New Orleans architect David Waggonner, FAIA, has been on a four-year crusade in defense of water. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, everyone from the federal government on down has been focused on keeping the water out of New Orleans—building bigger, better, higher levees and finding new ways to contain any water within city bounds. But Waggonner is leading a veritable Enlightenment salon of thinkers to question every aspect of moving water in and out of New Orleans, and to reestablish the connection between residents and this most basic of resources.
Waggonner hasn’t embarked on this journey alone: He is working with people such as U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who as early as 2006 organized a series of trips to exchange ideas with the people who know flooding best: the Dutch. Out of those talks emerged a series of three formal workshops at Tulane University, known as the Dutch Dialogues. The first took place in March 2008 and centered on Louisiana’s landscape and its properties; the second, in October 2008 during the American Planning Association (APA) convention, focused on planning at the regional, city, and neighborhood scales; and the third was in April 2010, when participants developed a water strategy that would “nourish the whole system,” Waggonner says. Landrieu continued to lead concurrent delegations to the Netherlands to learn as much as possible and to establish relationships between Dutch leaders and key U.S. decision-makers, including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.
The water-management concepts that emerged from the Dutch Dialogues suggest that throwing more infrastructure at the problem is not the best solution: “As we’re thinking about the infrastructure we would need, we’re shifting more toward the Dutch model,” Waggonner says, “which is really starting with the ground and water and biodiversity layer, and then [moving] to the infrastructure layer, then up to the habitation layer.” The idea is to analyze the groundscape of the city and environs or “reshape the bowl,” as Waggonner puts it, to create a series of drainage pools and canals that would run through the city, managing stormwater runoff by gravity rather than pumps. Bringing water back into the urban fabric creates new opportunities for redevelopment of communities as well. “Water is an attractive thing, a thing to reconceive this place,” the architect says. But, he adds, “It’s not so easy when you’ve been traumatized by it.”
The existing, “primarily technologically based system,” as Waggonner refers to it, collects water in three main outfall canals—enclosed by stem walls, or mini-levees—and uses pumps to eject the water into Lake Pontchartrain. This system is not just in place for catastrophic hurricanes, but also to accommodate runoff from the near-tropical rainfall that regularly blows through the area. Part of the Dutch Dialogues scheme involves setting the average surface level at 5 feet below sea level, which would allow for the removal of concrete floodwalls and the creation of a series of canals and waterways. Gravity keeps water circulating through the system. “You don’t want dry water courses,” Waggonner says. “A dry ditch is not an attractive thing.” The new system creates visual, physical, and social connections between the water and the neighborhoods and provides storage to accommodate storm surges or runoff from massive rains.
Removing the stem walls and creating a connection, both visual and infrastructural, with the canals creates a waterfront destination in place of decaying urban barriers. Widening the canals where possible allows a more natural waterline and additional capacity for both storage and pumping. Another motivation for taking down the walls isn’t urbanistic, it’s psychological: “You do a better job of maintaining what you can see,” Waggonner says.
After Dutch Dialogues II, a local community group, Friends of Lafitte Corridor, approached Waggonner and his firm to work on a sustainable water strategy. Currently, stormwater is collected in an open box culvert. A proposed solution involves expanding the culvert and covering it over; water would still run through it, just underground. This new structure would allow for a second layer of water from the Bayou to run over the top—essentially creating a double-layered canal—as part of the circulating water system that draws water through the city and back out to the lake. The scheme also looks at the nearby Carondelet Canal, which ran from Bayou St. John to the French Quarter but has long been filled in. The canal is somewhat reestablished, this time as a bioswale, creating a stormwater storage and bioremediation zone separate from the larger water system. It’s about “modifying the engineered structure and getting back toward the natural condition,” Waggonner says. “It’s not just about New Orleans, it’s about applying these systems across the boundaries.”
But despite the involvement of planning luminaries such as Paul Farmer, executive director and CEO of the APA, who helped Waggonner lead the Dutch Dialogues along with economist Dale Morris of the Royal Netherlands Embassy, the scheme to rethink New Orleans’ water infrastructure is having trouble gaining traction. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has two options on the table for New Orleans: repair the existing stem walls and keep them in place, or remove the walls and the current pumping system, and dig trenches (as deep as 30 feet) to serve as water storage. The first option costs roughly $800 million—the amount earmarked by Congress—the second $3.4 billion, according to the Army Corps. The City of New Orleans would be left to foot the bill for maintenance. The plan that emerged from Dutch Dialogues II and III would come in between the two in terms of cost but would arguably create a much better urban experience and require less maintenance.
Support for changing the paradigm is easy to find among intellectuals and foreign governments, but harder to wrangle at home. “New Orleans is a test case,” Waggonner says. “We’re the canary in the coal mine with regards to American infrastructure.” But with a new mayor prioritizing water management, and the interest of a U.S. senator, the EPA, and the APA, the plan could move forward—and help to heal New Orleans residents’ relationship with the water that so defines their region.