Trail of the Month: December 2011
New Orleans Levee-Top Trail
The Mississippi River gave birth to New Orleans, depositing the silt on which the city was built, and carrying the ships that made it into a thriving port. But the Crescent City is now separated from its mother: Tall earthen levees, erected to protect residents from floods and improve river navigation, cut people off from the winding river.
Luckily, the New Orleans Levee-Top Trail (more commonly known as the Mississippi levee trail) helps bridge the divide between land and water. "There's this huge mile-wide river next to us, that over the decades we've protected ourselves from—so any opportunity to get to the river is very important," says Jennifer Ruley, a pedestrian and bicycle engineer who works as an advisor to the city of New Orleans. "It really helps us to connect to the geography and history of the city."
The levee-top trail—running 25 miles along the east bank of the Mississippi—provides New Orleanians with a place to get back to their roots. Equally important, it offers residents and visitors a safe recreation and commuting venue removed from the city's busy streetscape. And it forms an important link in the 3,000-mile-long Mississippi River Trail—an ongoing venture to establish bike and pedestrian pathways along the entire length of America's most storied waterway.
As with many other pathways around the nation, the levee-top trail was made possible by seed money provided by the federal Transportation Enhancements program. The local parish (county) governments raised additional money and teamed up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which built and maintains the levee system along the Mississippi) to turn existing gravel paths on top of the levees and a short section of former railroad track into a paved trail. The first trail segment opened in the mid-1990s, and the pathway has subsequently expanded in sections as additional funding has become available.
Today the trail stretches from Audubon Park—a former plantation in the city's Uptown neighborhood that is now home to the city's zoo—upriver to the community of Destrehan in St. Charles Parish. Along the way, it passes through residential areas; past busy commercial wharves; alongside hospitals, shopping centers, parks and golf courses; near chemical plants and oil depots; within a few blocks of the city's busy airport; through suburban neighborhoods; and past 224-year-old Destrehan Plantation, the oldest documented plantation home on the lower Mississippi and a portal to the region's antebellum era. "The diversity of places you can go on this trail is incredible," says Ruley.
There's also the unique diversity created by the levee itself. On the protected side of the berm, much of the land has been built over or plowed under, and few signs of its natural beginnings are evident. On the other side, between the levee and the river, you'll see stands of cypress, willow and oak; swamps and marshes; and perhaps glimpse the herons, ibis, egrets and other wildlife that frequent these areas. "You can get a glimpse of what the area looked like before it was developed," says Ruley.
All of these qualities, and the trail's strategic location near homes, businesses and two major universities (Tulane and Loyola) make it extremely popular with residents. The college crowd favors the trail as a scenic hangout and meeting place. Serious cyclists use it for early morning training rides, and bicycle commuters appreciate the car-free pathway to work. The trail is also a magnet for people who stroll, inline skate or walk dogs. And it is an important part of a network of bicycle lanes and paths in New Orleans that has quadrupled in the past six years to 44 miles, with another 15 miles in development—including the three-mile Lafitte Corridor, a planned linear park and greenway.
"The public has bought into the trail and really supports it, which is evident in the continual expansion of the trail over the years," says Dan Jatres, director of pedestrian and bicycle programs for the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission. "Residents and elected officials view this as a major asset to the community from a quality-of-life perspective and transportation perspective."
The levee-top trail is also a regionally important piece of the Mississippi River Trail. This ambitious project seeks to create a mix of on- and off-street pathways (including unused rail lines) paralleling the river from its source in Lake Itasca, Minn., to its mouth about 100 miles downriver from New Orleans. In Louisiana and other states, river trail advocates are hoping to turn hundreds of miles of levee tops into continuous sections of off-street paths, and the New Orleans trail segment provides a successful model for working with the local and federal agencies responsible for these flood-control structures.
"Some of the lessons learned here in New Orleans regarding working with levee districts and the Army Corps to build trails on levees can help other communities," says Jatres, who also serves on the board of directors of Mississippi River Trail, Inc., the nonprofit group promoting and coordinating work on the multi-state trail. "They can point to the New Orleans area and say, 'It's been done there, it's working, it's not creating issues for the maintenance and operations of levees—in fact the trails have benefits for levee operations.'"
Current plans in Louisiana are to build out the levee-top trail between New Orleans and the state capital of Baton Rouge, about 130 miles upriver, and work is already under way on about a dozen miles of that stretch. "When the whole New Orleans-Baton Rouge section is done, you really have an opportunity for bicycle tourism," says Jatres. "With an influx of people along the trail, it could be a huge boon for some of the small towns along the river."
Downriver towns are also clamoring to extend the trail through their communities, Jatres says. "There's an appeal to riding your bike to the end of the Mississippi River and seeing what it's like, which is a pretty spectacular natural wonder." Ruley notes that New Orleans is working to ensure that its expanding system of on-street bikeways will allow users to connect from the levee trail, through the city center, to downriver parishes.
So the New Orleans Levee-Top Trail is not only helping connect residents of the Crescent City to their history and geography, but it's beginning to link the colorful communities along the length of the great river. Could a two-wheeled version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Life on the Mississippi be far behind?
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