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WC Retro: Dreaming a New New Orleans, Version 1

NO_old.jpg When we reflect on major events of the past year, one of the most prominent is the hurricane disaster that ravaged the U.S. Gulf Coast. Katrina and Rita not only left land devastated and families homeless, it brought sudden and penetrating awareness to the effects of climate change, the capacity of U.S. emergency preparedness, and the persistence of racial and economic inequality in this country.

On the flip side however, Katrina and Rita drew heroism from citizens everywhere who rushed in to help, demonstrated the incredible utility of technology and digital networks in reuniting and providing resources for victims, and has since spurred important dialogue and innovation around the rebuilding effort. Today WC Retro will highlight pieces from the hurricanes and their aftermath.

We begin with Dreaming a New New Orleans, Version 1, by Alan AtKisson, posted September 2, 2005.

The full measure of the catastrophe in The Big Difficult has yet to be taken; indeed, the catastrophe is still worsening.

There will be, as soon as the city can be re-opened, many funerals. Mardi Gras -- should there even be one next year -- will undoubtedly have a special theme of mourning. I am in mourning already.

As one who has at various phases of life called the New Orleans region both "home" and "client," I have a special love for the place that has sometimes expressed itself irrationally. Helping people escape from rationality has always been one of the city's unique talents. One does things both in New Orleans, and for New Orleans, that one would be unlikely to do in, or for, other places. The city inspires a freedom of spirit, which in turn creates a fierce loyalty.

It is no wonder then that city leadership was already talking about rebuilding, even before the destruction was complete. Something like three-quarters of the city's residents are, after all, native-born. New Orleans is home, period, often over many generations. And those who are not native tend to quickly feel a similar sense of belonging there.

So take it for granted that New Orleans will be rebuilt. If the economics look daunting, if the physical challenge seems staggering, if the news reports of the day speak of chaos and disaster, if the idea of rebuilding a city in a basin placed in between a huge lake and big river seems foolish, count on emotion and passion to overwhelm these counter-arguments. And the United States, as a nation, is not likely to allow a major city -- especially one so strategically placed -- to be abandoned.

Massive resources will be mobilized, first to care for the victims, then to clean up ... then repair and rebuild. Where to begin with such a gargantuan task? How can it be done in such a way that something like this never happens again ... and in a way that helps lead the world toward a generally better future?

What follows are very preliminary thoughts on principles for eventually creating a "New New Orleans," one that is more environmentally secure, more economically successful, and more socially healthy and equitable, while retaining the culture that made it world famous. As the news reports continue to create a picture of the city's horrible descent into hell, such an exercise feels a bit foolhardy; but there is so much dreaming to be done, to restore this great and wondrous city, that the dreaming must begin now.

These thoughts build on the earlier work of a consortium of regional leaders, which I and my colleagues had the privilege of supporting over the last few years. The results of that work seem, in many ways, even more relevant and urgent now.


Background: The End of Fatalism

Beginning in 2001, my firm was engaged by a consortium of regional leaders in New Orleans to help them design and launch an ambitious regional initiative, called Top 10 by 2010. The sponsor was the regional Chamber of Commerce, now renamed Greater New Orleans, Inc. The co-chairs were very prominent businessmen, from distinctly different sides of the political aisle. The initiative's Steering Committee, Civic Leaders Panel, and Technical Expert Group were characterized by a remarkable diversity, one not previously seen in regional development initiatives. Local governments, banks, arts organizations, environmental advocates, universities, social justice campaigns, major property developers, leading minority business owners ... this extraordinary group worked together for a year and a half to craft a new foundation for regional progress. It was just in the process of re-forming and assessing progress so far when Katrina struck.

The Top 10 by 2010 vision was simple: dramatically raise the city's profile as a successful, special, and wonderful place to live, such that it would begin to make "Top 10" lists in the US by the year 2010. The strategy was also simple: to actually make the city a more successful, special and wonderful place, so that more businesses, families, and tourists would come.

