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American Society of Landscape Architects


January 2006 Issue

An Ecological Vision for Rebuilding New Orleans
Planning for a cleaner, greener Crescent City.

By Alex Wilson

Planning for a cleaner, greener Crescent City. NASA LANDSAT Project Science Office and USGS National Center for EROS

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 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, discussion is well under way about what to do next in heavily damaged New Orleans—and in 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. 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 the largest of America’s rivers forms its delta. There are very good reasons for accepting the reality that subsiding land, rising sea levels, and the effect of shipping channels in funneling storm surges into New Orleans make long-term survival of the city either very doubtful or highly expensive. Serious consideration should be given to 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.

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