Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

A New New Orleans - Issues, Leverage Points, Scenarios
Alan AtKisson, 28 Sep 05

NewOrleansWkshop.jpgBy now, it is clear that New Orleans will be rebuilt. The flood of water will soon be replaced, and indeed dwarfed, by the flood of reconstruction money.

What is not yet clear is how to invest that money in such a way that the New New Orleans is indeed both wonderful and sustainable, in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes of its most loyal inhabitants.

The pressures to rebuild quickly are great, and quick decisions, especially about long-lived infrastructure, are often not the most strategic. What can one do to influence the process constructively, now, while the key decisions are still in the process of formation?

What follows is a first-draft answer to that question, and a follow up to an earlier essay on Dreaming a New New Orleans.

At the recent annual meeting of the Balaton Group -- an international network of sustainability researchers and practitioners that has been meeting annually since 1982 -- I pulled together a small workshop of colleagues interested in thinking about New Orleans, and about ways to support its sustainable redevelopment. (See the end of this essay for the list of contributors.)

This essay is in three parts:

First, some general reflections on information as a tool for leverage. The US Congress is opening a fire hydrant, and the rush of money into the whole Gulf region will be as powerful as the Mississippi. Flows of money that large make their own rules, and once they start, it is hard to redirect them. For most people, good information is the only tool available to try to affect it.

Second, a quick and partial list of critical issues the reconstruction effort must take into account. These issues are also a potential "tool" for helping to aim that money in the best and most sustainable way.

And third, a set of rough scenarios about how New Orleans' future might play out, depending on what kinds of choices are made regarding the issues of leverage. It is our hope that these ideas will help the many forces of influence in the redevelopment process to steer resources in the most strategic direction.


How much money will flow into the New Orleans reconstruction effort? President Bush has pledged "whatever it takes," and most estimates range well above $100 billion. The money has flowed in so fast that in at least one case, the State of Louisiana has actually returned over $300 million in disaster relief to the US government, because it could not spend the relief money fast enough. Critics are warning about "disaster profiteering" and the awarding of Iraq-style no-bid contracts to the nation's giant construction companies.

One can be certain that whole departments of people in many organizations are now strategizing ways to be the recipients of that money. What they need, whether they want or not, is information. They need information on the historical background, and they need information to support the best possible, most forward-looking, and most systemic solutions for rebuilding.

Let's start with information about what could have been done to avoid the Katrina disaster in the first place -- and what still needs to be done. Coast 2050: Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana was the plan developed in 1998 that, for the cost of a "mere" $14 billion, would have restored wetlands and prevented the move inward of the Louisiana coast by an estimated 50 kilometers (which is what was projected to happen by 2050). These documents map out the "system collapse" conditions that were inexorably making the region prone to exactly this kind of catastrophe, and other catastrophes besides; and they map a way forward. The cost of executing that plan is certain to be more than $14 billion today, but it still should on the short list of "essentials" in terms of where the Katrina money goes.

Secondly, it is not often that a major newspaper publishes an excellent and well-researched warning of looming catastrophe, and then must report on the catastrophe when it happens, but that is what the New Orleans Times-Picayune has done. Their 2002 five-part series called Washing Away warned in one of its opening headlines that "Levees, our best protection from flooding, may turn against us;" and on day two, the top headline noted that "A major hurricane could decimate the region, but flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands. It's just a matter of time."

These two sources, at a minimum, are required reading to have some historical perspective on the disaster; and that historical awareness should be promoted into every decision-making venue one can find, especially where money is being directed into reconstruction.

As for information on solutions, sources abound, and many are aggregated here at Alternative energy, sustainable housing, pedestrianized streets, transit, economic development and capacity building ... these days, anybody with a web browser can quickly become well-educated on what is already possible, and indeed actual. New Orleans can take lessons from the best-of-the-best in cities like Curitiba, Bogotá, Melbourne, Vancouver, and (closer to home) "green city" programs in places like Chattanooga, Pittsburgh, or Austin.

