Rebuilding a Green New Orleans: An Interview with Matt Petersen, President of Global Green USA (Part 1)


"This wasn't just folks with a bunch of good ideas and a Hollywood star"
Global Green USA, a charity founded in 1993 by Mikhail Gorbachev, may be best known for its initiatives with celebrities like Leonardo di Caprio. But far from the glare of Hollywood, the group has done some of its most important work in New Orleans. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Global Green began rebuilding a community meant not only to improve the lives of residents but to inspire other green construction around the country.

The group's sustainable Holy Cross Project, the product of a design competition with a jury chaired by Brad Pitt, consists of five single-family homes and an 18-unit apartment building; three homes have been finished so far, including one that is serving as a de facto visitors center. In the first installment of our interview with Matt Petersen, president of Global Green, we hear about the group's impact in New Orleans, and New Orleans' impact on Global Green's sustainable community work elsewhere.TreeHugger: How did Global Green adapt to do the work that it did in New Orleans, and how successful it's been?
Matt Petersen: We hadn't planned anything in terms of preparing for a disaster. And the notion that Gorbachev put forward in his original speech that inspired Green Cross [Global Green USA's parent organization], that we need a Red Cross for the environment, that kind of capacity is far beyond us and will be for some time, to believe that we can be that big an entity.

But along with our work in low income communities, that was in the back of my mind as I saw that horror unfold on television. And this tragic response, a criminal response to the disaster in New Orleans, which was as much if not more man-made than it was the consequence of nature. It happened with some contribution from global warming of course, along with the failure of the levees, first and foremost, the destruction of the wetlands, and other factors.

First I thought, I could give money to the Red Cross or Mercy Corps. But then what would I do? I could adopt a family. Then I thought, why not adopt a non-profit? What if we could adopt a neighborhood and help bring it back.

I put some of these ideas together in that first week, started talking to other people, and my staff and I started reaching out. Two weeks after the storm, I began to push people to join with us to try to accomplish adopting a neighborhood, bringing it back, and greening the schools that needed to be rebuilt, the goal of training 10,000 people to rebuild homes. And in that process, create an opportunity for New Orleans to build green building capacity and expertise, so it becomes an export economy, influencing building in the short term and in the longer term. That could be another piece of New Orleans as far as its draw, as well as its economic strength. We're making progress on all of those fronts remarkably.

Can you describe how the Holy Cross Project got started?

When we went down the first time, we had some funding from Starbucks for working on climate change, and I said to them, "Look, given the element of both sea level rise and contribution to the hurricane, we're going to use some of these funds to travel there with confidence." And we said, "look, this is a moral imperative." There were a few people there that had already begun thinking about this. The Home Depot Foundation was the first to give us funding, which was enough to open an office and hire two staff in January 2006. And we stayed around. A lot of people came and offered great ideas but left. We integrated ourselves into the community and began the work of recommending policies to the city, creating some influence, creating some change and educating some people in green building.

Two weeks after the storm I met someone at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting -- Brad Pitt. He really liked the idea, and in March 2006 his office called and said he wanted to pursue a design competition. He and I worked on the proposal while he was in Namibia through email and fax, made the announcement in April. We started it in early June and picked the winner by August.

I made the commitment based on the idea we had initially: how do we adopt a neighborhood? The one we adopted is the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth. We're building that winning design. We're working hard to complete it, there have been many obstacles along the way, but we've influenced many projects and many people that have come through - we've had 4,500 visitors at the first home, which services a visitors center. The next two are built and up for sale, and we're about to start the next two after that. We're working to finalize the financing for the 18-unit apartment building, and confirm funding from Congress and stimulus funding that will go to the community center. We still have more money to raise.

How weather-proof are these buildings?

The idea is for it to be catalytic and responsive to the realities of climate change, so it's resilient in terms of backup energy and water systems, and the community center is there for those who can't evacuate for whatever reason. The first floors of the single family homes are all water damage-resistant and storm-resistant construction, as with the apartment building, which will be raised one story. So we also obviously want it to be a living solution to climate change, and be for mitigation too. It embodies all those things.

What were the needs in the flood-devastated Lower Ninth Ward when you first arrived?

It lost all its infrastructure. We knew that there was need for more than just housing. There is a need for community space lost in the storm, a need for some retail, fresh foods. There's a bank branch, because other than an ATM at the liquor store there's no financial services in the Lower Ninth Ward. We also want to do job training out of this center and have visitors come and learn about the connection between the natural and the built environment through this project.

One of the schools I toured when I first visited was just horrifying. But one of the scariest things I came to learn that much of what was horrifying was there before the storm. The horrible condition of the bathrooms, and the way that, as with many schools across the U.S., it was built more as a prison than as a school. We're trying to change that.

