Recovering New Orleans: the Resilient City

Thomas J. Campanella, the co-editor The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster (Oxford University Press, 2005), a professor of urban design and city planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a visiting lecturer at Nanjing University’s Graduate School of Architecture, wrote about the resilience of cities and New Orleans in Sept 2005 on the urban planning website Planetizen:

Lost cities are in fact a relative historical rarity. True, Atlantis remains unfound, let alone rebuilt. Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried permanently beneath the hot ejecta of Vesuvius in 79AD. Timgad was sacked by both the Vandals and the Berbers and lost to history until archeologists uncovered it in the 1880s. Monte Albán, on the heights above the modern Mexican city of Oaxaca, flourished for 2,000 years before the Spanish crushed it for all time. But these are the exceptions. Much more common in the annals of urban history are cities that have rebounded again and again from even horrific devastation. The Romans leveled Carthage after the Third Punic War, salting it for good measure. But it was the Romans themselves who later resurrected the port city and turned it into an administrative hub for their African possessions; even today Carthage persists as a suburb of Tunis. By about 1800, urban resilience becomes the rule. No major city in the last 200-odd years has been completely destroyed, in spite of humankind’s ever-increasing power to do so. There are only a handful of exceptions; St. Pierre, Martinique — the “Paris of the Antilles” — was annihilated by a volcanic eruption in 1902 and never rebuilt. Only one man survived, and only because he was locked in solitary confinement. But for every St. Pierre, there are a hundred cities that bounced right back from catastrophic destruction.

The subject of urban resilience is one I explored with Lawrence J. Vale in an anthology entitled The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster (Oxford, 2005). Our comparative study revealed no short answers as to why urban sites in the modern age are rarely abandoned (factors such as embedded infrastructure, private property rights and insurance, even the political symbolism of reconstruction for a nation have all played a role). Our study did yield, however, a number of key points and common themes about both disasters and urban resilience, many of which have gained new relevance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For one, cities vary enormously in their resilience. Just as some people can fend off a traumatic illness while others succumb, not all cities are equally capable of rebounding from a shock to the system.

A person whose health is compromised to begin with has less chance of recovery than an individual in full health. So too a city. New York proved highly resilient in the wake of 9/11, mustering vast financial, political and cultural capital in its effort to recover from the destruction of the World Trade Center. New Orleans, on the other hand, was already burdened with huge social and economic problems long before Katrina’s arrival. Such “pre-existing conditions” will play a major role in determining how well the Crescent City will recover from the storm and its aftermath—and perhaps if it can recover at all.

Urban resilience, moreover, is not necessarily progressive. In spite of the seeming tabula rasa opportunity a major disaster can offer to correct old errors and put things right, reconstruction tends to favor the status quo. Even if a city’s buildings are toppled, foundations are often reusable and property lines remain. Insurance claims and simple inertia help push landowners to rebuild more or less what they lost. There is also a deep psychological need to see things put quickly back they way they were. While a disaster can trigger a host of long-term innovations, these tend not to surface in the immediate wake of a catastrophe. Visionary schemes are the stuff of good times, when people can afford the luxury of debating possible futures. The last thing people want to do in the middle of a disaster is wait around for the minutiae of a brave new plan to be refined for implementation. When London burned in 1666, grand schemes were floated by Christopher Wren, John Evelyn and others, full of axial boulevards and capacious plazas; all remained on paper. What Londoners returned to instead (and happily, I am sure) was a city that looked and felt much as it did before the conflagration. And while Chicago’s great fire of 1871 eventually yielded a city of fire-proof masonry buildings (as well as the first skyscrapers), the initial reconstruction phase fell back to erecting very kinds of rickety firetraps that caused the catastrophe in the first place.

This notion of “regressive resilience” extends also to a city’s social order and political culture. Just as the built environment is commonly reconstituted as before, the power structure and social hierarchy of a city can quickly replicate itself in the wake of a catastrophe. Divisive pre-disaster inequalities and injustices are resilient too. On the other hand, nothing reveals the fault lines in a society like a major calamity, exposing to public scrutiny long-hidden patterns of power, poverty, race and class. Such exposure can, in the right circumstances, precipitate positive change. This was the case in Mexico City following the devastating earthquake of 1985; the tremors not only shook up the city’s buildings but the very legitimacy of the political system and its leadership. As Diane Davis described it in The Resilient City, the earthquake exposed a raft of official corruption and abuses—in some cases quite literally: new government buildings pulverized by the earthquake were found to be of substandard construction quality, and the exposed cellars of ruined police stations contained evidence of torture). These revelations galvanized the capital’s “resilient citizens” to demand political accountability and a reordering of reconstruction priorities, including a new focus on low-income housing. It remains to be seen whether New Orleanians will prove as resilient as the people of Mexico City. For one, a scattered populace is very hard to organize politically; the social action that took place in Mexico City is unlikely in New Orleans if the city’s displaced and dispossessed never return.

All this underscores the fact that cities are more than the sum of their buildings. A city is a tapestry of human lives and social networks that are essential to the heart and soul of the place. A disaster can tear at this social fabric as terribly as at the physical infrastructure of a city. In New Orleans, this social fabric has long been intimately bonded to the unique geography of the city. The highest ground in New Orleans—the original “Crescent City” formed by Mississippi’s natural levee, including the French Quarter and Garden District—has long been occupied by the white elite. Blacks lived at the very crest of the natural levee, where they were safe from floods but endured the unpleasant noise and odors of riverfront industry. Creole blacks were concentrated in the triangular Seventh Ward, which begins in the lowlands but comes to a point on the Mississippi levee. “Anglo” African-Americans later settled in old “back of the city” neighborhoods such as Treme and in the lower reaches of Bywater and the Ninth Ward.

While there has never been a perfect correlation between elevation, flood risk, race and class in New Orleans (racially mixed middle class neighborhoods such as Lakeview and Pontchartrain Park, built on swampland drained by the Corps of Engineers decades ago, were also terribly flooded by Katrina), it most certainly determined who got out of town and who did not. Middle-class whites—and blacks and Latinos and Asians—loaded their SUVs and got out of Dodge; the poor were stuck without the means or money to find their way to safety. These people have now been scattered to the four winds, in perhaps the largest internal migration of Americans since the 1950s. With every passing day it becomes less and less likely that these and other displaced Orleanians will ever come home.

…Recovering a wrecked city involves much more than bricks, mortar and asphalt—or bits, bytes and electricity. As we pointed out in The Resilient City, it also “fundamentally entails reconnecting severed familial, social and religious networks of survivors. Urban recovery occurs network by network, district by district, not just building by building; it is about reconstructing the myriad social relations embedded in schools, workplaces, childcare arrangements, shops, places of worship, and places of play and recreation.”

None of this will come cheaply. Should the American people subsidize the immense costs of recovering New Orleans? Should residents of Massachusetts or Montana cough up tax money to house the returnees who lost their homes? The answer should come without hesitation: Yes. This is a great American city and it is the responsibility of both the federal government and the American people to help put it back on its feet. We can spend billions to rehabilitate Baghdad and Basra; surely we can do the same for one of our own. The stakes are terribly high. If New Orleans is not fully recovered—if little is done to meet the needs of all racial and class backgrounds; if social problems that have long bedeviled the city’s poorest communities are not tackled head on; if reconstruction focuses exclusively on high-profile projects aimed at getting the tourists and conventioneers back and spending—then the city will slip into a kind of glamorous but irrelevant afterlife. It will become what many urbanists fear most—a Crescent City theme park, an island of Fat Tuesday fun with a neo-Creole Starbucks on every corner, insulated by a “clean zone” of bulldozed neighborhoods where once lived the very peoples who gave us jazz and jambalaya and made New Orleans the gritty legend it will be again.

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