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Rethinking New Orleans as a Series of Lagoons, Elevated Houses

Lagoon communities would be traversable only on foot, bike or boat; cars would be parked on higher ground or in garages. Lagoon homes would have sprinkler systems to minimize fire risk, although emergency fire-and-rescue boats would be available. Even provisions for gardening could be made using decks and roofs.

Perhaps this is just the kind of funky, technically feasible strategy that New Orleans needs.

Unusual as this scheme might seem, it is more sensible than investing billions of dollars in reconstructing elaborate levees, which never can be foolproof, and conventional homes on land that wants to be eternally wet.

Of course, unconventional thinking about New Orleans is challenging because we are burdened by history and tradition, by sentiment and habit. For some, not restoring the city to exactly what it was is unthinkable, no matter how imprudent, difficult and costly that might be.

For families that have lived in the same home in the same neighborhood for generations, it is especially painful to contemplate never returning.

For others, restoring New Orleans to its condition before Hurricane Katrina is about stewardship of a unique legacy and culture, about respecting the past and preserving an architectural heritage. They fear that if devastated New Orleans neighborhoods are not restored to their original form, the city will lose its character and sacrifice its very soul and spirit.

But the history of cities reveals that urban rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters has always entailed reinvention and revitalization. Rarely have citizens been content simply to restore everything destroyed in a city to its original state. Calamity invites contemplation of new possibilities.

The truth is that even though Katrina profoundly and irrevocably changed the physical character of New Orleans, the city's soul and spirit were not necessarily lost. Therefore, rather than denying the destructive changes wrought by nature, ultimately a futile gesture, the city should acknowledge its altered character by pursuing innovative, realizable initiatives that can help save its soul, rekindle its spirit and safely house its neediest citizens.

Trying to bring back every acre of New Orleans to what it was before Katrina should not be one of those initiatives.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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