What's Global Green's connection to Make It Right, the organization that Brad Pitt eventually formed to also design and rebuild homes in the Lower Ninth Ward?

Brad had indicated from the beginning that he wanted to do a private initiative as well. But in the work we did together he really got educated. He was already informed. As it says on his Make It Right website, he was inspired to start Make It Right through his work with us and the injustices he saw there in the Lower Ninth.

For Brad, it's driven first by justice and his passion for architecture, and sustainability is certainly part of it. For us, we're building affordable housing and creating a sustainable village in the Holy Cross neighborhood. Brad's focus is how to provide great design and green homes for the people displaced in the Lower Ninth.


What do you think will be the biggest impact or legacy of Global Green's work in New Orleans?

To show the credibility and enhance the credibility of green building, and show that this wasn't just folks with a bunch of good ideas and a Hollywood star. The education that the people have received. There's this tour bus driver who was driving us around one day, and she had never been in the home. She always drives by, knew of Brad Pitt's involvement. But when she came in, she was like, "Wow, this is amazing." So now she's bringing other tour drivers through to learn what's in there. People walk in there and are just transformed, particularly after seeing the devastation of blocks upon blocks where there used to be homes. Other parts of the Lower Ninth can come in to this LEED Platinum home and be inspired.

The other is the work with green schools. People really see its importance.


The first completed home at the Holy Cross Project in New Orleans
How has Global Green inspired other groups and people working in New Orleans?

It's one of those cases where we came in and helped foster green thinking. There's a group down there called the Alliance for Affordable Energy and another group called the Green Project, which is really about reusing materials, and the Sierra Club has a strong representative there too. So it's not that there was no environmental ethic there at all, but I think we've helped bring more attention to and influence other building projects. Not just Make It Right, but the work of Barnes and Noble, which is building an energy efficient project, and influencing the policy, helping the city get the Solar City grant from the Dept. of Energy. There's so much that we've helped make possible directly and indirectly that I think people feel grateful we came and stayed and were there to help the city.

And I think there's a gratitude for how we've helped, but also the additional dimension of "Wow, this is also how we can solve global warming, how we create green jobs, how I can be part of solving this bigger problem."

What are the local and federal governments doing, and what do they still need to do there?

We helped the city finish its greenhouse gas emissions inventory. But on the climate action plan there's certainly a lot of opportunity for improvement. There's a mayoral election coming, and people are waiting to see if the next mayor will make this a priority. But I think it has to be, given that New Orleans would be the first city we'd lose to sea level rise.

It would be hard to ignore this issue, although it sometimes runs foul of the oil and gas industry, which is the lifeblood of Louisiana's budget. But that's going to need to be part of the mayor's agenda, focusing on the built environment. New Orleans can lead the way for the country, showing what they're doing to help themselves.

The coastal wetlands restoration is something there's broad support for but inadequate funding. [New Orleans' coastal wetlands are the fastest disappearing land mass in the world.] The [Environmental Protection Agency] administrator will be visiting soon, and we'll see what role the EPA can play. But I think New Orleans suffers the same thing that any other place suffers from. Credits are hard to get and financing is hard to find. But a continued embrace by the community of sustainability as part of its future and how it survives, that's happening.

What will Global Green take away from its experience in New Orleans? What's been the most powerful part of the project for you?

The commitment of the Holy Cross neighborhood. We'll look back in 20 years and say this is where this shift, this turning-around started: these citizens and residents saying we need to become carbon-neutral. That's what allowed us to come into that neighborhood and build the project we're building. It's that commitment of the community and people taking pride in their own neighborhood That has only reinforced my belief in the green schools initiative. We need people to relate to something in their own backyard.

And other than their neighborhood, think about the entity that's in every neighborhood, a school. How do make that a connecting point to both improve the lives of school children and create a better educated workforce as well as solving global warming. That connection to your neighborhood, that you need to love where you live. That starts not with your home, but with your community. If you love where you live, and have a bold vision to go along with it, and a sense that you can influence what your neighborhood can do, then you can begin to make a real difference. How can we do more as an organization and as a society to empower individuals to act?

This reclaiming of the role of citizens in New Orleans, that was crucial. When every level of government was broke, it was this neighborhood planning progress that really helped drive the sense of civic participation. How do we reclaim our role as citizens and not just be consumers anymore in this country?

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Matt Petersen.
More Global Green coverage on TreeHugger
Gehry Designs Shotgun House for New Orleans
USGBC Working Towards a Greener New Orleans
Global Green Cuts the (Green) Ribbon on Eco-Friendly School
Global Green Honors Green Innovators
Global Green Hosts Pre-Oscar Celeb-Studded Bash to Support Green Schools

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