Bringing Back the Big Easy

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was easy to conclude that New Orleans—at least the New Orleans of popular imagination—had ceased to exist. But there have always been two New Orleanses: the picture-postcard version, catering to tourists; and the strange, eccentric, vibrant, and troubled living city. As the water receded and residents slowly made their way back into the ravaged neighborhoods, it became clear that the postcard had largely survived but that day-to-day New Orleans faced a much more uncertain future.

The battle for the Crescent City—one that is almost certain since billions of federal dollars are committed to disaster relief—will ultimately be a test of whether the city can rebuild on a massive, unprecedented scale and still retain its essential character.

In the days following the disaster I spoke to four designers from the region about the challenges and opportunities ahead. All of them were well versed in the political and social vagaries of the city—its problems prior to Katrina and its prospects now—but none had succumbed to cynicism or despair. Obviously it was much too early in the game, and they love the city too much to go there yet.

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Participants
Lake Douglas, landscape historian and coauthor of Gardens of New Orleans
R. Allen Eskew, founding principal of architecture and urban-design firm Eskew + Dumez + Ripple
Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane University’s School of Architecture and former editor in chief of Architecture magazine
Elizabeth Mossop, director of the School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University, and principal of Spackman + Mossop Landscape Architects

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Challenge
The flooding and evacuation of New Orleans is the biggest catastrophe to hit an American city since the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. What role should designers play in rebuilding the city?

Opportunity
Mossop: We have to raise the level of discourse and demonstrate creative solutions, and then get those solutions on the political agenda. A lot of local firms and people like Andrés Duany have been sleazing around the Mississippi governor’s office trying to make power plays, and they’ll no doubt be responsible for some truly horrendous and mediocre sprawl solutions. But only a few people in the design community have that kind of access. So I think we should focus our energies on what we do best: ideas.

This is not necessarily about getting the commission. It’s more about writing the brief and trying to shape what the future projects will be.

Eskew: We have to get away from questions of style and fashion. New Orleans is made up first and foremost of neighborhoods. And I’m concerned about how we repair those neighborhoods and invite back to them people of socioeconomic standing who right now don’t have a voice.

Kroloff: The local design community must quickly coalesce into a political force so compelling that state and local authorities recognize it. Otherwise we’re just going to get a world of second- and third-class architects and engineers “fixing” the city in the only way they know how, which is to create another Dallas.

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Challenge
As climate change threatens coastlines everywhere, what lessons can we learn from New Orleans? What models can we look to for guidance?

Opportunity
Eskew: There was the North Sea Flood, which happened in the Netherlands in 1953, and out of that came arguably one of the most advanced levee and dike systems in the world. New Orleans is surrounded by a single perimeter of levees. But I’m going to advocate for a series of compartmental segments where there’s not only a perimeter system but also a crisscrossing of levees similar to double-hold container ships or submarines so that failures can be contained.

Mossop: You have to explore alternatives to the levees-only solution. The higher you build them, the more you aggravate the problem because the impact of flooding is always greater. So what can be done to allow the Mississippi to flood? Are there opportunities to create undeveloped areas that would flood without death and destruction? Clearly there are a number of Dutch models that bear close examination, which are more about understanding the natural processes than trying to resist them.

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Challenge
New Orleans’s historic architecture could become a kind of Disneyland of period styles if the urban fabric isn’t treated with sensitivity. What would you advise politicians and planners to keep in mind as the city rebuilds?

Opportunity
Kroloff: If we ignore the specific urban character of New Orleans, we will ruin it. The land was originally subdivided perpendicular to the river. This is how the French made sure their planters all got a little economic boost. That made for a city of long thin strips that crash into one another as the river bends. Later as those strips were sold off, they were subdivided again into smaller strips running parallel to the river. So you’ve got this fantastic quilt, a wonderfully fine-grained urbanism. If we replace that with the squat, heavy-handed footprint of standard American development, we’re going to lose the character and New Orleans will be destroyed.

Mossop: People focus too much on the architecture and detail of individual buildings—which are lovely and worth preserving. But what makes New Orleans different from other American cities are the colonial models of urbanism that create unique profiles and distinct neighborhoods. There is also some beautiful infrastructure—gorgeous street types and boulevards, and a wealth of urban tree planting. It’s perfectly possible to design or repair such environments and then infill them with contemporary buildings. That would achieve the same thing without having to copy historical styles, and it would be more about understanding how it all works as a series of dynamic systems than about restoring a particular porch detail.

