In late August, Hurricane Ida battered much of the Louisiana coast. Nearly 1 million people in the state were still without power days after the storm first made landfall, with loss of life and damage to property yet unknown. The storm’s rapid intensification complicated evacuation plans for many. This is the new climate reality that our country is facing—and one that disproportionately affects communities of color, especially in places like south Louisiana.
While New Orleans’ levees held, demonstrating the benefits of $14 billion in post-Katrina upgrades to the city’s flood protection system, neighboring unprotected communities were hit hard. Subdivisions in LaPlace, La., home to many Black and Latinx families priced out of the city, flooded with several feet of water. By failing to challenge inequities built into present practices, architects will only contribute to the creation of what U.N. special rapporteur Philip Alston, in a 2019 report, called “climate apartheid.”
“When you read histories of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration from the New Deal,” says Darien Alexander Williams, planner and disaster researcher at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) in Boston, “these projects were started with ‘good intentions,’ and they ended up creating segregation where there hadn’t been segregation before.”
In the summer of 2020, white-led U.S. architectural firms, schools, and institutions committed themselves in written statements to “listen, learn, and change” in response to demands for racial justice by Black Americans. By recognizing that without racial justice, there is no climate justice, practitioners—particularly the 85% who are white—can take these commitments seriously.
Maddison Wells is an architectural designer in New Orleans and a 2021 Tulane School of Architecture graduate with a master’s in real estate development. She studies Black New Orleanians’ experiences with home-elevation programs funded by FEMA that raise houses above increasingly flooded ground.
“Who is this program accessible to?” Wells asks. “Not the elderly Black people who’ve lived here their whole lives. [Studying home elevation programs] has taught me a lot about inaccessible, inconsiderate, and simply ignorant policy and planning.”
In early 2020, Wells organized Living Without Water, an interactive exhibit and resource fair, at the House on Claiborne. Located in Uptown New Orleans on former swampland, in a neighborhood whose original racist covenants prohibited Black property ownership, the ranch-style house is the only Black-owned property on its block today. Developer Brittany Lindsey, an educator and social worker, invited Wells to engage communities of friends, colleagues, and neighbors around the challenges of adaptation.
Through her organization, the HUEman Development Project, Lindsey has developed the House on Claiborne as a “safehouse” offering culturally competent education and supportive housing to communities often denied both. “This is a place to create moments of reprieve for Black kids and Black people,” Lindsey says. “It’s a community space [with] access that flows through human networks and connections.”
The completion of a 30-by-10-foot underground canal by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2016 left Lindsey looking up at the pavement of South Claiborne Avenue from her living-room window. After years of worsening floods, an early-morning rainstorm in July 2019 flooded the house with 8 inches of dirty, brown water.
The morning after, Lindsey woke up to a call from FEMA. An application she’d put in months earlier for a Repetitive Loss Hazard Mitigation Assistance home elevation grant had been approved.
“The flood traumatized us,” Lindsey says. “I never had time to grieve [what we lost]. The grant process was a challenge. I spent so much time in fluorescent conference rooms, interviewing contractors, meeting with FEMA and the City [of New Orleans, which administers the federal grant money]. Many times, I was disrespected as a Black woman.
“This process is not accessible to, or set up for, people without professional jobs. Most people can’t take hours off work for all these meetings.”
Lindsey says all six elevation contracting teams she interviewed as prospects for her project were white. The architect and landscape architect hired by the contractor she selected were white and primarily experienced with affluent white clients. In a 2% Black and 0.3% Black female profession, in a nation that is 14.1% Black and 6.2% Black women, the design challenges of home elevation, like any other project, are rarely handled by professionals with competency in the needs of Black communities.
Wells sees much work to be done.
“People associate sustainability and response to climate change with building performance, but it should go beyond that,” she says. “Sustainability is not just about the building but about people and existing infrastructure that supports those people. Both design and policy should frame sustainability as creating self-sufficient communities that are resilient over time.
“Justice has become a buzzword. Justice for whom, by whom? The only true justice would be reparations.”
A Green New Deal, on Whose Terms?
Federal investment is no silver bullet. Racial inequities in Road Home, the federally funded, state of Louisiana– administered rebuilding program for homeowners created after Katrina and the floods of 2005, have been well-documented for more than a decade. This year, NPR’s reporting has demonstrated how FEMA responses to disasters systematically privilege wealthy and white communities and withhold needed investment from Black and poor communities. Disparities in COVID-19 response by states further demonstrate how politics impact disaster management. D. Williams explains how these realities complicate Green New Deal advocates’ hopes.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about federalism, as many people have since the pandemic,” Alexander Williams says. “Even if resources become available at the federal level, a handful of people at the state and local levels can refuse. People who’ve never lived in or grown up in a state with a tyrannical conservative governor or legislature think that federal legislative or administrative action is enough to effect progressive proposals.
