Note: We, the undersigned authors, first published this in April, as an open letter to the members of the New Orleans City Park Improvement Association and City Park Conservancy Boards. It was spurred partly by the tone-deaf suggestion of moving GrowDat from City Park. Last month, in the wake of a public outcry about the matter, the park postponed its fourth public input meeting to allow more time to gather community opinions, officials said. As has been announced, the park is now in conversations with GrowDat about its location, though no contract has yet been offered or signed. 

But the issue of insufficient engagement remains and will be important to address before the next input meeting is held.

As New Orleans looks to the future, why is City Park so committed to repeating the past?

Running a road through Grow Dat Youth Farm isn’t the only problem with City Park’s new Master Plan, but it might be the only reason most New Orleanians know about the planning process at all.

Sadly, that’s not unusual. Public engagement is hard, people are busy, and adequate representation is often an issue in public design and planning processes, even using the very best practices of equity-centered, community-engaged design. 

We know it from our own professional experiences, and we can see an awareness of that persistent problem in the documentation of the Master Planning process for City Park, where the disparity between New Orleans’ majority black population and the participants in both public meeting attendance and the online survey process was raised repeatedly in the Master Plan public meeting in September 2023, and acknowledged at the CPIA Board meeting in October 2023, where the presenter is on record as saying, “we are working to develop a strategy for engaging with low participation groups.”

While a strategy may indeed have been discussed for “engaging with low participation groups,” as promised in both meetings, the additional 400 surveys collected between the September-October meetings and the survey’s close in November did not balance the 4,600 collected prior. Nor could they  have, relying on passive signage and an online survey, which is why in both settings outreach to community groups, churches, and schools were offered as ways to expand and diversify public input. Interestingly, our own online survey seems to indicate that this outreach never happened, certainly not in any comprehensive manner. 

In each category of outreach, fewer than 4 percent of respondents could recall any mention of the City Park Master Plan process. Only one respondent learned about the Master Plan from a public school. Only one respondent learned about the Master Plan from their church. Most strikingly, given the robust and active network of neighborhood associations across the city and their engagement in New Orleans’ planning processes overall, our email outreach to the City’s official Neighborhood Association contacts found only nine respondents who heard about the City Park master planning process from their neighborhood association. 

While ours is not an exhaustive study, those results suggest an egregious lack of serious public engagement for a project of this scale. That lack is underlined in the statistics offered by the Master Plan survey report. In a city where 20 percent of the population is under 18, only 7 percent of respondents were under 24, which isn’t what you want to see when looking at the future of your largest urban park! The report on the City Park survey doesn’t offer a breakdown of responses by race, class, or gender, in itself a striking omission. However, the top three zip codes in the City Park Master Plan’s word cloud underrepresent Black New Orleanians by about 20 percent and underrepresent New Orleanians living in poverty by 66 percent.

The responsibility to deliberately and specifically engage Black, brown, young, elderly, and lower income populations is a core competency of modern governance and urban design, in New Orleans and across the nation. The concept is certainly not new to City Park leadership. Both Cara Lambright and Randy Odinet were employed in senior-level positions at Memorial Park during Houston’s Bayou Greenways 2020 park planning process and Rice University’s corrective which was covered nationally for its findings that correctly surveying minority neighborhoods radically changed the assessment of priorities and needs for an equitable park system.

There seem to be some unsettling parallels. As a Bloomberg reporter wrote about the Bayou Greenways process, “When the city’s parks and recreation department conducted its Master Plan Parks Survey in 2014, the majority of respondents replied that they wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The problem with that survey is that about two-thirds of the respondents were white with household incomes over $75,000. This is clearly not a good starting point for Houston, one of the most racially diverse, (and heavily segregated) cities in the country.”

A decade later, we are seeing an echo in the outreach for City Park’s Master Plan, which was not thorough enough to capture the full range of resident/user concerns and priorities, leaving large segments of the population out of or underrepresented in the process. 

A quiet setting from the park contrasts with City Park’s planning process, which explicitly calls for the creation of a central roadway to increase access for suburban residents of St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes. (Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens)

This raises the larger question of what the intended goal of participation is and should be. At best, and this is generous, the online survey was designed to gather some basic information on park use and participant interests. The meetings were designed to inform participants of City Park leadership goals (improving circulation and increasing access to Wooded Island) and solicit small-scale feedback on their plans to meet those goals. Where was the opportunity to determine the goals, priorities, and direction of the planning process? 