Douglas: We had these discussions long before Katrina. When Harrah’s came in and wanted to do Bourbon Street crap, the question posed to their designers was, Why would people come to your casino to see a fake French Quarter when they can step right outside and see the real thing? Because the historical urban fabric has survived, much of what tourists associate with New Orleans will still be here. So I don’t know if there will be any greater pressure now to “Disneyfy” than there has been in the past.

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Challenge
Do the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana have the political culture and competence to meet this monumental task?

Opportunity
Mossop: I’m sure the political will is there to deal with these problems, but the real question is whether anyone is interested in facing the harder questions. Many of them are long-standing issues about economic, social, and environmental viability, which are not easily dealt with by politicians. The political culture here is about money, the law, and party politics, and those are not particularly helpful in solving questions related to the environment, building community, and creating sustainable cities. It’s going to require visionary leadership, which will be very hard to find.

Douglas: People here are coming to grips with the realization that what needs to happen is not just rebuilding flooded homes. It’s about looking at the entire infrastructure of the city. What can we do to fix a situation that was basically broken before Katrina? Now is the time to look at everything and see how the pieces can be put back together.

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Challenge
Much of New Orleans’s historic architecture remains intact, but what gave the city its unique character is destroyed or facing some tough decisions. Who decides what’s worth saving?

Opportunity
Mossop: These are political decisions. What’s frightening is the fact they may not be informed by best practice or intelligent planning. The worst kind of expedient short-term thinking may guide these decisions, particularly in the climate of intractable race politics, which is deeply ingrained in New Orleans.

Eskew: I’m afraid FEMA is going to blow in with large contracts and enormous disaster relief, and reestablish people in haste so we’ll wind up with a lot of generic crap. If you’ve lost everything—almost lost your life—then generic crap starts to look pretty good. After Chicago’s great fire there was a rush to stabilize the city, but all the great planning work done by Burnham actually occurred later—and they proceeded to tear down some stuff that was hastily constructed. I hope we have the leadership here recognize that some stuff is temporary and will have to be replaced a second time around with something better.

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Challenge
The city had been losing population for decades. With many of its poorest citizens now dispersed, some experts estimate that New Orleans could lose as many as 100,000 people. How does the city plan for that and/or lure residents back?

Opportunity
Mossop: In the poorer neighborhoods New Orleans is a strange mixture of a vibrant, powerful indigenous culture and a population without the most basic resources in terms of social justice. If these people have the opportunity to find housing, jobs, and education for their children in their displaced lives, it’s going to be very difficult to lure them back. But we have to think about our larger aim. What are we trying to regenerate—the lives of these people or the city of New Orleans? They’re not necessarily the same thing. And it’s a very muddy and difficult question about how to best serve a population that has been so clearly abandoned by civil society. New Orleans’s richness, distinctiveness, and vibrancy should not be lost—in many ways the city offers a powerful urban model—but for decades it has also had these incredible third-world conditions. In theory this disaster gives us an opportunity to revisit some basic and bigger questions about how to make better cities.

Eskew: Much of New Orleans was developed long before there were concerns about wetland conservation, global warming, or sea-level changes. Now the question becomes, Should portions of the city that have grown and sprawled not be rebuilt?

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Challenge
Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, some raised a thorny question: Why spend billions of dollars rebuilding New Orleans when it’s likely to flood again? What’s your response to that?

Opportunity
Kroloff: My response is, bullshit! There is nothing more inherently dangerous about New Orleans than Los Angeles, San Francisco, and large chunks of Texas and Florida. Believe me, when the big one hits San Francisco many more people will die. We build in dangerous places. People have always built in dangerous places because these places have assets, strengths, and beauties that we believe outweigh the dangers.

Mossop: This country is a smorgasbord of natural disasters waiting to happen. We have to accept that these parts of the country are populated and realize that things are routinely done in other places that greatly minimize the impact of natural hazards.

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Challenge
What is your vision for a new New Orleans?

Opportunity
Mossop: I would like to see a city that has kept the vitality and character of its neighborhoods; is protected by a matrix of green space that addresses issues of drainage, water management, and flooding; and provides a diverse population with a mix of affordable housing—a city that has built on its historic urban form to create dense new neighborhoods clustered around transit, main streets, and employment.

Eskew: My dream is that when we look back in 20 years, imperfect as the rebuilding will be—it’s going to be very sloppy in the end—we’ll see a city that didn’t use the disaster as a way to divide our community but brought the neighborhoods back. The true measure of our accomplishment will be whether the cultural underpinnings of New Orleans are not only welcomed back but are replanted and flourish.

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