Rethinking New Orleans as a Series of Lagoons, Elevated Houses

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 7, 2006

Here is a proposed New Year's resolution: Don't try to restore the parts of the city of New Orleans most severely devastated by floods, those sections of residential wards below sea level that are especially susceptible to inundation.

Why do we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that there are places on the earth's surface -- wetlands and floodplains, seismically active regions, arid deserts, steep hillsides and cliffs -- where erecting cities endangers not only humans, but also the natural environment?

Why do we persist in believing that, through technological intervention, we can withstand and control the forces of nature, no matter the risks, economic costs and long-term ecological damage?

Building on coastal land below sea level, no matter where, is fundamentally a bad idea. Soil subsidence, coupled with rising ocean levels and increased storm activity caused by global climate change, will make existing lowlands even lower and ever more vulnerable to storm-induced flooding in the future.

Building on coastal land subject to hurricanes and severe storm surges, at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi, is a bad idea made worse. Constructing miles of levees at great expense to make low-lying coastal land habitable is yet more absurd. It only compounds our collective foolishness, as does providing flood insurance for properties in chronically flooded areas.

And doing all this when we know it's a mistake is downright crazy.

What can be done about New Orleans?

Instead of spending billions of dollars on extensive levee reconstruction, help the city's displaced and economically disadvantaged residents to permanently relocate to higher ground.

Then convert the most endangered lowlands of New Orleans into a well-designed system of public parks. Appropriately enough, such parks could include water features -- lagoons, canals, ponds, fountains -- controlled by using pumps, since drainage by gravity is not an option.

But another, more radical approach could allow some repopulation of perpetually threatened New Orleans real estate. Create communities built over water, not on land. Visualize, by way of analogy, permanently sited houseboats in Sausalito, Calif., or dwellings and shops perched on stilts in the lagoons of Bangkok.

In New Orleans, robustly structured networks of pilings supporting walkways and platforms, well above sea-level, could be arrayed over new lagoons. Relatively transparent to both wind and water, these networks would support equally well-engineered, low-profile homes, along with necessary water and sewer mains. Elevated above storm surge levels, homes and walkways would be designed and built to withstand hurricane-force gales.

These structures would be erected after demolition, clearance and grading of devastated neighborhoods. Then, letting nature have its way, the transformed lowlands would be flooded to form permanent lagoons.

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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