But the strategy proposed was not to import the formulas of other places. By focusing on improving New Orleans on its own terms, we reasoned, the region would also rise in its standing on those terms valued by the rest of the country. Better education for all, a better dynamic link between the arts community and the economic development community, more capitalizing on the excellent universities as a source of intellectual capital, cleaning up basic environmental problems, preserving and highlighting cultural heritage, and addressing the entrenched inequities were just some of the strategic conclusions to emerge from an intensive process of polling, dialogue, indicator development, trend analysis, and vision development. (Some of the results of this process are available at this website.)

One of the most important, and surprising, conclusions of our initial research concerned an apparent lack of skill, on the part of regional residents, in envisioning a better future. Asked to name three things about their community that they thought would "get better" over the next ten years, only about a third of our 2,600 telephone respondents could, or would, do it. (This figure compares to 96% in a similar survey performed in northern California.)

Many of those on the Steering Committee were less surprised at this result than we were; they spoke often of a persistent regional fatalism, a sense that things "would always be this way." That attitude, some said, was the greatest hindrance to progress in fundamental challenge areas like cleaning up corruption or improving education -- steps that were necessary to improving the business climate generally. Indeed, the initiative's Steering Committee itself found it difficult to believe our finding, based on US Census data, that poverty had been significantly reduced during the 1990s, just as it had in many other cities around the country. It was hard for some to accept that anything was getting better, much less one of the city's worst and most visible problems.

Overcoming fatalism, helping people learn to dream, began to emerge as a critical first priority ... and something all participants could theoretically embrace as a common strategy, throughout the region, in every sector. "We have to market a message of hope to our own people," said a regional business leader in one of our final planning sessions.

But the creation of the Top 10 by 2010 initiative -- which used the development of indicators of sustainable development as a starting point for building regional collaboration and common strategy -- was itself an indicator that fatalism was on the wane, at least among the emerging regional leadership. Just as we were delivering our first major report, elements of that leadership were beginning a transformation. The new mayor had four department heads arrested for corruption and thrown in jail. A dynamic group of young business leaders won a new basketball franchise, reversing a series of business losses that had left the region with only one major corporate headquarters. Several top executives at the regional Chamber of Commerce were replaced, its name was changed, and the new crew was initially headed up by the same woman who was directing Top 10 by 2010.

These were just a few of the changes we observed first-hand, and countless others appeared also to be under way. There was hope stirring in the city. When we recently updated the indicators for Top 10 by 2010, we were ourselves amazed to discover that whatever was happening in New Orleans was quickly being noticed elsewhere. In just three years, on the Forbes/Milken list of Best Places for Business and Careers, the New Orleans region had climbed from number 194 (out of 200) to number 110, a jump of 84 places. Suddenly, cracking the Top 10 by the year 2010 -- a goal that looked wildly ambitious and unrealistic in 2001 -- actually seemed possible.


When the Worst Has Already Happened

A scenario like the one that played out with hurricane Katrina was certainly known to the region's leadership. Even National Geographic had recently written about the threat to New Orleans from a monster hurricane (October 2004 issue), and that was just one of the most visible in a torrent of similar articles, popular and scientific, both inside and outside the region.

Indeed, the very first indicator in the 2002 "Top 10 by 2010 Regional Indicators Report" is called "Coastal Erosion, Storm, and Flood Damage." It shows rising insurance costs over time, from more frequent flooding, caused by a combination of factors that included disappearing coastal lands and more frequent and intense hurricanes. (Framing the issue in terms of dollars ensured that it got everyone's attention.) The report notes that:

Taken together, these threats have raised serious, and difficult, questions about our long-term future. And the data from the last 10 years -- showing a steady increase, punctuated by the enormous spike in costs from the May 1995 flood -- confirm that the threat is not merely academic; it is economic, as well as social and environmental.