City Park leaders and MVVA still have an opportunity to respond to concerns expressed throughout the process and more fully engage people in a way that influences the planning process and future of City Park. If they don’t, then it will be clear that participation was meant to be an illusory checking of the boxes. 

The City of New Orleans’ parks master plan, The Big Green Easy, developed by Design Workshop, certainly took meaningful engagement to heart; assessing both neighborhood and destination parks to plan for a decade of equity-driven reinvestment in a park system that bears the scars of segregation and racialized neglect. 

The contrast with City Park’s process couldn’t be more stark. While our civic planning process envisions applying our tax dollars to ensure the well-being of New Orleans residents, the City Park planning process explicitly calls for the creation of a central roadway to increase access for suburban residents of St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes. It is a strikingly familiar pattern to most planners and urban designers, not to mention generations of New Orleanians who can point to Claiborne Avenue as the most notable local example.

The proposed road for City Park would also divide the largely white upriver neighborhoods and largely black downriver neighborhoods, destroying a beloved youth program that cultivates an intentionally diverse community adds insult to familiar injury. 

Across the United States planners, designers, landscape architects, and civil engineers are making considerable efforts to repair the lasting harms of past land-use policies in our cities and suburbs, an emerging consensus that best practices require reckoning with histories of inequity and injustice in the built environment. 

City Park, with its origins in plantations and history of segregation in living memory, is a prime site for such a reckoning, and this is an opportunity for the City Park Conservancy to implement an actually inclusive planning process toward its mission of promoting “inclusivity, protecting natural resources and offering diverse park programming.”  

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc. has been among the firms whose work along these lines has been inspirational in other cities. Tulsa’s Gathering Place, St Louis’s CityArchRiver Project, and New York’s Brooklyn Bridge park all share a visible ethos of inclusion along with stated goals of equity and repair evident in their design. Each also works to mitigate the impacts of roadways that divide the park sites internally or from their surrounding communities. Two of these do so through land bridges, a significant design move as well as a major financial investment. 

This, too, is an area where City Park’s leadership has experience; in their former roles at Memorial Park, they oversaw the $80 Million effort to build a landbridge and prairie “healing the divide created by Memorial Drive half a century ago,” according to CEO Shellye Arnold. 

If the principal movers of City Park’s Master Plan have been directly involved in repairing this kind of lasting damage in other cities, why are they recreating the very conditions that required repair in our city? At a moment when federal support is finally helping communities to repair the highways used to create racial divides, why is New Orleans moving in the opposite direction?

City Park’s Big Lake, one of the places where people come to blow off steam — bike and wake and pedal boats. New Orleans already leads the country in bicycle fatalities, with per capita deaths of 9.9 per 1 million residents, tragically rising 11 percent from 2015 to 2022. “The largest park in our city should not be a contributor to those numbers,” the authors write. “But at least four times in the past four years, it has been.” (Photo by La’Shance Perry for The Lens.)

City Park’s proposed road is duplicative of North-South connectivity already provided by Marconi and Wisner. The January 2024 MVVA report acknowledges these roads are over-designed and could be carrying significantly more traffic than they are currently. 

The removal of Marconi between Harrison and the tennis center will ensure that traffic reroutes to the proposed internal road, making it a through-way rather than a slow, interior park road, precisely the critique the designers offer in their look at Roosevelt Ave in their own report. 

If we want slower-trafficked, true park roads where pedestrians and cyclists can safely use the space, an interior version of Marconi or Wisner works against that desired safety. If we want to honor the top priorities from the first Master Plan public meeting, where participants proposed multimodal transit to make the north end of the park more accessible, adding an extended straight throughway is, at best, counterproductive. 

It is also a dangerous choice. New Orleans leads the country in bicycle fatalities, with per capita deaths of 9.9 per 1 million residents, tragically rising 11 percent from 2015 to 2022. Our traffic deaths are 51 percent higher than the national average and our pedestrian deaths, already high, more than tripled from 2020-22. 

