These are thoughts on approaches to rebuilding New Orleans. Only a portion of the city, along the natural levee of the Mississippi River, should be rebuilt. The vast majority of the city, the sprawl that surrounds the central city, should not be rebuilt. Instead Baton Rouge, Hammond, and Lafayette should absorb the population and human activity that once occurred in the sprawl surrounding New Orleans. Baton Rouge, Hammond, and Lafayette should densify and minimize the expansion of their physical footprint. Transit oriented, New Urbanist and Smart Growth strategies would be deployed. Approximately half a million people would be re-located and connected to New Orleans by a new, dignified, passenger rail system. The remaining half-million would stay in what is today Greater New Orleans, which would rebuild its largely intact portions into a port city with university, fishing, shipbuilding, and tourist components.
New Orleans is listing but this was not the "Big One." The storm passed the city to the east. The eye, brunt of the surge, and winds leveled Waveland and much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It was somewhere between a category 3 and 4, weakening rapidly as it came ashore. New Orleans had sustained winds of over 100 miles per hour and lots of rain. Streets flooded, streetlamps leaned, windows broke, and shingles came off. For a moment on Monday morning Aug 29th it looked like the city had dodged a bullet. There would be deaths, as usual, and property damage, and fallout from the failure of society to evacuate the poor. But it got worse than that. Much worse.
The city was hit by the infamous storm surge from the east and north. The waters of Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain inundated the east side of the city, as predicted, modeled, and prophesied. The "bowl effect" came into play, as predicted, modeled, and prophesied. The backswamp of East Jefferson, Orleans, and St Bernard, covered in auto-oriented, low-density sprawl, went under. And then it got worse. The levees overtopped, but then were breached in New Orleans. The Industrial Canal levee in the Lower Ninth was wrecked, and the Mississippi Gulf Outlet levees completely failed, inundating St Bernard. The pumps were turned off when it became futile to pump out the flood in New Orleans. The breaches in the 17th St and London Ave canal levees cycled the flood back into center of the city. The water level in the city equalized with Lake Pontchartrain.
The storm surges, overtopped and breached levees, and complete submergence of large swaths of Greater New Orleans had been predicted, modeled, and prophesied for decades. It had been taught in grammar schools, high schools, and universities. Local television stations and the Times Picayune, even National Geographic, had run special reports. The usual political response was that we need to raise the levees higher and higher, build bigger, better pumps, and spend billions to accommodate the sprawl belt surrounding the city. Everyone knew that one day the Big One would come, and many thought this was it.
Katrina was a category 4 storm, packing 145-mph winds and weakening as it approached the birdfoot Delta of the Mississippi. It veered to the east. By the time it was due east of the city, over the Mississippi Sound and landing near Waveland, it had dropped to a category 3.
This should give everyone pause when considering bolstering the levees in a nation that barely funds public infrastructure – from schools and clinics to roads, transit and levees. What if this had been a category 5, and a dead-on hit? Or even a category 3 and a dead-on hit? No one would have been plucked from rooftops by helicopters because roofs would have been ripped off in the winds. No one would have been wading through the streets because the entire city, both banks, would have been slammed with a 25-foot tidal surge. There would have been few survivors to rescue. The nation would have gasped at total destruction and economic recession rather than a bureaucratic genocide and the reality that it still had an underclass.
And yet for the Gulf South, this was a normal storm event. Hurricanes hit the Gulf coast almost every year, somewhere – Texas, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. If not a hurricane, a weaker tropical storm comes in. These storms are part of the reason the South is so wet, so fertile, and a land of milk and honey.
It is important for the people of New Orleans and Louisiana to reflect on this storm and on rebuilding because while this storm was normal for the Gulf Coast, what this storm hit was largely American auto-centric sprawl that was largely below sea level, wrapped by extensive levees, exposed to huge volumes of water, and sinking in the peat of the backswamps.
