New Orleans Needs Scenic Canals, Not Grim Levees: Commentary

New Orleans still can’t handle everyday floods.

You can take a wrong turn during a downpour and find your car stalled in several feet of water. And that’s despite the $14 billion the Army Corps of Engineers is spending to fortify the city against the next Hurricane Katrina with upgraded levees, flood walls, pumping stations and massive gates.

Yet New Orleans doesn’t have to be blighted by these massive fortifications.

Architect Ramiro Diaz has taken me along the Bayou St. John, from its mouth at Lake Pontchartrain on the northern edge of the city, past the huge City Park.

Bridges arch across and trees overhang the serene waterway as it wends through several neighborhoods to its terminus in the Mid-City area.

Diaz and his boss, David Waggonner of the New Orleans firm Waggonner & Ball, would like to thread lushly landscaped waterways like Bayou St. John throughout the city to retain water during the city’s frequent deluges.

Delta Town

‘It’s time for New Orleans to act like a delta city, with water-sensitive design.” Waggonner told me.

For more than a century, sailing ships came into the city from Lake Pontchartrain, into the Bayou St. John, and then into a wide canal that ran along the culvert’s course for 1.5 miles to Basin Street, at the edge of the French Quarter, where they unloaded.

At the end of the bayou, a 15-foot-deep culvert with darkly glinting water is all that remains of the canal.

Waggoner wants to restore the canal, as a first link in the water-storage system. The idea makes sense economically as well as environmentally. The beauty of Bayou St. John is sought-after by home buyers; the Lafitte Corridor, as the space once occupied by the canal is now known, attracts no investment.

Living with water is a new idea in the U.S. We prefer to channel and bury it. Unglamorous drainage systems have become a hot topic in low-lying cities nationwide as flood severity worsens and sea levels rise.

Dutch Dialogues

In the Netherlands, water management has been a reality for centuries. Since 2007, Waggonner has led a series of conferences with both Dutch and U.S. experts called Dutch Dialogues to turn the Netherlanders’ expertise to New Orleans’s advantage.

Diaz’s tour included the wide, ugly concrete drainage canals that gash the city, topped by high, prisonlike concrete walls. Many of the streets facing them are dilapidated. We gaped at the massive pump systems that lift the water 15 or 20 feet, then fling it over the levees into the lake.

Augmented since Hurricane Katrina, they still can’t work fast enough. The Army Corps wants to fix the problem by putting more billions into higher floodwalls and deeper drainage canals.

Waggonner’s Dutch-American team offered a different approach: Use the city’s abundant empty land for landscaped water storage connected in a circulating system of canals and man-made bayous edged with greenery.

These would be sized to absorb and hold storm water while the drainage canals and pumping stations catch up.

More water-retaining basins could be built in the medians of the city’s many tree-shaded boulevards. Sidewalks and backyards could host rain gardens, which are shallow depressions seeded with plants that absorb water, as opposed to the acres of mosquito-breeding still water that linger after storms.

No More Concrete

The city has long hoped to turn the Lafitte Corridor into a parklike bike trail. Restoring the canal would add greater value, if it can be funded as an alternative to more pumps and concrete.

Corralling storm water for good use is immensely appealing in a city that’s still dubious about leaving its safety in the hands of the levee builders. Drainage structures designed to fit into neighborhoods could make the city infinitely more attractive. And the building could be in manageable chunks.

“I don’t see this as a 5-year plan,” said Waggonner, “but a 50-year one.”

Elements of Waggonner’s living-with-water proposal have been included in the city’s masterplan, which is close to adoption, and the idea has the backing of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu. Yet his vision could vaporize, as so many post-Katrina plans have.

Its unique power is the promise that New Orleanians need no longer cower in the shadows of their endless, dispiriting levee walls. They could begin living gracefully with their age-old aquatic enemy.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)