The largest park in our city should not be a contributor to those numbers, but at least four times in the past four years, it has been. Speeding drivers on Marconi and Wisner, unclear sightlines and a lack of wayfinding within the park, and terrible entryways at Harrison and Filmore, which the designers rightly acknowledge, all contribute to an unsafe environment wherever cars and park goers intersect. Moving more traffic to the park interior will only exacerbate the problem.

Here too, New Orleans would be moving in the opposite direction of national trends. New York’s Central Park closed their interior roads to cars in 2018 and has never looked back. Neither did Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, or Rock Creek Park in Washington DC, among many others. These parks understand what City Park would do well to remember: that public parks are for the public. 

New Orleanians know this. This is why thousands of us volunteered to mow City Park after Hurricane Katrina. This is why Greater New Orleans Iris Society members volunteer at City Park’s iris nursery. This is why hundreds of New Orleans residents volunteer, formally and informally, to clear the lagoons of invasive growth, repair playground equipment, and pick up trash. 

At its best, City Park is our shared backyard. It’s where we come together to take care of ourselves, to take care of each other, and to take care of our park. 

We deserve a master plan that honors New Orleanians’ relationship to our park. We deserve a master plan that promotes safety over speed, a master plan that moves us towards a more inclusive and equitable future, not a master plan that repeats the mistakes of the past.


Sue Mobley, urbanist and former New Orleans City Planning Commissioner

Nick Jenisch, AICP

Chris Daemmrich, Assoc. AIA, NOMA

Ann Yoachim

Emilie Taylor Welty, AIA

Judith Kinnard, FAIA professor Tulane University

Maggie Hansen, The University of Texas at Austin

Yuki Kato, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, Georgetown University 

Casius Pealer

Colin Ash, AICP
Zachary Lamb, Ph.D, Department of City and Regional Planning, UC Berkeley

Hannah Berryhill, Faculty | Tulane School of Architecture 

Renia Ehrenfeucht, MUP, PhD, School of Architecture and Planning, University of New Mexico

John Ludlam 

Alexandra Miller, AICP

Allison Schiller

Colleen McHugh

James Catalano

Madeline Foster-Martinez, PhD, Earth and Env. 

Science/Civil and Env Eng. UNO

Eli Feinstein, PE Investor, Father of a Grow Dat kid.

Jonathan Tate, OJT 

Matthew Raybon

Zach Braaten

Johanna Gilligan, Loeb Fellow and Grow Dat Founder

Cassidy Rosen, Assoc. AIA, NOMA

Tiffany Lin, AIA, Tulane Design Program Director

Becca Greaney, Nightshade Farms

Lexi Tengco, AIA

Patrick Franke, RA

Elaine Damico

Jennifer Zurik, MZ. Architecture

John Coyle, Youth Rebuilding New Orleans 

Kayliegh Bruentrup NCIDQ, Campo Architecture + Interior Design 

Kenneth Schwartz FAIA, professor Tulane University

Seth Welty, Colectivo

Bobbie Hill, Concordia

Elizabeth Chen, Concordia

Bahareh Javadi, Concordia

Liz Camuti, ASLA, Tulane University 

Mayu Takeda

Julia Lang, Professor, Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking, Tulane University 

Lindsey Mayer, Harvard GSD

Graham Hill, RA, NCARB

Ray Fontaine, Bywater Branding Services 

Ethan Ellestad, Executive Director, Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO)

Bonnie Kate Walker, ASLA, ETH University

Bailey Bullock, MURP, University of New Orleans

Ben Notkin, City Resilience Program

Sophie Chien, Harvard GSD

Heidi Schmalbach

Billy Fleming, Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center, University of Pennsylvania School of Design

Max Krochmal, Czech Republic Professor of Comparative Urban Planning and Director of Justice Studies,, University of New Orleans

Kofi Boone, FASLA 

Phoebe Dunn, NANO Architecture + Interiors


Bob Murrell

Jess Zimbabwe, AIA, AICP, Environmental Works Community Design Center and the University of Washington Department of Urban Design and Planning