What's needed now is an outpouring of information, directed at those places where the vector of dollars gets determined, so that no one can claim not to have known what was needed, and what was possible.


Consider the following (partial) list of issues confronting New Orleans:

• The need for genuine livelihoods for those who are desperately poor

• Education, education, education

• The skillful management of nature (much of it in the form of working with it, rather than against it)

• Insuring that those who live in a place have adequate housing and property rights (remembering that many whose homes were rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew by FEMA funds could not afford to move back into them)

• The management of future risks to the city, especially environmental ones, with special attention to increasing flood risk and the cost of future weather-related catastrophes

• Capitalizing better on the strategic location of New Orleans as a port at the mouth of the nation's largest river

• The need to avoid business relocation, and attract new business to the area

• Environmental quality problems as a retardant to economic development

• Public health issues and access to health care

• Significantly higher exposure to environmental risks for the poor

• Maintenance of vulnerable and decaying infrastructure

• Issues of high corruption, low trust, and low participation in public life

The remarkable thing about all the issues on this list is that they pre-date Katrina. Some of these were issues on the mend in the Big Difficult, but many were not; and the flooding, physical destruction, and social chaos stirred up by a moderately powerful hurricane (one that after all missed a direct hit on the city by many miles) have only exacerbated them by a couple of orders of magnitude.

But these and other issues can also be seen as "leverage points" for steering money back into New Orleans in a healthier and more sustainable way, particularly when combined in creative ways. Improving one is good; improving several simultaneously is much better. The goal must not be simply to "rebuild" the city; the goal must be to use the resources flowing in to create a new city, one that addresses the full range of economic challenges, social inequities, and environmental threats that were already facing the old city, and that will continue to face it in the years ahead.

At a minimum, a list like this can serve as an assessment checklist: If the money isn't taking care of these problems, it's not doing a good job. More strategically, lists like this should be doing their work now to help direct the money so that it has the chance to address several of these challenges at once. For a region that was already facing "system collapse" (according to the Coast 2050 report), "systemic solutions" are now required.

The region does have at least one set of tools to support strategic thinking of this kind: the Top 10 by 2010 Regional Indicators Report. Those indicators were always meant to do more than keep score: they were meant to help regional leaders think collaboratively and strategically to address the region's challenges, in the most effective ways possible. When Katrina hit, they had only started their work; now is the time to work them as hard as everyone else in the region will have to work, to restore what was lost in a way that improves upon the city's historical legacy, and improves the prospects of all its citizens.

New Orleans and the Gulf region may be known a bit for their casinos, but with a hundred billion dollars on the table, now is not the time for impulsive gambling with regard to the best pathway for reconstruction. Careful, integrated, forward-looking, strategic thinking is in order. This kind of thinking takes a bit of additional time, but the pay-off to Southeast Louisiana will be enormous.

Keeping these issues visibly on the table, and actively in the planning process, will help ensure that rebuilding produces the most beneficial outcome possible.


Another tool for producing best-possible outcomes is scenario planning: imagining several likely future-history pathways, starting from present conditions. In a short brainstorming session, at an international conference on regional sustainability held in central Hungary, an informal workshop group produced several possible scenarios for what New Orleans could become. Three of these scenarios are named after the Dutch cities they most resemble -- appropriate, given the city's position at the end of a major river, under sea level -- and they roughly correspond with some scenarios floated by other US commentators (which I had heard about largely through conversation with a BusinessWeek editor reporting on the story).

Describing scenarios in this way can help clarify what we are actually aiming for. It can also help as an information tool for those attempting to aim redevelopment money toward desired alternatives -- and away from unpleasant or non-optimal outcomes.

This list is obviously not meant to be an exercise in planning, but to be used as a conversation starter. Here are six scenarios for New Orleans: Which one do you prefer? What mixture? Or better yet, what's your scenario for a New New Orleans?