The 1995 "spike" of over half a billion dollars in damages now seems, of course, like nothing. But in retrospect, there was probably no way for the city to avoid the fate that has now befallen it. Yes, awareness of the problem was rising. Even very conservative business leaders had noted to me privately that they were worried about global warming and getting hit by "the big one"; they were just proscribed politically, they said, from talking very much about it. One went so far as to draw up plans for me, on the back of a napkin, showing his vision of a tremendous sea wall and causeway across the Gulf, complete with casinos and beach resorts.

But in the technical language of sustainability theorists, "respite time was shorter than response time." That is, the signals had come too late. Awareness of the threat had finally reached some key decision-makers in a convincing way ... but not in time for them to overcome various kinds of resistance -- economic, political, psychological -- and begin to respond. It turned out that the clock on the time-bomb, the amount of "respite time" left before irreversible catastrophe struck, had only a few years left on it. This was insufficient time to make, or even to convince people to start making, the massive investments that would have been required to avoid this catastrophe.

In other words: Even if the regional leadership, from the moment some of them had truly understood the nature of the threat, had begun mobilizing all of the available resources and willpower to try to protect the region from such a storm, and even if they had started a frantic process of rebuilding lost landscapes (which buffer the region from storm and storm surge), raising levees, redoubling the pumping infrastructure and the like, it would probably not have had time to avoid most of what Katrina has now done to New Orleans.

So, the worst has happened. The city has, in functional terms, been destroyed. Fatalism has had its ultimate day.

From here forward, New Orleans can choose its own fate.


Principles for Rebuilding a Bright, Green, Safe New Orleans

What follows is a first draft, tentative at best, of some ideas for what New Orleans might become, now that the choice of what to become is forced upon it.

1. Work with nature, and technology, to protect the city from future worst-case scenarios

Not since the fires and earthquakes of earlier centuries has the US been given the opportunity to rebuild a major city. Conditions are very different now, in terms of both what we can do, and what we must prepare for. The debate as to whether climate change additionally fueled Katrina's intensity began hours after the storm struck, and will continue for years. Whether or not global warming played a role in this catastrophe, it is absolutely the case that a new New Orleans must be built for much greater resilience in the face of a changing climate.

The city was always one of the world's most vulnerable; that is what makes rebuilding it such an extraordinary opportunity for learning. If we can make New Orleans a secure place for the 21st century, we can make every coastal city secure.

Start with the basics. The system of levees built to protect New Orleans was, we now know, tragically inadequate. They were built to withstand a Category 3 storm, but we live in a time when Category 4 and 5 storms are becoming more common, and likely. Not only has the worst already happened to New Orleans; the worst could easily come again, and soon.

If there is to be a New Orleans, it must be first and foremost be made completely safe from flooding in any conceivable worst-case scenario. If it cannot withstand a Category 5 hurricane churning straight up the mouth of the Mississippi, few will dare to live there.

Is such a thing possible? The short answer is: it must be. But it will require assembling the smartest engineering minds on the planet. That is why the rebuilding effort should call in the Dutch.

There is no one in the world smarter at managing land and water than the water engineers of the Netherlands. They have a thousand years of cumulative experience. New Orleans' famous pumps, which worked adequately for many years, were actually of Dutch design, and early on in the Top 10 by 2010 process, I brought in a leading Dutch economist to try to strengthen the bonds between these geographically and even somewhat culturally similar regions. (It is not hard to think of New Orleans and Amsterdam in the same sentence.)

But pumps, levees, and high-tech sea walls are just the beginning. The other major partner for rebuilding a secure city must be Nature itself.

The science of living more sustainably on the Mississippi Delta is actually quite well developed. The mechanisms that were causing erosion of wetlands and coastal islands are understood, and can be reversed. The task involves rethinking the management of the entire river system. It involves restoring wetlands, the "land" part of which were being erased by lack of sedimentation from above, and getting sucked down under the water level from below, by subsidence caused by oil removal. It involves letting the river rebuild the intricate network of coastal islands and shoals that buffer the region from storm surges. It's about learning to work with the natural features of Southeastern Lousiana, rather than continuously fighting a pitched battle against them, or attempting to bend them to the will of vested economic interests.

