Skip to main content

A Bold Plan for New Orleans

It is easy to see what led to the catastrophe Hurricane Katrina wrought on New Orleans: a city of a half-million people at an average elevation of six feet (2 m) below sea level; wetlands that have been disappearing for decades for lack of replacement silt from the Mississippi River's annual flooding; a city that has been sinking as its silt soils compress; levees that are designed to withstand only Category 3 hurricanes in an age when global climate change appears to be spawning more catastrophic storms; and years of inadequate funding to maintain even the existing Category-3-rated levees that were built to protect the Crescent City.

In the aftermath of the devastating late-August storm, as rescue teams search for survivors and carry out the grim task of recovering the dead, discussion is well underway about what to do next in heavily damaged New Orleans -- and nearby cities including Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi. New Orleans is the first large American city to be devastated by a catastrophic event since a mammoth earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed much of San Francisco in 1906, leaving three-quarters of its population homeless, and before that the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed a third of that city. From the San Francisco earthquake we learned to build structures that were more earthquake-resistant, and we instituted seismic building codes. From Chicago's fire we learned to replace wood-frame structures with masonry and steel, and we instituted rigorous fire codes. What will Katrina teach us?

In many respects, New Orleans should not be rebuilt in its present location -- a lowland bowl situated between a lake and a river channel where this largest of America's rivers forms its delta. There are very good reasons for accepting the reality that the combination of subsiding land, rising sea levels, and the effect of shipping channels in funneling storm surges into New Orleans makes long-term survival of the city either very doubtful or highly expensive. Serious consideration should be given to the idea of relocating the city to stable land, either somewhat inland from the coast or farther from the delta where it can be better protected. But there’s almost no chance of that happening. New Orleans will be rebuilt where it is. Our nation has learned a lot in its 200-plus years, but we’re neither that smart nor that bold.

So what can be done in rebuilding New Orleans to make it a better, more sustainable place? A great deal. The opportunities are exceeded only by the creativity that exists in the sustainable design community today. We have an opportunity with New Orleans to put into practice -- in a far-reaching and highly visible manner -- a vision infused by the collective wisdom of the green building movement. If common sense, intelligence, and forethought can prevail in the ensuing debates about the future of this great city, we will end up with a model that can be emulated around the world. Our nation can rebound from the shame of our hapless response to Katrina by demonstrating to the world a commitment to sustainable development.

In this spirit, we offer the following ten-point plan for moving this dialog ahead. These suggestions are directed specifically at New Orleans, though many of the ideas apply as well to other coastal areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

1. Institute a Sustainable New Orleans planning task force. This task force should be comprised of 20 to 30 of the best minds in sustainable development, urban planning, and green building, along with at least an equal number of community leaders of New Orleans and the surrounding region. Participation and buy-in by residents is critical to the long-term success of any sustainability initiative in a city or region, and that seems particularly the case in New Orleans, where too many have been disenfranchised for too long. This planning process should generate neighborhood, community, city, and regional plans that address such issues as housing, employment, government, transit, open space, healthcare, education, water, sewer, energy, and telecommunications. This task force should be funded at a level that will permit these outside visionaries and local participants to take leave of many of their other responsibilities for an intensive six- to twelve-month period, and the initiative should be enriched with the best support staff of computer modelers, ecologists, geologists, building scientists, and engineers that money can buy. This task force should be established as quickly as possible.

2. Pursue coastal and floodplain restoration as the number-one priority in rebuilding New Orleans. As has been widely reported, it doesn’t make economic sense to invest in rebuilding New Orleans without also addressing the underlying hydrologic problems that will continue to threaten this area. Sediment deposition needs to be restored in the Mississippi River Delta, both to replenish wetlands in the delta that are being lost to erosion and to counteract the subsidence of land that is occurring in the region. We need to harness nature’s restorative powers to support human efforts to create a habitable coastal zone -- rather than continuing to work in opposition to the forces of nature.

3. Immediately establish Sustainable New Orleans enterprise-zone businesses to salvage and warehouse building materials from the destruction of New Orleans. The materials so salvaged should be cleaned and used in the rebuilding of the city. These businesses should be cooperatively owned by the people of New Orleans and should provide employment to those in the city who most need it -- in the process, establishing models for the sorts of businesses that can ultimately build a vibrant, strong economy for New Orleans. Such start-up businesses can empower residents and help them emerge from the cycle of poverty and hardship that have for too long afflicted the city. Organized deconstruction of the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of buildings that are deemed unlivable should be undertaken. Temporary housing, food, and infrastructure will be needed to support this enterprise; the housing can start as tent barracks if necessary. If we can provide mobile living quarters and infrastructure for 150,000 ground troops in Iraq 8,000 miles (13,000 km) away, we should be able to do the same in Louisiana, an hour’s flight from Atlanta.