1. The Amsterdam Scenario
New Orleans continues to be a center for tourism, culture, and commerce, with a "racy" side and with an emphasis on its identity as a melting pot of cultures. The airport expands to serve the region and burgeoning Baton Rouge, with high-speed rail connections. The city bustles ... but major industry, and even ship-borne traffic, continues its historic shift elsewhere, and the river recedes in economic and psychological importance.

2. The Rotterdam Scenario
New Orleans focuses on its role as a port, builds infrastructure, gets "back to basics" in terms of generating revenue and jobs as a major flow-through point for the world's largest economy. Tourism still exists, but gets de-emphasized in economic development planning. The closer-to-home model (though it is far less vulnerable to flooding) is Houston.

3. The Gröningen Scenario
New Orleans becomes more like this smaller, lesser-known, university-dominated city in the North of the Netherlands: less industrial, less of a destination, but a student town that is also showcase for green city planning (with lots of bicycles). Think Austin in the bayou, but without the computer business, and with a solar roof on a reconstructed Superdome meeting LEED Platinum green-building standards.

4. The Shanty-Town Scenario
We removed the city-name originally tagged to this scenario, since there are so many in the world. New Orleans fails to return as a major city, but the people do. The redevelopment money dries up or gets directed into gentrification. The city's underclass is more vulnerable than ever before. This is exactly what nobody hopes for, and exactly what often happens in other parts of the world.

5. The High-Ground Scenario
Just as some smaller towns have been moved from river-bank to bluff, this scenario involves consolidating the city onto areas of higher elevation. The pour are bought out or economically kept out by the conversion of existing housing to raised, gentrified housing, or back-to-nature flood plain. New Orleans becomes a kind of exclusive enclave, for residents and tourists alike.

6. The Galveston Scenario
This Texas town barely makes the news anymore, and then only when a hurricane is about to hit it ... again. It is picturesque and pleasant, but since being smashed by a massive hurricane in 1900, it is no longer a dynamic economic growth engine. Several soothsayers point to Galveston as a "likely" outcome for New Orleans: reconstructed, smaller, more about history than the future.

We certainly hope that New Orleans chooses "the best of the best" of these and other scenarios, and avoids the worst. And we look forward to hearing your comments on future scenarios for New Orleans, and on leverage points for directing the reconstruction effort in the most sustainable direction possible.

Written by Alan AtKisson, on behalf of the New Orleans Workshop Group, which met 18 September 2005 at the 24th meeting of the Balaton Group. Workshop participants:

Ian McPhail, Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, State of Victoria, Australia
Garry Peterson, Assistant Professor/Canada Research Chair, McGill University, Canada
Wouter de Ridder, Researcher on EU Sustainable Development Strategy, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
Rustam Vania, Sustainability Educator and Cartoonist, India
Diana Wright, Publications Director, Sustainability Institute
Carlos Quesada, Former Vice-Rector (Retired), University of Costa Rica

Bookmark and Share


Why must this culture have a place?

In the natural order of things, the 'old man river' moves: that it is well overdue for a change of course is one of the fundamental issues facing NO.

So, why not build an infrastructure that caters for that? Let the river flow where it will, and have the port follow the river?

And the name! New New Orleans indeed!

How about Newer 'Leans?

(not that any of this is my call!)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 28 Sep 05

Given the current political climate it seems likely that the first years of rebuilding will result in some combination of senarios 4 through 6. Infrastructure is expensive and it has become politically expedient to ignore it, especially in poor states like Louisiana. Those with money will take the more expensive property on hills--#5. Impatient business and industry will move elsewhere--#6. And the working poor will be stuck where they've been for decades, trailer parks and cheap prefab homes on flood plains--#4.

I like to see NO rebuild according to senario two. Poor states in the South really could do with more economic strength and diversity and it seems to me that tourism and college towns aren't really enough to grow significant economic vitality.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 28 Sep 05

Thanks to Alan, et al. for the ongoing discussion of rebuilding NO. I hope lessons learned from the hurricanes will be effective leverage points for implementing more sustainable cultural practices not only in the afflicted Gulf Coast areas, but also in the larger society.
I agree with Pace that Scenarios 4-6 are most likely, unforunately. It is ironic that Nature seriously disrupted US energy supplies at a time when we should be drastically reducing combustion of fossil fuels. NO could be a showcase for rebuilding communities that are less dependent on oil. No refineries in NO would be a good start.

