The Working with Water interview (May09): Rebuilding New Orleans

The Working with Water interview:  Rebuilding New Orleans

Working with Water spoke with David Waggonner, principal at Waggonner & Ball Architects, in May 2009 about the importance of integrating water into the city structure of New Orleans.

Leading the rebuild of the water damaged city is a challenge – not only must lessons be learned from existing and temporary infrastructure and political failures, but successful processes elsewhere in the world must be integrated with the uniqueness of New Orleans.
What are your plans for New Orleans?
What we’re trying to do is to get the whole area to think about water in a different way. When you’ve had a catastrophe like this, the normal tendency is never to want to see water again. That condemns you to a wrong way of thinking. There are ways to manage water – providing space for water to increase safety and to generate economic value – a lot of science and art can be employed to use water in the right way. It’s not exactly a cure, but a way of thinking holistically about water, which is practically never done in the US. We’re trying to introduce this concept to an environment that has been traumatised – to induce a discussion and develop a plan to live with the water.  

What are you trying to achieve in the next five years?
There are things that should happen in the next five years, but if events go the way they’re going at the moment, we won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities that the city has. We’re trying to get people to connect each element of infrastructure with its larger context and the landscape. For example, there are a series of outfall canals that drain into Lake Pontchartrain. The Corps [the US Army Corps of Engineers, a unit of the US military which is responsible for providing vital civil engineering and infrastructure works, as well as investigating, developing and maintaining water and related environmental resources] has built temporary protection at the end of each canal at the lakefront. These are the canals with low levees and I-walls on top of them that failed after Katrina. The storm surge is being kept out of the city now and the flood walls are being repaired, but there’s no agreement about a comprehensive solution. The Corps is not looking at this in a co-ordinated way. What we need is a set of dual purpose pumps at the lakefront, to keep out the storms and drain the interior. This would allow us to remove the I-walls and open the city in these locations to the waterways. We risk ending up with a wasteful series of actions that don’t take advantage of the opportunity to change the city to make it both safer and more attractive. We talk about the city being safer, but it has to be more attractive as well.  

How are the public reacting to your ideas – trying to integrate water more into the landscape?
There have been very few negative reactions. There have been people who say “I don’t want any water in my neighbourhood – I’m just going to raise my house.” Usually these are people who are isolated and angry, who were flooded by the levee failures. People are looking for some way to reconstruct the city but the scale of the city is too big for the population we have now – and there is not enough funding for the reconstruction of the entire infrastructure. The City of New Orleans is populated with maybe 300,000 people and if you can’t afford an infrastructure for a city of 600,000, what do you do? There are difficult political decisions still to make. I believe we need to think of water as an entity, in its entirety, There’s not a rigid order water has to follow, it can be split according to conditions, it doesn’t have to go in straight lines, it can be implemented incrementally – but there still has to be some overall framework and system capacity. This framework has to fit with pre-existing conditions, including the base topographic layer and the settlement pattern. So, what we’re trying to do is find a strategy with potential for acceptance and the techniques to do it right.  

How long do you think the rebuild will take? Do you think New Orleans needs an ongoing process to adapt to its threatened environment?

If New Orleans succeeds, it will be making these moves and taking these incremental steps ad infinitum. You can look at it from bigger elements down to smaller elements and vice versa – every piece of property needs to account for water in a different way. In the Netherlands, the Dutch develop an area – called a polder – that has a perimeter and works as a unit for storm water management. This approach allows finite calculations – working out how much land is needed, how you hold that storm water so it doesn’t flood the system. We might develop polders; we might be able to create a canal system in certain sub basins in the city; but we will need to demonstrate how this would be of benefit. The history of New Orleans with regards to water is that for a hundred years the inhabitants have been pumping it away and hiding it from sight, so it’s a difficult reversal.    

Is the political situation in New Orleans a hindrance to its development?
Absolutely. The lack of a leader, the lack of somebody who can see the way forward, see the way things have to be done and communicate the benefit of the changes we need is a hindrance. People are tired of planning processes that just go out and ask individuals and groups where they live and what they want. We have to be able to demonstrate to people that they are going to be better off with a new water infrastructure. We have to find a way, which I can’t find by myself, to compensate people if we expect them to relocate for public benefit.

Read the rest of the interview

Hopes for the future
I think by looking comprehensively at water we can re-invent ourselves and our city. We need to think about our microclimate but also engage an international knowledge base about the best practices for the water. The Netherlands is the leader – there is no other place where people deal so consistently and so confidently with water – so it’s an obvious choice to go to the people who know most.  

Engineering is such a fallen discipline in the US – not all engineering of course – but we have lost a lot. I think that architects and engineers have a role to play in the future of New Orleans and the world with design informing politics rather than just being a victim of it or supplicant to it.  

So that is key to what we’re trying to do – to show that water infrastructure design can inform politics with new ideas that can benefit us all.

– J. David Waggonner


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