New Orleans on Our Minds

September 2, 2005, New York City: A few days ago the remnants of hurricane Katrina arrived here as oppressive humidity and ominously gray skies. But today is crisp and clear—much like it was on that September 11 morning in 2001—and we talk of plans for enjoying the last days of summer, complaining about the high cost of filling up the tank for Labor Day trips. But underneath the happy chatter there is a dark realization. We know that hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans are displaced, and many others are missing or dead. We glean this information by watching the disaster unfold on flat-screen TVs and computers, safe inside our well-cooled rooms.

Gallons of ink—made from the same fossil fuel that now slicks the toxic stagnant waters covering most of New Orleans—have been spilled lamenting the demise of this magical city, the place that brought us A Streetcar Named Desire, Louis Armstrong, Walker Percy, the colorful tales of Storyville, and the syncopations of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. For those of us who have spent only a few days there, the loss feels disturbingly personal. For those with deep roots in the city, the tragedy must be unbearable.

If the spirit of a place resides in its historic architecture, streets, and gardens, New Orleans’s soul is infinitely more robust than most American cities. In the French Quarter alone, some 1,700 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But what drew me there was more than the architecture of wealth; it was also that distinctive mix of cultures that made New Orleans what it was—grand, idiosyncratic, and troubled but absolutely unique.

During its 287-year history the city has survived fires, floods, and hurricanes, as well as yellow fever and cholera. It weathered gentrification and resisted Disneyfication. It accommodated modernization and its predictable blandness, keeping it a safe distance from the fanciful historic quarters. Now Disneyland’s New Orleans Square may be one of the few reminders to future generations that there was once a flamboyant and eccentric American city by that name.

As thoughts of rebuilding New Orleans and the gulf region turn to action, some important questions must be raised. At the heart of the matter is finding efficient and humane ways to combine high technology with the area’s natural and cultural resources. The design community—with its admiration and respect for the city’s creativity and beauty—can play a key role in making the New Orleans region sustainable. Who else will take up the cause of exploiting the area’s abundant sun and wind, and the new possibilities these bring for architecture and planning in this hot and humid place with abundant water, itself a potential energy resource?

Some hopeful signs of this involvement arrive via e-mail; one is from Architecture for Humanity, pleading designers in the region to come together. But we’re waiting for planners to rally around sustainable land use; for engineers to figure out ways to convert defunct oil platforms into wind farms; for LEED-certified architects to contribute their expertise in green building; for landscape architects to enrich our knowledge of the local plant life, soil, and water features; and for interior designers to use their powerful manufacturing connections to demand and develop nontoxic furnishings. All of them together stand to contribute the expertise essential to rebuilding one of America’s strategic port cities. In fact, if there ever was a need to form an interdisciplinary coalition, this is the time and New Orleans is the place.

Indelible images of the devastation haunt my mind’s eye: young men scavenging for food, a tiny baby finally found by her parents, old people dying by the roadside, thirsty and hungry children wading though murky waters—almost all of them are poor and people of color. These disturbing images serve as reminders that the promise of social justice does not extend to everyone in America. Yet there was a moment on Septmeber 11 when World Trade Center survivors turned color blind and helped one another through the horrors of that day. Now New Orleans, a city that often refers to itself as a spicy gumbo of races and ethnicities, may finally help us understand what Blanche DuBois really meant when she said that she depended on “the kindness of strangers.”

As climate change brings more cataclysmic storms, each time endangering more people living along shorelines, the role of our building industry becomes increasingly crucial. Planners, architects, and designers—now largely strangers to scientists, physicians, and economists—will need to find ways to collaborate for a greater purpose than each profession alone can envision: to create places that protect the environment and the people it supports.

New Orleans is crying out for help. And they deserve nothing less than a sustainable metropolis—built on the triple bottom line of ecology, social equity, and economy. The new New Orleans must be designed and managed in such a way that it puts an end to the kinds of statistics that should shame every American: as the city was flooded by its long neglected levees, 38 percent of its children lived in poverty.

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