A New New Orleans will likely depend on a combination of very large, very high-tech storm and flood protection systems (such as the Dutch and the British have recently built in the North Sea, to protect their polders and London respectively), and much more "natural" land and river management. Yes, this will change the face of the region, economically and geographically. But Katrina has already made that inevitable.

To those worried about the ecological impacts of building protective structures in the Gulf of Mexico: remember that significant parts of the areas to be affected are officially classified as a "dead zone" already. This effort would actually give us a chance to bring those parts of the Gulf back to life.

2. Use rebuilding to lift the poor to safer economic and social ground

It is a bitter thing to view the photographs and videos of the refugees left behind in New Orleans, and to see that most of them were obviously poor and black. An anonymous email from a rescue worker noted that those who did not evacuate were those who could not afford to evacuate: those who had no private car, no resources, no people to turn to. Katrina was not alone in her killing; her accomplice was terrible poverty. That poverty turned the city into a living hell of random shootings and suffering for the refugees still trapped there, days after the storm.

A New New Orleans must be a city dedicated to the genuine well-being of all her citizens. Poverty had been reduced in the 1990s; but pockets of terrible, entrenched poverty were still far too common in that city prior to its deluge. Those pockets are the one thing that must not be restored; instead, the city must charge into rebuilding with an eye to reducing poverty drastically, by reducing the conditions that create it. The now-destroyed, once-crumbling houses in the 9th Ward (the poorest section of the city) must be replaced with decent, modern, and yes green housing (see below). The people who live in New Orleans must be employed in rebuilding it, thereby gaining marketable skills in the process.

While simple morality should make this principle clear and sufficiently compelling, it also behooves the nation to rebuild the city in a way that uplifts even its poorest residents, for simple security reasons. The alternative is chaos, and the scenes of looting, shooting, armored vehicles and violence that followed eerily in the hurricane's wake are but a foreshadowing of what New Orleans could become, semi-permanently, if a truly visionary and socially just rebuilding does not occur.

The poor of New Orleans have suffered the worst of the worst, starting well before Katrina; the New New Orleans must promise them a much better life.

3. Create an economy of creativity

Another surprising finding of our initial research for Top 10 by 2010 was the lack of significant strategic contact between the region's economic development efforts and the arts community. New Orleans is known around the world for its music, food, and cultural life generally; but as in most US cities, artists and arts organizations had not been brought into serious discussions about the future of the region, until Top 10 by 2010 invited them. (This was also true of its environmental advocates, who had been trying, in measured tones, to awaken the leadership to the dangers of coastal erosion and storm threat.)

New economic visioning processes had, after Top 10 by 2010, resulted in the inclusion of arts and environment leaders in economic strategic planning. This is a trend that must be sharply strengthened. New Orleans cannot hope to revive as simply "a place to do business." It must again become something special, something truly wonderful; and that means embracing creativity in all its forms, with a passionate ferocity. It means envisioning the city as a whole as a work of art -- one that cannot be restored exactly as it was, but that can be recreated.

The arts are key here. New Orleans' music and cuisine, its festivals and gardens and galleries, and even its notoriously wild parties are the only thing that can hope to draw people back to a place whose inundation is now etched in the world's consciousness.

But the arts are hardly the whole story. We also learned that the region lagged other similar places in its ability to take the ideas being generated from its fine universities (I graduated from one of them, Tulane, which used to bill itself "the Harvard of the South") and turning them into economic assets in the form of patents and businesses. So "an economy of creativity" means embracing creativity in general as the only viable strategy for the city's long-term economic vitality. New Orleans has -- or rather, had, and must now reassemble -- most of the ingredients that tend to attract high-tech companies, including that ineffable quality of "character".

What's required now, in addition to fundamental gritty determination, is a new flood of creative people, who see the chance of rebuilding a city as the creative opportunity of a lifetime, whether they are businesspeople, architects, sculptors, technologists ... or some fascinating new combination. The New New Orleans must truly be new.

