Does New Orleans Have an Identity Crisis?

New Orleans Drainage Canal The Bayou St. John Westersingel Canal

And if so, how many other cities do as well? I spent five weeks in New Orleans in May/June of this year…it is a truly fascinating city, a completely unique place, yet for the most part it denies the fact that it is a delta city. With large tracts of the city below sea level, it would seem reasonable to expect water to be an omnipresent characteristic. But the built environment of New Orleans denies water, walls it off, instead of embracing it.

There’s a line from Jurassic Park that I’ve quoted a bazillion times: “[The scientists] were so concerned with whether they could, they never stopped to consider whether they should.” Wherever technology allows one to ignore nature, this seems to be too often what happens. Modern New Orleans was built wrongly (where it is built wrongly) because it could be.

But what should it be (and I’m talking about built environment here)? Well, in my opinion it, like all cities, should be guided by local climatic and geographic conditions. Be yourself seems advice as sound for cities as for people. With so much rebuilding in New Orleans still to be done, opportunities for sensitive and appropriate changes abound. This commentary piece from Bloomberg makes a lot of sense to me.


New Orleans Needs Scenic Canals, Not Grim Levees

by James S. Russell,

New Orleans still can’t handle everyday floods.

You can take a wrong turn during a downpour and find your car stalled in several feet of water. And that’s despite the $14 billion the Army Corps of Engineers is spending to fortify the city against the next Hurricane Katrina with upgraded levees, flood walls, pumping stations and massive gates.

Yet New Orleans doesn’t have to be blighted by these massive fortifications.

Architect Ramiro Diaz has taken me along the Bayou St. John, from its mouth at Lake Pontchartrain on the northern edge of the city, past the huge City Park.

Bridges arch across and trees overhang the serene waterway as it wends through several neighborhoods to its terminus in the Mid-City area.

Diaz and his boss, David Waggonner of the New Orleans firm Waggonner & Ball, would like to thread lushly landscaped waterways like Bayou St. John throughout the city to retain water during the city’s frequent deluges.

Delta Town

‘It’s time for New Orleans to act like a delta city, with water-sensitive design.” Waggonner told me.

For more than a century, sailing ships came into the city from Lake Pontchartrain, into the Bayou St. John, and then into a wide canal that ran along the culvert’s course for 1.5 miles to Basin Street, at the edge of the French Quarter, where they unloaded.

At the end of the bayou, a 15-foot-deep culvert with darkly glinting water is all that remains of the canal.

Waggoner wants to restore the canal, as a first link in the water-storage system. The idea makes sense economically as well as environmentally. The beauty of Bayou St. John is sought-after by home buyers; the Lafitte Corridor, as the space once occupied by the canal is now known, attracts no investment.

Living with water is a new idea in the U.S. We prefer to channel and bury it. Unglamorous drainage systems have become a hot topic in low-lying cities nationwide as flood severity worsens and sea levels rise.

Dutch Dialogues

In the Netherlands, water management has been a reality for centuries. Since 2007, Waggonner has led a series of conferences with both Dutch and U.S. experts called Dutch Dialogues to turn the Netherlanders’ expertise to New Orleans’s advantage.

Diaz’s tour included the wide, ugly concrete drainage canals that gash the city, topped by high, prisonlike concrete walls. Many of the streets facing them are dilapidated. We gaped at the massive pump systems that lift the water 15 or 20 feet, then fling it over the levees into the lake.

Augmented since Hurricane Katrina, they still can’t work fast enough. The Army Corps wants to fix the problem by putting more billions into higher floodwalls and deeper drainage canals.

Waggonner’s Dutch-American team offered a different approach: Use the city’s abundant empty land for landscaped water storage connected in a circulating system of canals and man-made bayous edged with greenery.

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This entry was posted in architecture, Climate Change, Culture, Josh Grigsby, Placemaking, Response Pieces, Sustainability, technology, thinking, urban design, urban planning, vernacular architecture, What if? and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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