A Minneapolis native who grew up using the city’s lakes and trails is now playing a pivotal role in helping to get New Orleanians out on a new path and public space on the city’s just-opened version of the Midtown Greenway.
Sophie Harris, 25, grew up near Lake Harriet and later Cedar Lake and now is executive director of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, a grass roots advocacy group much like the Midtown Greenway Coalition. The group advocated for the new $9.1 million Lafitte Greenway, and her job for the past year has been to devise programs to get people out on it from the nine adjoining neighborhoods.
Harris first got involved as a volunteer, moving to New Orleans after studying urban studies and political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her day job involved working with the New Orleans version of what happened at Heritage Park in Minneapolis, converting a public housing site to mixed-income housing.
But the greenway proposal drew her fancy. “It was tremendously exciting to me,” she said.
The project drew her in part because she remembered how the opening of the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis expanded her horizons, allowing her to bike to the field at 5th Avenue South where she played soccer. “It brought diverse neighborhoods together in a way that a street surely doesn’t,” she said.
The Lafitte Greenway opened at 2.6 miles, with plans to expand to 3.1 miles in the future. It runs from the edge of the French Quarter to near expansive City Park, the city’s largest park. It largely follows the route of the 1794 Carondelet Canal, filled in the 1930s, and an adjoining rail line, since abandoned. The route varies from sections that snake between warehouses to areas wide enough for a playing field.
When area residents saw tracks being torn up in 2005, the year that Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, they began lobbying for a greenway. Federal community development dollars paid much for much of the construction.
Now Harris’ job is to make Lafitte a busy place. She’s working on tree-planting efforts, raising money for amenities such as signs along the trail and coordinating volunteers. There’s been a mural project, trash pickups, and walking and biking tours. Community gardens are coming, and there’s an after-school program to get students riding it.
“It’s largely a space for community events and recreation,” she said. She grew up biking or skateboarding the lake paths to her first job as a sailing instructor at Lake Calhoun. She also played basketball, softball and skied.
“We’re been looking at the Midtown Greenway a lot,” Harris said.
As she was taking the new job last year, she met with Soren Jensen, that coalition’s executive director. She’s also been in touch with other staff at the expanding number of urban greenways. Among those developed in recent years are New York City’s High Line in Manhattan, Detroit’s Dequindre Cut and Chicago’s 606.
“Every time I go back to Minneapolis, I’m amazed at the greenway-oriented development,” she said. New Orleans just adopted zoning aimed at encouraging such growth. Her group is also studying the volunteer-staffed Trail Watch that patrols Midtown to boost safety at night.
Unlike Minneapolis, much of the New Orleans riverfront is blocked from public access by port facilities or flood walls. Recently, there’s been a tremendous growth in bike paths, from five miles before Katrina to about 100 now, about half the Minneapolis mileage.