4. Rebuild a levee system around the city that the water engineers of Holland will envy. The levees should incorporate redundancy and be designed to fully withstand a Category 5 hurricane and a storm surge exceeding that predicted by the most extreme computer models. Where possible, the levee system should be integrated into a perimeter park for the city that combines protective functions with recreational amenities that will help New Orleans lure its dispersed residents back to the city and attract the new companies and employment that the city so desperately needs to sustain itself in the long term.

5. Create Sustainable New Orleans overlay zoning for the city to ensure that the goals of sustainability, safety, and urban vitality will be followed in the city’s redevelopment. This zoning code should emerge from the comprehensive planning process outlined in the first recommendation. It should provide for mixed uses (retail, commercial, and residential) in urban cores, public transportation, bicycle and pedestrian pathways, high levels of energy efficiency, reliance on natural cooling strategies and solar power systems in buildings that can maintain comfort and provide critical electricity during power outages, and durable building systems based on a platform of building science. While there is an urgency to move ahead with the rebuilding of New Orleans, doing it right -- in a way that will maintain and strengthen the character of the city -- is paramount. The end result should not be a gentrified New Orleans, but a better, more sustainable version of the old New Orleans -- a city that supports all segments of its society while protecting its environment and ensuring its long-term future.

6. Retain and restore those buildings that can be salvaged. Due to damage from contaminated water, extensive measures will be required to deal with mold. Gut-rehab will be required for many of the estimated 80% of the city’s 200,000 homes that have been damaged and, of course, many homes will not be salvageable. Building codes should address resistance to non-catastrophic flood damage -- for example, the most flood-prone lower floors of houses should have no paper-faced drywall, no ductwork, no air handlers, no wall-to-wall carpeting, and no electrical service boxes. Retaining the character of New Orleans, which is defined in part by its vernacular architecture and its diversity, should be a high priority.

7. Mandate or incentivize green building. Along with ensuring that certain minimum practices are followed in the rebuilding of New Orleans, the city, state, and federal government, as well as insurance companies and banks, should require, or offer incentives to encourage the implementation of, more comprehensive green building practices. Tax credits, zero-interest loans, density bonuses, grants to support the greenest redevelopment efforts, and other incentives should be offered to the people and businesses of New Orleans to support this greener vision of the city. Affordable housing should be built at least to the Enterprise Foundation Green Communities standards. Public buildings should be required to achieve LEED Gold standards. The U.S. Green Building Council should encourage green construction by waiving or discounting the registration and certification fees for all private building projects going through LEED certification -- discussions about doing this are already underway.

8. Work with ecologists and fisheries biologists to create more sustainable fisheries for the Gulf Coast. The Louisiana coast produces more seafood than any U.S. location outside of Alaska; as elsewhere, these fisheries are in decline. The terrible pollution that resulted from Katrina’s floodwaters will doubtless further damage these fisheries -- and likely extend the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, which currently covers about 7,000 square miles (18,000 km2) -- an area about the size of New Jersey. This issue must be addressed if the culture of New Orleans is to survive.

9. Clean up the new brownfields of New Orleans. Pollutant-laden sediment and all manner of toxins will greet the city once it is drained of its floodwater. The most ecologically responsible means should be used to detoxify New Orleans, and an ongoing testing program should be implemented to ensure that New Orleans’s water is safe to drink, its playgrounds are safe to play on, and its seafood is safe to eat. Indeed, this is an opportunity to put into practice, on a large scale, such leading-edge practices as bioremediation, phytoremediation, and ecological restoration.

10. Work with industry to clean up the factories along the Gulf Coast. There need not be a "Cancer Alley" along the Gulf Coast, but it will take a concerted effort by industry, environmentalists, and regulators -- and a lot of money -- to bring about the necessary change. In creating a sustainable economy and ensuring that residents can live healthy lives, however, this blight simply has to be addressed. Let’s learn from the toxic sludge and silt left by Katrina and create industrial processes that will not leave a toxic legacy for our children and grandchildren. The long-term plan for industry along the Gulf Coast should address both a reduction of toxics and opportunities for synergies in material and resource flows -- concepts of industrial ecology.

These are not easy tasks. Most involve hard, concerted effort and huge financial outlays. But these measures -- and others that would doubtless emerge through the process laid out here -- are critically important if New Orleans and the surrounding environs are to emerge from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in better shape than before. New Orleans can emerge as a model for sustainable development, charting a course that other cities around the country and world can follow. Let's not look back at the rebuilding of New Orleans as a lost opportunity; let's work together for a future that the city -- and all of America -- can be proud of.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Environmental Building News. It first appeared in the October 2005 edition of that publication.

Thanks to David Orr, Richard Haut, Kevin Settlemyre, Bruce Wheaton, Dan Williams, and members of the EBN Editorial Advisory Board for their review and helpful comments on this editorial.

More on this topic