“Even if the most crystallized form of various Green New Deal ideations was passed tomorrow, they could easily be compromised and sabotaged by people who profit from [the status quo].”
In New Orleans, urban designer and landscape architect Aron Chang works on projects associated with the Gentilly Resilience District (GRD). The result of New Orleans’ victory in an Obama-era HUD-funded competition, the GRD is a $141 million prototype urban stormwater infrastructure and community adaptation project in a levee-protected neighborhood 4 to 6 feet below sea level.
“Neoliberalism thoroughly structures these projects,” Chang says. “The government doesn’t build capacity [because] every project is farmed out to a contractor. [National design and planning firms] do their work, but the city departments who have to implement it don’t know what’s going on because the effort is never put in to co-create interventions.
“There’s no actual democratic process and the unspoken argument is you can’t afford to go public about this. Plans and designs [are] produced in hyperrational and technocratic modes. [Representation] issues endemic to architecture and planning play a role. These firms are lily-white in their staffing and strategy.”
Perspective and Power
Chang praises the work of contracted engagement practitioners, like New Orleans–based Water Block, which surfaces Native, Maroon and Black histories within the landscape. “For a virtual event about plantings and signage at the Dillard Wetland, Atianna [Cordova, principal of Water Block] invited [Black New Orleans historian] Leon Waters to speak about wetlands in the context of Black liberation. Things like this make white climate planners uncomfortable. And these perspectives aren’t centered in the process, because [white project leads] determine how the story is told.”
Design for a just future requires understanding our racist past and racial capitalist inequity in the present. Architects, designers, and planners must educate themselves about these conditions, remembering that racial and economic inequities create real imbalances of political possibility.
"There’s an awkward, very white acknowledgment,” Alexander Williams says, “within Green New Deal spaces, that certain policies of the New Deal exacerbated racial inequality. So people promise to ‘center equity’ within the Green New Deal, but what does that mean? [Especially] without the power to enforce it?”
Ujijji Davis Williams, an urban designer and landscape architect originally from Brooklyn and recipient of the 2019 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Bradford Williams Medal of Excellence, sees the crisis facing Black New Orleans as deeply historical and broadly shared across Black American geographies. In her essay “The Bottom: The Emergence and Erasure of Black American Urban Landscapes,” Davis Williams describes an urban typology that “possesses a distinct vulnerability when confronted with American planning protocols and inequitable power structures that deprioritize—and destroy—the presence and importance of these communities.”
“The Bottom is a place for Black people to live, based on where there were safe places to be,” Davis Williams says. “Runaways and maroons stayed [there] to avoid recapture. During the Great Migration, laws separated Black migrants from white ethnic immigrants moving across the country for industrial work. Oftentimes Bottoms were low-lying areas, along rivers, and coastal.”
An increase in economic valuation, as neighborhoods once dominated by docks become desirable for their proximity to new waterfront leisure and cultural facilities, threatens many Bottoms. Racist violence— physical and infrastructural—runs through these histories.
“There was a Black community [on the Chattahoochee River, northeast of] Atlanta. A Black person was accused of doing something to a white person,” Davis Williams says. "A white mob chased the residents away. Lake Lanier was built on the land [in 1956], a recreation area only open to white people. A whole community was sacrificed and enjoyment of the space became exclusive.”
In Detroit, the largest U.S. city with a majority-Black population, increasingly severe summer storms complicate challenges facing residents. “We have 50- year rain events every couple of years,” says planner and landscape designer Matthew Williams, a native of the city’s West Side. “Highways [built in trenches below grade] are shut down, people lose cars and basements flood, particularly along the Detroit River and across the East Side.”
In his work for the city of Detroit’s Planning Department, Williams says, he frequently receives requests for homerepair grants. “Many [Detroiters] are below median income [$28,000 a year]. People on limited incomes can’t waterproof their basement or replace their connections to city water mains.”
“It’s above a neighborhood’s ability to execute. The City is considering significant investments to improve sewerage infrastructure, but this has less to do with design than with infrastructural quality. Just throw enough money at it for better equipment. You don’t need a plan to tell you rusted pipes will leak.”
Davis Williams connects these issues to regional power structures. “Detroit’s sewer system is connected to the outflow of adjacent suburbs’ systems. So we’re handling Detroit’s water challenges and Southfield’s and Ferndale’s. It puts a lot of stress on a system that can barely handle what’s happening in Detroit.
“From a budget standpoint, the city of Detroit is more strapped than surrounding areas that may experience flooding,” Davis Williams says. “Flooding is one of many outcomes related to larger cycles of disinvestment and misalignment between cities and counties. It’s not because the city [of Detroit] doesn’t care.”
“Biden administration infrastructure funds and FEMA money [made available due to the 2021 floods] are a big deal.”