This development pattern, and the resource extraction industries that supported it, created the conditions for this disaster to occur. This was not an act of God, nor entirely a natural disaster – this was ultimately a public policy disaster. The people of New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana should consider this in order to make well-informed decisions about what and how to reconfigure, reconstruct, and rebuild.
That means reflecting on coastal erosion, the taming of the Mississippi River, subsidence, and sea-level rise due to global warming. Moreover, it means reflecting on the public policy decisions, or lack of them, that have led to this disaster. But let's start with the public policy disaster of evacuating a large metropolitan area like New Orleans.
Post storm aerial photographs show a yard of about ? yellow school buses submerged in the flood. Couldn't these buses have been used to evacuate at least some? Public policy dictated no. On the day before the storm, while panic set in but the skies were clear, the airlines not only cancelled flights, but extra planes were not sent in during this state of emergency. Meanwhile in flight across the continent was a huge airline fleet ferrying business class from meeting to meeting, and vacationers to Florida and Las Vegas. It was only five days later that airlines offered planes for evacuation.
Passenger rail? Forget it. Public policy in the United States says that this efficient, clean, civilized and fast way to carry people for daily needs as well as evacuation is not necessary in America. Finally, after some water was pumped out of the city and the downtown stabilized, an Amtrak train was en route to Dallas on Monday Sept 5th carrying 600 people in one load. Imagine if a passenger rail system approaching Germany or Switzerland had been in place before the storm. Thousands, tens of thousands, could have been shuttled to Baton Rouge in the 24 hours before the first rains, while I-10 was completely jammed.
And then there were the cars. Anyone who had one got in it and drove out. The nation was dazzled by the pre-Katrina traffic jams out of New Orleans, as they were by the traffic jams feeding from Houston less than a month later. But they were also dismayed by the thought of evacuating and then running the SUV on vapors when all the gas stations were depleted of gasoline and motorist evacuees became sitting ducks on the freeway.
There were over 200,000 cars flooded in the New Orleans area from Katrina. Second cars, third cars, new cars in dealerships. One would think that in an era of "compassionate conservatism," part of the logistics of metropolitan-scale evacuation would consider utilizing every tool available – including second & third cars, and the available vehicle stock in the dealerships. But compassionate conservatism has its limits - evacuation being one. In compassionate conservatism, it is every man for himself. And that is the public policy of 21st century American urban evacuation.
What unfolded was a libertarian-right wing public policy disaster. The poor were displaced and further humiliated. The corporate class got privileged access contracts and full control of the rebuild. The discourse was immediately captured by the calls for tax breaks, enterprise zones, more casino gambling, diluted environmental laws, elimination of wage laws, and more drilling. A corporate dream whitewashed in libertarianism. Somehow social spending on education, housing, and education are to blame for the poverty that led to thousands being stranded in New Orleans. Not racism, white flight, anti-urban federal and state policies, and state subsidy to corporate interests that profited from the low wages of poverty and the cultural milieu of the city while giving little back. Let us not kid ourselves – government was starved so that it would fail.
And where it was not starved, it was diverted. Somewhere along the way America forgot the purpose of the National Guard and sent it to guard oil in Iraq. Collectively it was forgotten that the reason thousands of people joined the National Guard was to serve their country and their communities, to protect and aid localities in the aftermath of disaster. They joined to help with disasters just like this one. Instead of the full might of a civilian national guard responding to this crisis, victims desperately waited for the Wal-Mart trucks. For the nation this is a Wal-Mart recovery policy.
Like the bungling evacuation and apocalyptic aftermath, the deeper causes of this disaster were public policy. It is important to know these causes in order to rebuild sensibly. Without knowing the causes, the trajectory of decision-making is off course.