Posted by: Larry Warnberg on 29 Sep 05

I agree, sadly, that 4-6 are the most likely. But I'm holding out hope for 1 or 2. Has anyone else seen ideas about what a positive outcome could look like? If you come across any, I'd love to hear.

Posted by: Noah Flower on 29 Sep 05

To create anything, you need not only a description of the outcome, but instructions for making the outcome. You can't get a good result from a bad process. Each scenario outlined has a host of rules and instructions for processes governing the placement of infrastructure, the flow of money, who has decision-making power, density, land use, construction techniques, and many other factors. To affect the outcome, you have to affect the processes. That means you need to affect the rules of the processes. Those rules have often been called a Pattern Language, following the work of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues. The scenarios are a great start, but articulating, and working to implement, a viable Pattern Language for rebuilding New Orleans would have real leverage. That would move from descriptions to instructions.

Posted by: David Foley on 30 Sep 05

Healthy Building Network is joining the effort to rebuild communities in the Katrina strike zone. They've set up – there's not much at the site at this point, but they will be adding more as efforts ramp up.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 3 Oct 05

Thanks Allen (and those who've commented) for the thoughtful discussion that helps bring me up to speed on the past, present, and future issues surrounding one of America's worst natural disasters. Having been in Sri Lanka for the past month (with its very poor communications infrastructure), I've been unable to follow the news of Katrina.

In reading the posts and comments, I was stunned at how easily one could have substituted "Sri Lanka" for "New Orleans." Fatalism, corruption, bureaucracy, complacency, ineptitude, poverty, classism, racism, environmental degradation, etc.--all interrelated issues that exacerbate the destruction from "natural" disasters and create huge obstacles for those who advocate sustainable redevelopment.

As our team from Rebuilding Community International found last month in Sri Lanka, the window of opportunity for sustainable redevelopment can close very quickly following a natural disaster. The problem with disaster relief and recovery (okay, one of the many problems) is that we don't yet have an accepted model for "building back better." In the absence of a sound alternative, "expediency" (and "greed") will continue to drive disaster recovery efforts.

Rebuilding Community International (RCI) is dedicated to providing disaster-stricken communities with volunteer building professionals to help restore structures, build capacity, and create an improving quality of life. We believe in the need for a holistic disaster-recovery approach that integrates: collaboration to ensure efficient, appropriate solutions that produce economic growth, ecological balance, and social progress; cash-for-work and training programs that accelerate recovery and give hope to those who’ve lost livelihoods; sustainable planning and infrastructure development that safeguards natural resources; cost-effective mitigation that creates disaster resilience; green building to restore and protect the environment; and new sustainable-business facilities to diversify and strengthen local economies and foster self-reliance.

We encourage anyone interested in sustainable redevelopment to contribute to our new blog ("Sustainable Redevelopment: Building Back Better") at We're on a steep learning curve to identify issues, alternatives, and strategies. The more heads, the better.

Is it too late for the sustainable rebuilding of Sri Lanka (and South Asia)? Probably. Is it too late for New Orleans? We won't know until we try.

Best regards,

Jan Woodruff

Posted by: Jan Woodruff on 3 Oct 05

This is a notable effort. It's missing something, though: a sense of the political battle required in all this. Left to the business interests (as so many things are in urban development), we will get the worst of all worlds: a themepark city with no real sustainability at all -- economic or environmental. Left to the politicos, the most clamorous interest groups, and the ones with the deepest pockets, will prevail. And, as with Coast 2050 back in 1998, crucial plans will be ignored. I know ACORN was active in N.O. I'm sure there were other tough-minded grassroots groups. Where are they now, and what are they doing? It will take pressure politics to make good things happen in the Crescent City.

Posted by: robert neuwirth on 6 Oct 05



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg