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Gordon Orians of the University of Washington at Seattle – has defined the restorative effects of natural environments and helped resurrect the potential for natural environments in clinical practice. Leaving aside a broader discussion of the use of gardening in the rehabilitation of conditions like traumatic brain injuries, their research suggests that the view[iv] or experience of nature in clinical environments[v] can improve health outcomes. Settings examined include a broad spectrum of indoor environments[vi] including schools[vii] and hospital rooms[viii]. This research is increasingly being applied in other settings where participants are expected to experience feelings of vulnerability, loss of control and anxiety such as a horticultural therapy program at Rikers Island State Penitentiary[ix] in New York, and a program called Gardening Leave[x] in the UK that addresses post traumatic stress disorder in veterans returning from Iraq. Additional case studies and contact details for healing gardens are available through the Therapeutic Landscapes Network[xi].

The mechanisms by which gardens have their beneficial effect are not well understood. Certainly the physical activity of gardening – and the social connectivity that it engenders – is critical, but environmental psychologists suggest that there are deeper mechanisms at play.

“A scene with moderate and ordered complexity, moderate depth, a focal point, and natural contents such as vegetation and water would rapidly evoke positive emotions and hold attention, displacing or restricting negative thoughts and allowing a reduction in arousal that had been heightened by stress.”[xii]

Methods for measuring stress physiologically vary widely. Broadly speaking, when environmental demands exceed an organism’s ability to adapt or respond appropriately, a stressor can generate a state of arousal which is physiologically observable in several bodily systems. Experimental research tends to use blood pressure, resting heart rate, salivary cortisol levels and skin conductance as physiological indicators of stress[xiii]. None of the gardens I visited have any sort of formal physiological monitoring program in place and, at best, can validate their outcomes through anecdotal testimonies of improved well-being or institutional surveillance (such as social workers and school nurses). Because mental health issues in children are less loaded to address psychosocially and easier to monitor institutionally, gardens which are integrated with schools seem to have a high potential for introducing the concept of ‘therapeutic gardening’ into communities in New Orleans. Although the perception of a therapeutic space varies by culture, individual and pathology, several basic parameters are useful to keep in mind: provide a sense of control by creating a variety of spaces so that the individual can seek out conditions that are comfortable; design with social support in mind, so that there are spaces where people can sit, talk and laugh together; provide opportunities for mild exercise by varying topography or offering other opportunities for engagement, reflection and discovery; emphasize sensory inputs associated with natural settings (like sounds of water or vistas that successfully block nearby roads and road noises); minimize ambiguity through the provision of way finding cues and easily intelligible art (abstract or ambiguous inputs can be stressful); and minimize intrusive stimuli such as loud noises or strong odors ( In addition, flowering plants seem to have a wider appeal than plants chosen for their texture or habit, as do animal shapes that are perceived as friendly or safe (butterflies are generally preferred to spiders, for instance).

Although these design parameters may seem intuitive, the gardens I profiled were not explicitly designed with them in mind. Of the principles listed above, the provision of space for socializing, paths for way finding and signs for plant identification were generally common to all three. The brevity of my site visits coupled with the season (early spring) certainly influenced my perception of the activity level in the gardens, and the limited scope of my investigation doesn’t allow me to speak to all of the gardening projects and communities across the greater New Orleans area. That being said, I did not get the sense that community gardens are integrated formally or informally with the provision of mental health care in New Orleans. While garden managers seem amenable to the design principles that are associated with ‘healing gardens’ in other cities, the stigma associated with mental health problems (including cases of PTSD, depression and anxiety whose onset has been linked to the Hurricane and its aftermath) is a barrier to integrating gardening into the perception of public health care. I suspect that if conventional mental health care services were both more widely available and culturally acceptable, the settings and circumstances under which people healed might be more varied as well.


1)      Macon Fry (“Garden Guy”), Parkway Partners: or; Hollygrove Market and Farm (8301 Olive St, New Orleans, LA 70118)

2)      Jenga Mwendo, BGN:; Laurentine Ernst Garden (603 Forstall Street, New Orleans LA 70117) and The Guerilla Garden (5723 Chartres Street, New Orleans LA 70117)

3)      Lanette Williams, Common Ground:; Tech Street Garden (1400 Teche St. (corner of Socrates), Algiers, New Orleans, LA 70114)

4)      Donna Cavato, Executive Director of the Edible Schoolyard project in New Orleans: (2319 Valence St., New Orleans, LA 70115)

This project would not have been possible without the time and kind assistance of the local garden community contacts named above. I remain very grateful for their willingness to share their experiences with me. Special thanks to Aron Chang (GSD M.Arch ’09), Elizabeth Ostberg (GSE ’06), Rachel Geffen (Tulane University School of Medicine), Ashley Wennerstrom, MPH, Office of Community Affairs and Health Policy (Tulane University School of Medicine) for their advice and feedback as I set up my site visits in February 2011.

Endnotes & References:

[i] De Wulf A, et al. (2007) Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Following Hurricane Katrina. Academic Emergency Medicine;14(5-Sup1):134


[ii] Although raised in the Lower Ninth, she was living in Brooklyn with her daughter when the storm hit and moved back in 2007. She also runs a vegan catering business (“Live Lyve Raw Vegan Cuisine”) and spoke about her desire to increase the availability of organic produce in the Lower Ninth Ward which she referred to as a ‘food desert’ because of the relative lack of easily accessible stores that sell fresh food. Ms. Mwendo has been active in leading initiatives for urban reforestation and gardening that support her interest in health and well-being through nutrition.[iii] The Edible Schoolyard program was started by Chef and Food Activist Alice Waters in Berkeley and has since spread nationwide; more information can be found here:[iv] Ulrich, Roger S. (1984) View through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery. Science, Volume 224, Issue 4647, pp. 420-421[v] Cooper-Marcus, Clare and Hartig, Terry. (2006) Healing gardens—places for nature in health care. Lancet 2006; 368: S36–S37[vi] Bringslimark, T., Hartig, T., & Patil, G. G. (2009). “The psychological benefits of indoor plants: A critical review of the experimental literature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(4), 422-433.[vii] Edible Schoolyard New Orleans[viii][ix][x][xi][xii] Kellert, Stephen. (2008) “Restorative environmental design: what, when, where and for whom?” from Kellert, Stephen et al. Biophilic Design. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.[xiii] Juster, R.P., McEwen, B.S., & Lupien, S.J. (2009). Allostatic load biomarkers of chronic stress and impact on health and cognition. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, Article in Press.