Thoughts On Rebuilding _And Not Rebuilding_ New Orleans

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					Thoughts On Rebuilding (And Not
Rebuilding) New Orleans
Community & Economic Development | Louisiana | Op-Ed
26 September, 2005 - 4:00am
Author: Jason Henderson

Should New Orleans be rebuilt? Whose fault was the flooding? Jason Henderson,
Assistant Professor of Geography at San Francisco State University, and a New Orleans
native, warns the citizens of his home city that rebuilding all is a bad idea, and that the
flooding was an act of public policy failure, not nature.

New Orleans is listing, but this was not the "big one." The eye of the storm passed the
city to the east. The city did get hit by the infamous storm surge and the waters of Lakes
Borgne and Pontchartrain inundated much of the city. The levees overtopped, the pumps
lost power, and the city was submerged. The breaches came, and the "bowl effect" came
into play. The backswamp of East Jefferson, Orleans, and St Bernard, covered in auto-
oriented, low-density sprawl, went under. With nowhere to go, the water that flooded the
sprawl then flooded older parts of the city.

The storm surges, overtopped and breached levees, and complete submergence of large
swaths of greater New Orleans were predicted, modeled, and prophesied for decades. The
usual political response was that we need to raise the levees higher and higher, build
bigger, better pumps, and spend billions to accommodate the sprawl belt surrounding the
city. Now we are hearing the mantra of "rebuild all" with bigger levees and improved
pumps. It is important that before the majority of New Orleanians follow the mantra of
"rebuild all" that they reflect. They should reflect on why this disaster happened, and why
"rebuilding all" is a very bad idea.

What this storm hit was largely American auto-centric sprawl that was largely below sea-
level, wrapped by extensive levees, exposed to huge volumes of water, and sinking in the
peat of the backswamps. This development pattern, and the resource extraction industries
that supported it, created the conditions for this disaster to occur. This was not an act of
God, nor a natural disaster -- this was a public policy disaster. New Orleanians need to
understand this in order to make well-informed decisions about what and how to rebuild.
That means reflecting on public policies towards coastal erosion, the taming of the
Mississippi River, sprawl, and sea-level rise due to global warming.

For decades pipeline canals, shipping channels, and oil platform access canals were built
willy-nilly across the coastal marsh of Louisiana, giving the oil industry carte blanche to
decimate the coastal wetlands that protect New Orleans from storm surges. Public policy
kept the Mississippi River bounded in a swift and fast channel that precludes the
necessary deposition of mud and silt that built Southeast Louisiana in the first place. This
was done for shipping, refining capacity, and real estate development. Siphoning some of
the flow of the river to replenish wetlands was considered anathema to free enterprise.
Public policy -- not nature, not God.

In the last 60 years, the floodplain around New Orleans sunk by an average of 2-3 feet.
The subsidence was especially problematic in difficult-to-drain backswamps. These
backswamps are geographically distinctive from the natural levees --like the slither of
higher ground along both banks of the Mississippi, where, for example, the French
Quarter is located. Incremental filling of the backswamp began in the early 1900's, took
off in the 1920's during the first auto-oriented housing boom, and then accelerated rapidly
after World War Two, driven by white flight, anti-urbanism, subsidized highways,
mortgages, and flood insurance. Metairie, Chalmette, the West Bank, and eventually New
Orleans East emerged -- all mostly in backswamp.

source: Lousiana State University

The massive levees built to protect this sprawl held the water in, allowing it to fester and
stagnate, full of the toxic residue of sprawl -- motor oil, gasoline, lawn fertilizer, and so
on. From a design perspective, the sprawl that is submerged looked similar to sprawl in
Houston or Atlanta, no different from the sprawl in Dulles or Contra Costa, or Hoffman
Estates, or Tempe. Auto dependent, hostile to pedestrians, low density, single detached
homes, segregated land uses, segregated incomes and races, full of intrusive billboards,
massive expanses of pavement -- the bland generic sprawlscape that engulfs almost every
American city. Sprawl has been a national urban policy for at least six decades. This is
the face of sprawl in New Orleans today -- a toxic cesspool.