The public policy response (or lack of response) to accelerated coastal erosion is a cause of this disaster. For decades pipeline canals, shipping channels, and oil platform access canals were built willy-nilly across the coastal marsh of Louisiana. The oil industry was given carte blanche to decimate the coast. Salt water intruded. Marshes died, open water moved closer towards the city. The buffer for storm surges disintegrated. This was public policy, barely debated. Environmentalists fought it, but oil companies had a strong lobby in Louisiana, and Americans wanted cheap gas. When business interests in Louisiana finally acknowledged coastal erosion in the late 1990's, they formulated a Coastal 2050 plan. It was their plan, and it failed to adequately address the deeper structural problems of oil and gas extraction and the devastation of the coast. Nevertheless, coastal erosion is now more than a Louisiana problem. It is a national problem. And it should not be left to the oil and gas industry and their senators to determine what should be done.
Public policy towards the Mississippi River is a cause of this disaster. The River's 25-foot levees kept the river bounded in a swift and powerful channel. Mud was not deposited in the wetlands to recharge them – as it had been for eons. Freshwater and silt shot straight into the Gulf, instead of fanning over the Delta. This was done for shipping, refining capacity, and real estate development. It was public policy. Talk of allowing the river to breach levees and deposit much-needed sediment, or to allow the river to change course and flow down the Atchafalaya, were dismissed as heresy until very recently.
In 60 years, the already low floodplain around New Orleans sank by an average of 2-3 feet. The subsidence was especially problematic in the backswamps, which are more difficult to drain even after an afternoon thunderstorm. Yet it is the backswamps where sprawl was built in full force, from New Orleans East to Kenner on the north side, and from Westwego to English Turn on the West Bank. These backswamps are geographically distinctive from the natural levees – the sliver of higher ground along both banks of the Mississippi, where, for example, the French Quarter is located. To be sure, the higher natural levee can flood, especially from the River. Its very existence is in fact the result of river floods. But is also the high ground, and any major rain or flood would eventually wash off into the backswamps. Following gravity, water flows into the backswamp from the natural levees.
Look at any of the dozens of satellite images and maps showing the flood, and it is easy to see that it is the backswamps of New Orleans that flooded. Much of this backswamp is characterized by the land-use pattern of sprawl. In the city of New Orleans, filling of the backswamp began in the early 1900s. Electric pumps and electric streetcars opened the backswamp to development. But it was incremental, and vast areas of backswamp remained a cypress swamp and sponge for floods. By the 1920s the development has begun expanding towards the Lake in an automobile-oriented pattern. This was the first pulse of American sprawl. More and more of the backswamp was paved. The shoreline of the Lake was extended outward for more land to develop. After World War Two the pace of sprawl development accelerated rapidly in New Orleans – driven by "white flight", anti-urbanism, and subsidized mortgages (and flood insurance). Metairie, Chalmette, the West Bank, and eventually New Orleans East emerged – all mostly in backswamp. Massive levees were built around the entire perimeter of this sprawl.
Had the backswamp north of the Metairie-Esplanade-Chef Menteur ridge been a backswamp and not paved over, the breaches in the 17th St and London Ave canals would not have flooded the Uptown and Mid-City portions of the city. They would have flooded backswamp, as they should have. All of the pumps that drain the city were on after the storm passed and the flood began. But as the pumps drained the central sections of the city, the pumped water spilled back into Lakeview and Gentilly, and re-filled the bowl. The system was over-extended.
The levees built to protect this sprawl held the water in, allowing it to fester and stagnate, full of the toxic residue of sprawl – motor oil, gasoline, lawn fertilizer, and so on. From a design perspective, the sprawl that is submerged looked similar to sprawl in Houston or Atlanta, no different from the sprawl in Dulles or Contra Costa, or Hoffman Estates, or Tempe: auto-dependent, hostile to pedestrians, low density, single detached homes, segregated land uses, segregated incomes and races, full of intrusive billboards, massive expanses of pavement – the bland generic sprawlscape that engulfs almost every American city.
Sprawl has been a national urban policy for at least six decades. This is the face of sprawl in New Orleans today – a toxic cesspool.
