Dreaming a New New Orleans

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On the Sustainability weblog WorldChanging, Alan AtKisson writes about rebuilding New Orleans –Dreaming A New New Orleans, Version 1.

He sees the possibility of a future New Orleans that combines elements of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios TechnoGarden and Global Orchestration, by using technological innovation to ‘green’ the city, ecological engineering to produce a safe livable city , and poverty alleviation to produce a fair and open city. He envisons how these things can combine to noursh a vibrant distinctive creative city.

AtKisson writes based upon his experience with a regional vitalization process in New Orleans:

What follows are very preliminary thoughts on principles for eventually creating a “New New Orleans,” one that is more environmentally secure, more economically successful, and more socially healthy and equitable, while retaining the culture that made it world famous. As the news reports continue to create a picture of the city’s horrible descent into hell, such an exercise feels a bit foolhardy; but there is so much dreaming to be done, to restore this great and wondrous city, that the dreaming must begin now.

Beginning in 2001, my firm was engaged by a consortium of regional leaders in New Orleans to help them design and launch an ambitious regional initiative, called Top 10 by 2010. … this extraordinary group worked together for a year and a half to craft a new foundation for regional progress. It was just in the process of re-forming and assessing progress so far when Katrina struck.

AtKisson writes that today New Orleans is functionally destroyed, and therefore now is the time to start thinking of its future. Based on his sustainability work and the regional planning process he draws out five draft principles for rebuilding a Bright, Green, Safe New Orleans:

1. Work with nature, and technology, to protect the city from future worst-case scenarios

…Whether or not global warming played a role in this catastrophe, it is absolutely the case that a new New Orleans must be built for much greater resilience in the face of a changing climate.

The city was always one of the world’s most vulnerable; that is what makes rebuilding it such an extraordinary opportunity for learning. If we can make New Orleans a secure place for the 21st century, we can make every coastal city secure.

There is no one in the world smarter at managing land and water than the water engineers of the Netherlands. They have a thousand years of cumulative experience.

But pumps, levees, and high-tech sea walls are just the beginning. The other major partner for rebuilding a secure city must be Nature itself.

The science of living more sustainably on the Mississippi Delta is actually quite well developed. The mechanisms that were causing erosion of wetlands and coastal islands are understood, and can be reversed. The task involves rethinking the management of the entire river system. It involves restoring wetlands, the “land” part of which were being erased by lack of sedimentation from above, and getting sucked down under the water level from below, by subsidence caused by oil removal. It involves letting the river rebuild the intricate network of coastal islands and shoals that buffer the region from storm surges. It’s about learning to work with the natural features of Southeastern Lousiana, rather than continuously fighting a pitched battle against them, or attempting to bend them to the will of vested economic interests.

A New New Orleans will likely depend on a combination of very large, very high-tech storm and flood protection systems (such as the Dutch and the British have recently built in the North Sea, to protect their polders and London respectively), and much more “natural” land and river management. Yes, this will change the face of the region, economically and geographically. But Katrina has already made that inevitable.

2. Use rebuilding to lift the poor to safer economic and social ground

…. Katrina was not alone in her killing; her accomplice was terrible poverty.

While simple morality should make this principle clear and sufficiently compelling, it also behooves the nation to rebuild the city in a way that uplifts even its poorest residents, for simple security reasons. The alternative is chaos, and the scenes of looting, shooting, armored vehicles and violence that followed eerily in the hurricane’s wake are but a foreshadowing of what New Orleans could become, semi-permanently, if a truly visionary and socially just rebuilding does not occur.

The poor of New Orleans have suffered the worst of the worst, starting well before Katrina; the New New Orleans must promise them a much better life.

3. Create an economy of creativity

…New Orleans cannot hope to revive as simply “a place to do business.” It must again become something special, something truly wonderful; and that means embracing creativity in all its forms, with a passionate ferocity. It means envisioning the city as a whole as a work of art — one that cannot be restored exactly as it was, but that can be recreated.

…”an economy of creativity” means embracing creativity in general as the only viable strategy for the city’s long-term economic vitality. New Orleans has — or rather, had, and must now reassemble — most of the ingredients that tend to attract high-tech companies, including that ineffable quality of “character”.

The New New Orleans must truly be new.

4. Become a clean, green showcase

…The rebuilding process offers a once-in-lifetime opportunity to clean up the city, in every way imaginable.

But it would be nothing short of criminal to rebuild the city of New Orleans and not aspire to run the place on renewable energy. The sun shines mercilessly there; solar panels need big markets to push their development curve up and prices down; and so New Orleans (not to mention its sister cities like Biloxi or Mobile, also terribly affected by this storm) could provide a tremendous opportunity to spur the nation’s energy independence.

New Orleans could become a living laboratory for solar roofs, mini hydro generators, architecture that creates cool buildings without air conditioning, electric and fuel cell vehicles … the whole list of green dreams for technically sustainable world.

5. Dare to dream

These are days of despair and sorrow for the great City of New Orleans. Those days will not end soon. And as anyone who has weathered the death of loved ones or the loss of a home knows, there is no way out of grief except through it.

It takes courage to dream in the face of catastrophe. And courage often comes from being encouraged, with the thoughts, wishes, hopes, words, and yes, the dreams of others. We can all contribute to the recreation of New Orleans. We can all dream for her, and help her residents to dream. They have now lived through a nightmare — one that many feared would one day become reality, and has. We can all now help her to dream a beautiful dream of recovery, restoration, and renewal, and to make that dream become real

5 thoughts on “Dreaming a New New Orleans”

  1. For an outline on how coastal management of New Orleans could be improved Alan AtKisson suggest a Sept 2, New York Time’s editorial – They Saw It Coming – by Mark Fischetti – a Scientific American editor – who wrote an article Drowning New Orleans on the impacts a large Hurricane could have on New Orleans.

