It’s there. You know it’s there because images of it are etched indelibly in your mind, but you don’t see it. New Orleans has long hidden away its water like a dirty little secret – until it returned with a vengeance, four years ago last Saturday. It has been secreted away in covered drainage canals; in the wards it is masked by long expressionless walls. Even the powerful Mississippi slides by in troughs, silent and invisible. How strange for a city whose fate is so bound up with the watery aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, known locally only as “the storm.”
In April, Tulane University’s School of Architecture hosted a forum organized by the Bruner Foundation and the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Loeb Fellowship with the title “Urban Adaptability: Sustaining Place in a Dynamic Environment.” The speakers, most of them former Loeb Fellows, were trying to answer the question of how New Orleans can move forward amidst the still-ubiquitous destruction.
In his introductory speech, Doug Meffert, an environmental scientist at Tulane, gave a lesson in the city’s vulnerability with aerial images showing the disappearance of the wetlands on the one hand and the city’s expansion to the east on the other. In other words, the amount of space to be defended has doubled, while the defenses are shrinking apace. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu told Congress that Louisiana contains approximately 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands and experiences 90 percent of the coastal wetland loss in the lower 48 states – equivalent to the loss of 30 square miles of wetlands per year.
Keynote speaker Armando Carbonell, head of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, quoted the Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change and summarized its conclusions succinctly: “The longer we wait, the harder it is to change.” His own heartening conclusion is that America can indeed deal with climate change on a national level. We’ve solved nationwide issues with planning before: witness Gallatin’s 1808 plan for a system of roads and canals, Roosevelt’s 1908 plan for natural resources and the 1939 plan for a network of freeways and toll roads.
Ironically, some good things have also come of Katrina. New Orleans has a much lower unemployment rate than the rest of the U.S., thanks to all the construction (albeit not enough to fill the need). Moreover, so many people got laid off after the storm that the job market is now stable in the current crisis. The city’s racial imbalance, too, has been somewhat redressed: before Katrina 68% of the populace was black, now it is 51%. And let’s not forget, says Mary Means, director of community initiatives at the Boston planning firm Goody Clancy, which is designing New Orlean’s new masterplan, that ten percent of the current population has migrated here since Katrina. In spite of the patent neglect that still persists four years after the fact, the city has enjoyed ‘braingain’ as educated professionals from other cities have found new opportunities in New Orleans. The storm has actually not led to a net loss in population.
In the face of governmental inertia, the cities’ neighborhoods, already a strong civic presence, have taken even more initiative on residents’ behalf. “What you see here now is a community-oriented, Peace Corps-like mentality,” says Doug Meffert. Mary Means speaks of ‘“a new civic culture.” Her recipe for making the city resilient is straightforward: Elevate houses to above the five-hundred-year flood level, restore the wetlands inside and outside the levees and upgrade and ‘harden’ the city’s infrastructure. As an American living in the Netherlands and writing about urban and spatial issues, I remarked that compared to the Netherlands, the flood defenses here look about as imposing as speed bumps.
The Bruner Loeb conference provided new insights and placed them in context, but no conference can solve the issues that the city itself is ignoring. Why rebuild piecemeal in the Lower Ninth Ward, making it a playground for a well-intentioned celebrity, rather than reinvent the ward as the home of urban agriculture? In the hope of bringing people back, the municipality is allowing them to build anywhere. But this cluster of new houses in the Lower Ninth just fell from the sky, it seems, without any apparent connection to each other, to the rest of the city, to infrastructure, to amenities – to anything, really.
By the same token, the city insisted that Goody Clancy’s new masterplan conform to the existing footprint, when it is clear that that footprint is far too large, that inhabitants and municipal government would both benefit from concentration. In just 50 years, the city has doubled in surface size while the population has fallen by half – down from 627,500 in the 60’s to 484,600 before Katrina and to 318, 800 last year. Coleman Coker, an architect who moved his practice to New Orleans after the storm, had a simple recommendation in his talk at the Bruner-Loeb forum: Rebuild in the neighborhoods that have the most chance of rebounding. That, however, requires the strength to make painful choices.
New Orleans is in many ways unique, but four years after the cataclysmic storm it is also a test case for blight all over the U.S. This is truly not the only city in the country where trees grow out of roofs. If we can’t bring a city back to life that has suffered a disaster of this magnitude, then what hope is there for all those other cities that are not in the public eye, that have not gotten the media attention and the recovery packages? New Orleans’ story is that of many American cities – in extremis.