Enough has been said about global warming by the media. Global warming makes New Orleans even more vulnerable to storms like Katrina. The disaster in New Orleans should be a national wake-up call to the dangers of ignoring global warming. The national response to this disaster should be to implement public policies that reduce our carbon emissions and direct us to re-orient our cities in an ecologically sustainable and socially just manner. This means all cities, from New York to Los Angeles, from Miami to Seattle, from Lubbock, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska. With the rebuilding of New Orleans, New Orleanians have a chance to create a model for the rest of the nation. In the following sections are some proposals for how New Orleans, and the other cities of South Louisiana, can become a national model of ecological sustainability, social justice, and the production of truly good urbanism.
Substantial portions of New Orleans' African-American population, both low-income and middle class, have been displaced from areas such as New Orleans East, Gentilly, and extensive areas of the 7th, 8th, and Lower 9th wards. This population makes up the majority of the city and must have a say in its future. Similarly the white middle and upper class in Mid-City, Lakeview, and parts of Uptown in the "bowl" were displaced. They too deserve a say. Residents of St Bernard Parish must also have a say.
Not all those who have been displaced will choose to come back to New Orleans. But anyone who does choose to return should be welcomed and treated with dignity, regardless of race or income. This includes creating an ecologically sustainable and socially just housing and urban densification policy for the city. New Orleans should reconfigure in a more compact, transit-oriented form on the natural levees and in the portion of the city south of the Metairie-Esplanade-Chef Ridges. The rebuild would include housing, retail, office, medical, educational, and all other daily urban needs. Housing must include low-income and middle-income rentals. New Orleans had a substantial tenant population, and these people must be allowed to return and participate in the reconstruction of the city.
New Orleans should be rebuilt to a city of 500,000 that straddles the Mississippi's natural levee from the St Charles Parish border with Kenner to Chalmette on the East Bank and from Avondale to Algiers on the West Bank. Parochial Parish lines between Orleans, Jefferson, and St Bernard would be collapsed into one regional governance structure. Economic development should focus on the port, eco-tourism, universities and education, shipbuilding, limited oil-and-gas processing, and a sustainable seafood and local agricultural base. The port would downsize but remain critical to the nation.
The reconfigured New Orleans will need significant amounts of inclusive housing, built with solid craftsmanship from local resources and with local labor. The rebuild should respect the traditional grid and original human scale of the city, and not be characterized by garagescapes, trailer cities, or walls of bleak high-rises. All new housing developments should provide for a range of incomes and household sizes, from small efficiencies to 3-bedroom family housing units.
New Orleans should be reconstructed. But large tracts of the city lay well below sea level in vulnerable areas that should not be rebuilt. 50,000 to 150,000 homes were either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Not only are these sections of the city exposed to storm surges, they are now layered by the toxic residue of sprawl – motor oil from 200,000+ cars, leaking gas stations, refineries – the detritus of sprawl. It is just not right to allow people to live atop toxic sludge, and it is negligent homicide to put people back into the path of deadly storm surges. Instead the residents and businesses of the low-lying flooded areas should be given priority to relocate into the higher parts of the city.
All of this means that the natural levee and areas adjacent to it should densify. The higher and more centrally located parts of the city should be densified into the same sophistication and grace of the French Quarter, minus the trashy tourist traps of Bourbon Street.
The challenge will be on how to infill, and this essay offers a strategy. Instead of infilling in back yards, parks, and on existing, intact historic properties, infill should focus on surface parking for automobiles. This includes parking lots for shopping centers, churches, public institutions, and schools. Thus, the reconstruction of New Orleans would not just include densification and infill of the natural levee, but also a major re-orientation of the city's transportation system. The re-oriented city should maximize development on the surface parking lots which are scattered throughout the city. A compact, walkable, transit-oriented city can rise, with bicycling given pride of place. Rail transit will connect the city to Baton Rouge, Armstrong Airport, and the rest of the Southeast. Rail will also operate as a much-needed tool for evacuation when the next storm arrives.