Vineet Diwadkar, AICP IAM LEED AP, Associate Vice President, AECOM

Angelica Quicksey, New_ Public

Zoe Swartz

Brian Litt, Resilient Construction

Dr. Laura Franklin

Gabby Black

Annelise Haskell, STUDIOS Architecture

Jeffrey Goodman, AICP 

Mia Sanchas 

Kaede Polkinghorne, AICP

Dylan Roth

Sara Jensen Carr, ASLA, Associate Director, Northeastern University of School of Architecture

Joanna Farley

Sydney Shivers, MPA

Cheyenne V. Ellis 

Janna A. Zinzi

Arianne Larimer

Shanasia Sylman, PhD Student, City and Regional Planning, Cornell University (MUP ‘18)

Hannah Kenyon, Associate AIA

Steve Ritten, Goodwyn Mills Cawood

Joseph A. Colón, formerly New Orleans City Planning Commission

Kyle Ofori

Amy F. Stelly, Claiborne Avenue Alliance Design Studio

Maxwell Ciardullo

Errol Barron  FAIA- Professor Of Architecture Emeritus, Tulane University School of Architecture

Marilyn Feldmeier

Taylor Galyean

Julia Clark 

Armando Sullivan, Harvard GSD

David Merlin, AIA

Laruschka Joubert, MADE

Dyani Robarge, CICADA

Sophie Riedel, PLA

Cassie Nichols, PLA, ASLA

Sydney Lister

Matt DeCotiis, CICADA

Megan Spoor

Shelby Mills Lynn, RA, NCARB

Elizabeth Steeby, University of New Orleans 

Eric Lynn, Workhaus

Lynn Cai, University of New Orleans 

Tara Tolford, AICP, GIP

Alexandra Weir, MURP, UNO

Allison Haertling, AICP

Beth Jacob, AIA

Daniel Brook

Clara Lyle, University of Pennsylvania, MUP, former Grow Dat staff

Cathi Ho Schar, FAIA 

Katie Fronek, Civic Studio

Jody Towers, citizen, tax payer, park user

Daniel Maldonado Jiménez

Jacqui Gibson-Clark

Sarah Fouts, UMBC

Natalie Rendleman

Valentina Mancera

James Wheeler, Assoc AIA, ACD

Liz Ogbu, Founder + Principal, Studio O

Caroline Bean, Harvard GSD ‘18

Joseph O. Evans III, LEED AP,  Evans + Lighter Landscape Architecture

Sean Clark

Angel Chung Cutno, 24 Carrot Garden

Adin Becker, Harvard GSD ‘26

Alice Hintermann

Anandi A. Premlall 

Ama Rogan, A Studio in the Woods

Katherine Segarra, PhD in Marine Sciences & New Orleans Resident

Thomas Beller, Associate Professor and Director of Creative Writing, Tulane University

Rev. Kalie Dutra, MDiv, MA in History, PhD Candidate at the University of New Orleans

Anthony Watley, Master’s of Landscape Architecture ‘24 – The University of Texas at Austin & New Orleans Resident 

Sarah Smyth, Harvard GSD ‘21

Lucy Satzewich, Tulane M.Arch ‘20. Office of Jonathan Tate (OJT.) 

Andrea Roberts, founder The Texas Freedom Colonies Project

Bertrand Mpigabahizi, Harvard GSD ‘23

Caryn Blair, MUP, Mid-City Resident

Natalie Boverman, Harvard GSD, University of Texas at Austin

Jonathan Marcantel NCARB, Albert Architecture

Samuel Buckley, AICP, Policy Director, Ride New Orleans

Jazmin Castillo, SOUL

Giuliana Vaccarino Gearty, Tulane M.Arch ‘23, OJT

Adam B Davis, OJT

Jose Cotto, Tulane M.Arch ‘14

Daniel Krall, Founder and President, Downtown FabWorks

Sarah Trimble, PhD (Texas A&M, Geography, 2017), New Orleans Resident

Kelsie Donovan, Tulane B.Arch ‘22

Andrew Liles, AIA, Tulane University, A M Liles Architect

Matt Bernstine, Associate Director, Office for Socially Engaged Practice, WashU

Tracey Armitage, SMM

Fred Neal Jr., AICP

Liz Kramer, Public Design Bureau

Marla Nelson, PhD, AICP

Alifa Putri, Harvard GSD

One signatory’s workplace was removed from this document, to make clear that the person is speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the workplace.