Enough has been said about global warming by the he media. Global warming makes
New Orleans even more vulnerable to storms like Katrina.

The disaster in New Orleans should be a national wake-up call to the dangers of ignoring
global warming. The national response to this disaster should be to implement public
policies that reduce our carbon emissions and direct us to re-orient our cities in an
ecologically sustainable and socially just manner.

How to Rebuild?

Public policies centered on resource extraction and auto-centric sprawl largely created
this disaster, so it is important to learn from this when rebuilding New Orleans. These are
some brief thoughts on approaches to rebuilding New Orleans.

What should not be rebuilt is the sprawl surrounding New Orleans. This includes New
Orleans East, Metairie and Kenner [this includes razing what sprawl is currently intact].
Repeat same exercise on the West Bank and in St Bernard Parish. Get the sprawl out of
the backswamps and recreate a cypress swamp buffer zone. The removal of the sprawl
should be done in a methodical and coordinated manner, and with ecological restoration
as first priority. Retreat, replenish, regenerate - and reconstruct the "old" New Orleans.

In New Orleans there is a natural levee of past bayous called the Metairie-Esplanade-
Chef Ridge. The city should be reconstructed south of this ridge. Greater New Orleans
reconstructed would straddle the Mississippi River on the high natural levee, from the St
Charles Parish boarder with Kenner to Chalmette on the East Bank and from Avondale to
Algiers on the West Bank, and would contain a population of roughly 500,000. Most of
these sections of the city are still intact.

The future New Orleans economy would center on the port, tourism, arts, university,
seafood processing, light manufacturing, and shipbuilding. Construction and craftwork
will be very important in the decade after this storm. The port would remain critical to the
nation. The city would implement a new housing policy that requires inclusionary zoning,
so that people of different incomes can return to the city. The "old" New Orleans would
have a systematic bike network, bus lanes, and expanded streetcar. Parking would be
reduced city-wide, former parking spaces converted to housing and mixed-use
developments. Access to the city would be primarily by rail, but smaller-scale highways
would also be rebuilt.

The balance of the New Orleans population (approximately 500-600,000) would relocate
to Baton Rouge, Hammond, and Lafayette, along existing highway and rail routes.
Frequent 24-hour passenger rail would be established between New Orleans and Baton
Rouge, Hammond, and Lafayette,New Urbanist designs. Baton Rouge would become the
regional economic hub, and experience major densification without expanding its
physical footprint. The city currently has extreme low density and ample room for infill,
and should be reconfigured into a compact city of one million with development focused
on arterials that would be transit oriented.

Bus rapid transit, with priority bus lanes, signal priority, proof-of-payment and low-floor
platforms would be constructed throughout the city. The city would also build a
comprehensive network of bike lanes and sidewalks. The infill strategy for Baton Rouge
would be repeated in Lafayette in Hammond, albeit at a smaller scale. A regional
government should be established in Southeast Louisiana. Regionalism would counter the
parochial competition between New Orleans and its hinterland. The backbone of this
regionalism would be a regional passenger and freight rail network that focuses
development around stations.


This disaster was largely caused by public policy. These policies included using
Louisiana as a major refining center for domestic and imported oil, requiring access for
ships and pipelines. These policies centered on a national urban policy of promoting and
subsidizing low-density, automobile oriented sprawl such as that built in the backswamps
surrounding New Orleans. These policies included refusing to cooperate globally on
climate change and refusing to regulate carbon emissions. These national policies
allowed much of New Orleans' poor to be left behind while sprawl was subsidized.

For this reason the funding for the rebuilding of New Orleans, including densification of
Baton Rouge, Hammond, and Lafayette, should be financed by a nation-wide 50-cent-
per-gallon tax on gasoline. This 50 cent gas tax would be used for disaster relief, clean-
up, remediation, rebuilding, and densification. Price caps on the cost per gallon will be
imposed, to reduce the impact of the increase on the middle class. Low income motorists
would be exempt. Public policy was the root of this disaster. Public policy must confront
and resolve it. A 50 cent gas tax is a good place to start.

Jason Henderson is an Assistant Professor of Geography at San Francisco State
University and a native of New Orleans.

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