Mayors' Institute on City Design

Gretna Riverfront

Enhancing Gretna’s riverfront and water transit infrastructure through the arts

Gretna, LA

The people of our city have come to appreciate what the arts means to the community and support it as a quality of life initiative.

Gretna, LA Mayor Belinda Constant

Introduction

Gretna, Louisiana is a city of 17,000 located on the west bank of the Mississippi river, directly across from the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. Gretna has a walkable, historic, and family-friendly downtown area that city leadership has worked hard to improve in recent years, with public realm improvements as well as opportunities for social interactions including a food truck festival, farmers markets, arts markets, free movies, and many other events. The city’s riverfront is one of its most appreciated and valuable assets, with a beloved green space along the levee offering scenic views across the Mississippi River into the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. But despite its natural benefits, much of the riverfront remains underdeveloped and underutilized. Since attending MICD in 2016, Mayor Belinda Constant has set out to use the arts to catalyze new interest in Gretna’s riverfront and spark a reimagination of its future, culminating in a large-scale arts installation in 2023 that drew thousands of visitors.

Challenge

From the early 20th century until 2009, Gretna saw a steady stream of regular visitors and commuters to and from New Orleans via the region’s once-extensive public ferry network. The loss of this ferry service has been a challenge for Gretna’s economy ever since. In 2016, Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant attended a special session of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD), bringing the challenge of leveraging a planned relocation of a private riverboat cruise terminal to Gretna and seeking to maximize the associated potential investment in the ferry terminal, riverfront, and surrounding community. The MICD Resource Team made a series of recommendations around urban design and cultural programming to help build authentic local businesses, attract more national and regional tourists, and improve quality of life for residents.

Impact

Mayor Constant and her team utilized these recommendations to bolster their programming and urban design efforts, including an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The focus of the Our Town project was seeking arts programming that would activate the ferry and riverfront. The project sought to “increase social connectivity between communities on both sides of the river, and engage residents in planning for improved water transit infrastructure.” Despite delays, the project was ultimately a resounding success, with large-scale artworks attracting visitors from all over the region and sparking imagination for the future of Gretna’s riverfront.

Due to unforeseen challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, it took several years for Gretna’s leaders to determine the best way to move forward. The planned private riverboat terminal investment never materialized, and without a local arts council, it was difficult for the City to figure out how to produce complex arts events. Despite these challenges, city leaders were determined. After being inspired by the light installations and programming at the LUNA Fête annual festival of light, art, and technology, Mayor Constant approached Arts New Orleans, the New Orleans local arts council, to collaborate. Arts New Orleans agreed to help administer the grant and produce the project as an additional phase of LUNA Fête in 2023. These combined efforts and this cross-sectoral partnership were resounding successes.

In December 2023, a series of dynamic and innovative light installations were projected onto Gretna City Hall. Gretna’s three installations, created by three different light artists (detailed here and here with video of the installations), focused on the natural ecology of the river, the economics of the river, and the sustainability of human life along the river. To help encourage visitors, the Regional Transit Authority ran a ferry for four days during LUNA Fête from New Orleans to Gretna, with financial support from the city. The project brought thousands of visitors to Gretna and engaged tourists and residents in joyful, unique experiences that highlighted special characteristics of the city, her people, and the connection to the Mississippi River. Mayor Constant hopes to build on this success to advocate for regular water transit to Gretna, and continue this larger-scale arts programming through further collaboration with Arts New Orleans.

Lessons for City Leaders

  • Investing in public realm infrastructure and the arts can help a city shape their authentic and unique identity for generations to come.
  • In small cities, partnering with regional arts councils or producers can add critical capacity for executing grants and creating larger-scale arts installations, while cities can provide infrastructural support such as transportation.
  • These special events can help draw attention to critical infrastructure opportunities and challenges in joyful, emotional, and dynamic ways.
Header photo by Bryce Ell Photography

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