4. Become a clean, green showcase

Recreating a beautiful, vibrant, successful city will require a new environmental ethic as well. The environmental problems that plagued city in advance of the storm -- including exposure to toxic chemicals and even simple litter -- had already caused at least one major company to decide not to move there. The environmental damage caused by the storm and the flooding is now incomprehensible. The rebuilding process offers a once-in-lifetime opportunity to clean up the city, in every way imaginable.

But cleaning up the now-magnified problems is just a small piece of what can, and I believe must, be envisioned. Currently the City of New Orleans exists, in part, to service the oil and gas production and distribution infrastructure that now lies in tatters in the Gulf of Mexico. It is likely inevitable that this infrastructure will also be rebuilt -- massive economic and security interests will see to that.

But it would be nothing short of criminal to rebuild the city of New Orleans and not aspire to run the place on renewable energy. The sun shines mercilessly there; solar panels need big markets to push their development curve up and prices down; and so New Orleans (not to mention its sister cities like Biloxi or Mobile, also terribly affected by this storm) could provide a tremendous opportunity to spur the nation's energy independence.

Sustainability economist Herman Daly always noted that using non-renewable resources is not wrong, so long as you are investing some portion of them adequately in the development of their renewable replacements. New Orleans, sitting next to 30% of the nation's oil and gas production, could demonstrate this principle in an extraordinarily visible, powerful, and dare I say beautiful way.

New Orleans could become a living laboratory for solar roofs, mini hydro generators, architecture that creates cool buildings without air conditioning, electric and fuel cell vehicles ... the whole list of green dreams for technically sustainable world. These could become the basis of new industries to replace the gas and oil revenues, and be partly financed by them, as well as by the general reconstruction funds that are already on their way.

Massive amounts of money are going to be mobilized for this reconstruction. Massive purchasing creates massive buying power, and this opportunity to push the nation's markets forward in the development of 21st century technology -- by directing that money toward the greenest alternatives available -- must not be wasted.

5. Dare to dream

These are days of despair and sorrow for the great City of New Orleans. Those days will not end soon. And as anyone who has weathered the death of loved ones or the loss of a home knows, there is no way out of grief except through it.

But what pulls us through grief is the knowledge that, while what is permanently lost cannot be restored, new things can be created.

The people of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf region will need tremendous amounts of practical help, money, and psychological support to come through this. But they will also need dreams -- and not just their own.

It takes courage to dream in the face of catastrophe. And courage often comes from being encouraged, with the thoughts, wishes, hopes, words, and yes, the dreams of others. We can all contribute to the recreation of New Orleans. We can all dream for her, and help her residents to dream. They have now lived through a nightmare -- one that many feared would one day become reality, and has. We can all now help her to dream a beautiful dream of recovery, restoration, and renewal, and to make that dream become real as well -- for herself, and for the world.


Afterword

This article is called "Version 1" because I expect to take it through many revisions over time. Your comments are more than welcome ... or perhaps this will inspire you to dream your own dream for the recovery of New Orleans. The city will need all the dreams we can give it.

-- Alan AtKisson

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Comments

As I recall, my 'dream' was to float the city (or at least the docking facilities). Then let the river roll where it will. Newer 'leans will be there.


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 3 Jul 06

What disturbs me most is that people are looking at the problems of New Orleans as a multiple year solution. Sure, it's possible that they may not get smacked by another hurricane this season, but it's just as likely that they will. The progress being made is lethargic at best and appears to indicate that the people of New Orleans are of the opinion that they won't be hit by another hurricane this season or next season. That gamble is one I'm not willing to make as an American taxpayer paying for this. People can be defiant and slow all they want to. The people may not understand how a sense of urgency could save the area, but hurricanes keep their own schedules and don't care what people on the ground think, or how they are affected.

The levee system should have been built to Category 5 strength by now, yet it's just as vulnerable today as it was before Katrina. If the area gets slammed again this hurricane season, they have no one to blame but themselves.


Posted by: Brian on 3 Jul 06



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