Learning From Plantations

Oak Alley Plantation

Learning from Plantations:  Transportation, Innovation and Sustainability

Nine city planners.  Three vehicles.  Twenty-two pieces of luggage.  

We are off on the adventure of our traditional post-conference trip.  After 4 ½ days at the annual American Planning Association conference in New Orleans, we’ll tour Louisiana plantations and soak up the Old South.  What surprised us was how many of the principles of operating a successful plantation would provide useful planning principles for right now. 

Laura Plantation is our first stop, built in 1805 in the traditional Creole style.  The photo below shows that Laura was built above a raised basement, which was used for storage.  Second floor living and business quarters were elevated to avoid the inevitable flooding from the nearby Mississippi River. 

Laura Plantation

Our second stop is the nearby Oak Alley Plantation, shown at the top of this page.  With its majestic alley of 300 year old oak trees and its colonnade of 28 massive Doric Columns, Oak Alley is the archetypical plantation of movies. It has, in fact, been featured in Interview with the Vampire and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, among others. 

The third stop on our plantation tour was Oakley Plantation.  Oakley was founded in 1906, when Louisiana was part of Spanish West Florida.  The founders were wealthy enough to hire tutors for their children.  John James Audubon stayed at Oakley for 3 ½ months and painted 32 of his Birds of America series while he was there. 

After our plantation visits and over a glass of wine, we talked about the planning lessons we had learned during our tour.  We agreed on three principles:  transportation, innovation and sustainability.  Here’s more detail on what we learned. 

 Transportation.  All the plantations were platted in a rectangular form—long and narrow—and had frontage on the Mississippi River.  The Mississippi was the prime route for shipping and receiving goods.  A five foot dike provided some protection from flooding.  The River Road ran parallel to the Mississippi and was used for local traffic. 

Innovation.  Each plantation was a self contained unit, with gardens, livestock and a metal/blacksmith shop.  The workers of the plantation, were of course, slaves.* The skilled slaves invented tools and machinery to make the plantation function more efficiently.  They constructed the plantation houses and created beautiful, decorative cornices and ceiling decorations out of local materials:  Mississippi River mud and horsehair.  An Oak Alley slave is credited with propagating the paper shell pecan tree, which simplified harvesting the pecans.  It is a true testament to human nature, that, in the midst of inhumane living conditions, the slaves were able to draw on their creativity. 

Sustainability.  The plantation homes were designed to work with the humid south Louisiana climate and the Mississippi River floods.  The first floors were elevated.  Interior and exterior walls were 18 inches thick and made of brick to provide insulation.  Houses were surrounded by verandas and trees to provide shade.  Doors and windows were lined up parallel, from the front of the house to the back, to take advantage of breezes by using cross ventilation.  All the plantation homes were built facing the Mississippi River, not just to take advantage of the view, but to catch the breezes coming across the water.  

Water conservation was an essential part of plantation life.  Rain catchment barrels and cisterns were critical.  And to further conserve water, the plantation families bathed only once a week! 

The plantation homes were built to work with nature.  With the invention of air conditioning and value engineering, we have forgotten about the simple principles that make for affordable living, not just affordable housing. 

*Most of the plantation tours included tours of the slave quarters and explained the duties of the slaves.  Oak Alley, however, did the best job of addressing the injustice of slavery, has a monument to slaves and highlighted the innovations made by slaves.
April 19th, 2010  in City Planning, Management 1 Comment »

One Response to “Learning From Plantations”

  • Chris McGetrick says:

    MK, I really enjoyed your post on the plantation tours. Even though I was right there when you wrote it – I was very impressed at your description of the planning tools used by owners and the stipulation that much of what was accomplished would not have happened without unfortunately slave labor. We have come a long way toward righting that very grave injustice.

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