When visiting New Orleans, non-natives may hear people talking about the “neutral ground,” and most of them will look around and think “the what?” In New Orleans, it’s not only an interesting name, but also a unique landscape feature specific to New Orleans.
The “neutral ground” is a strip of land running through the middle of a two-way street, most commonly known to other American cities as a median. During the early 1800s, neutral grounds were canals used for transporting goods throughout the city; others were used for rail and streetcar lines. No longer needed, the canals were filled in between the 1930s to 1960s to become a part of the underground drainage system.
The name “neutral ground” evolved from an entirely different use of open space. Considered the widest street in America, the unfinished canal along Canal Street was left as open space. Due to the influx of settlers after the Louisiana Purchase in 1793, Americans built across Canal Street, opposite the French Quarter and its European residents. Canal Street became the “neutral ground” for all races and classes to trade – naming all medians, despite their size, thereafter.
Ranging from 0.05 to one acre, neutral ground exists in all neighborhoods. These open spaces are, by default, conveniently located among neighborhoods and function similarly to a mini greenway or park. Uses include walking and jogging, street car lines, dog walking, hanging out, parking cars during storms, parade watching, second lines and community gardens.
Although these spaces have evolved over many years by the piecemeal urban planning of the city, they are now beginning to be viewed as an opportunity rather than a dead zone. Landscape architects are realizing the benefits of using these neutral grounds for ecological and social functions. These spaces become an opportunity to rethink storm water, unique parks and public transit. Named the most deforested city in America in 2012, the New Orleans neutral grounds are also becoming the most critical areas to replant trees. While it may seem odd to want to take a stroll down the middle of the street with traffic on both sides, the land, name, and function are just as unique as their city.
What unplanned landscape opportunities exist in your city and how are they used?
Credits: Images by Allyson McAbee. Data linked to sources.