    Mark Frishetti writes:

    Watching the TV images of the storm approaching the Mississippi Delta on Sunday, I was sick to my stomach. Not only because I knew the hell it could unleash (I wrote an article for Scientific American in 2001 that described the very situation that was unfolding) but because I knew that a large-scale engineering plan called Coast 2050 – developed in 1998 by scientists, Army engineers, metropolitan planners and Louisiana officials – might have helped save the city, but had gone unrealized.

    Fed up with the splintered efforts, Len Bahr, then the head of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, somehow dragged all the parties to one table in 1998 and got them to agree on a coordinated solution: Coast 2050.
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    But Congress had other priorities, Louisiana politicians had other priorities, and the magic moment of consensus was lost.

    Thus in true American fashion, we ignored an inevitable problem until disaster focused our attention. Fortunately, as we rebuild New Orleans, we can protect it – by engineering solutions that work with nature, not against it.

    The conceit that we can control the natural world is what made New Orleans vulnerable. For more than a century the Army Corps, with Congress’s blessing, leveed the Mississippi River to prevent its annual floods, so that farms and industries could expand along its banks. Those same floods, however, had dumped huge amounts of sediment and freshwater across the Mississippi Delta, rebuilding each year what gulf tides and storms had worn away and holding back infusions of saltwater that kill marsh vegetation. These vast delta wetlands created a lush, hardy buffer that could absorb sea surges and weaken high winds.

    The flooding at the river’s mouth also sent great volumes of sediment west and east into the Gulf of Mexico, to a string of barrier islands that cut down surges and waves, compensating for regular ocean erosion. Stopping the Mississippi’s floods starved the wetlands and the islands; both are rapidly disintegrating, leaving the city naked against the sea.

    What can we do to restore these natural protections? Although the parties that devised Coast 2050, and other independent scientists and engineers who have floated rival plans, may disagree on details, they do concur on several major initiatives that would shield New Orleans, reconstitute the delta and, as a side benefit, improve ports and shipping lanes for the oil and natural gas industries in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Cut several channels in the levees on the Mississippi River’s southern bank (the side that doesn’t abut the city) and secure them with powerful floodgates that could be opened at certain times of the year to allow sediment and freshwater to flow down into the delta, re-establishing it.

    Build a new navigation channel from the Gulf into the Mississippi, about 40 miles south of New Orleans, so ships don’t have to enter the river at its three southernmost tips 30 miles further away. For decades the corps has dredged shipping channels along those final miles to keep them navigable, creating underwater chutes that propel river sediment out into the deep ocean. The dredging could then be stopped, the river mouth would fill in naturally, and sediment would again spill to the barrier islands, lengthening and widening them. Some planners also propose a modern port at the new access point that would replace those along the river that are too shallow to handle the huge new ships now being built worldwide.

    Erect huge seagates across the pair of narrow straits that connect the eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, which lies north of the city, to the gulf. Now, any hurricane that blows in from the south will push a wall of water through these straits into the huge lake, which in turn will threaten to overflow into the city. That is what has filled the bowl that is New Orleans this week. But seagates at the straits can stop the wall of water from flowing in. The Netherlands has built similar gates to hold back the turbulent North Sea and they work splendidly.

    Finally, and most obviously, raise, extend and strengthen the city’s existing but aging levees, canal walls and pumping systems that worked so poorly in recent days.

    It’s hard to say how much of this work could have been completed by today had Coast 2050 become a reality. Certainly, the delta wetlands and barrier islands would not have rebounded substantially yet. But undoubtedly progress would have been made that would have spared someone’s life, someone’s home, some jazz club or gumbo joint, some city district, some part of the region’s unique culture that the entire country revels in. And we would have been well on our way to a long-term solution. For there is one thing we know for sure: hurricanes will howl through the Mississippi Delta again.

  2. Washington Post has an interesting article comparing the Dutch water policies with water management in New Orleans.

    “Having battled rivers and the sea for centuries by building bigger dikes, the Dutch have decided to work with nature instead of against it. It’s a philosophical shift that is evident in the way people in the Netherlands discuss the fluid challenge they face: While Americans have been talking about keeping water out of New Orleans, the Dutch in recent years have been talking about making ruimte voor water , ‘room for water,’ and ‘building with nature.'” …

    “…what the Dutch have been trying to do more recently is strengthen these ‘hard’ protections with ‘soft’ ones — reinforcing concrete with swamps and sand. They are focusing attention on the kind of fragile coastal landscape that Louisiana has steadily been losing — maintaining dunes and mud flats, protecting salt marshes and barrier islands as well as creating artificial reefs to act as buffers against the waves’ relentless pounding. The goal is no longer to control nature. ‘Resilience is the aim,’ says a Dutch report”…

  3. Found a pretty interesting on line site with intelligent recommendations for rebuilding New Orleans.

    http://www.globalpublicmedia.com/articles/503

    Worth a read. At least some of the points are the future of metropolitan redesign.

    An absolutely riveting read lays out a Katrina-like scenario with frightening accuracy:

    http://www.pubs.asce.org/ceonline/ceonline03/0603feat.html

    The Creeping Storm. Civil Engineering Mag June 2003. Updatesand expands on the science and engineering studies performed and published 15 months before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

    I also found the answer to my question about an international workshop, still in the planning stages:

    http://newdirections.unt.edu/index.html

    For a plethora of excellent articles collected and available for browsing related to Katrina and solutions for catastrophic flooding of lowlying metropolitan areas:

    http://newdirections.unt.edu/katrina/links.html

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