Not all spaces along the natural levee would be suitable for densification. There remain expanses of existing housing stock that should not be razed, replaced, or altered (but rather repaired). However, there are numerous opportunity sites along the natural levee that should be targeted for densification following New Urbanist / Smart Growth strategies. These are mostly spaces for automobiles, or architecturally insignificant structures such as automobile-oriented strip shopping centers. What follows is rough sketch of spaces along the natural levee, from Uptown to the Bywater, that should be considered for densification in New Orleans.
All along the Tchoupitoulas corridor there are docks, rail yards, and warehouses that are vital to the port. These functions should be preserved. Yet there are portions of the docks that are not vital to the port and the port has been systematically downsizing activity along the Uptown portion of the New Orleans waterfront over the last several decades. This is due partly to technological changes in shipping and consolidation at key docks, such as the Nashville Avenue Wharf. Before Katrina, automobile-oriented strip shopping centers were replacing port functions. The Tchoupitoulas corridor provides a significant opportunity for densification and redevelopment – in areas not vital to the port. Automobile-oriented strip shopping centers such as the Save-A-Center on Napoleon (across from Tipitina's) and the Riverside Market at Jefferson Ave should be demolished or substantially renovated. High-density mixed-use developments should replace the surface parking. Taller buildings (perhaps 5-10 stories?) could be constructed directly in those sections of the port no longer in use. Care should be taken not to create a wall of high-rises along the corridor, and inclusion of pedestrian-scale street-level activity should be required in designs.
A new bus rapid transit (BRT) line would be constructed in the corridor. This would include signal priority, bus platforms, a prepaid ticket structure and other techniques designed to make transit comfortable, convenient, and faster than current bus service. BRT would run between Audubon Park to Canal Street [Alternatively, a light-rail line could be established using some of the tracks of the Belt Line railway, but the Belt Line railway would also continue to serve the port]. Full 5-foot bike lanes would be constructed along the entire length of corridor. One travel lane in each direction would be preserved for cars, with maximum speed limits of 20 mph. A new riverside park would be constructed in the corridor on a portion of the docks not deemed vital for the port. As much as possible, public right of way would be returned along the entire riverfront with a bike path, pedestrian promenade, and landscaping. Emphasis would be on re-establishing links to the river, but also re-establishing links to the port activity.
In the last 10 years, the St Thomas housing projects have been removed and replaced with a Wal-Mart and suburban-style apartments. The trajectory of this redevelopment should be changed. The Wal-Mart should be razed and replaced with a high-density, mixed-use development served by frequent transit and pedestrian-oriented. This treatment should extend into the Thalia / Robin St wharves area. This area, where the convention center has marshalling yards and where there are extensive vacant lots, should be targeted for intensive densification. Land should also be set aside for a new public park and recreation area.
The neighborhood-scale shopping character of the Magazine corridor should be preserved and emphasis should be on locally-owned small businesses. There are limited opportunity sites for redevelopment on Magazine St, including the A & P parking lot at Pleasant St in the Garden District, several churches along Magazine, and some parking in the vicinity of Valence St Uptown. (There is also a strip center on Prytania St)
Magazine Street should have frequent and fast bus service using transit priority technology. This includes priority at signals and removal of on-street parking in some places to enable buses to skip traffic queues. Bus service on Magazine would extend to Leake Avenue and Carrolton. The provision of bicycle lanes on Magazine would be difficult because of street widths. Instead of bike lanes, bicycle "sharrows" would be used, and automobile speed limits kept at 20 miles per hour. Significant traffic calming would be deployed to make both cycling and walking safer and enjoyable.
Audubon Zoo – parking lot should be converted into public swimming pool and public recreation area. Zoo should focus on wetland rehabilitation.
There are numerous infill opportunity sites in the Carrollton area of Uptown New Orleans. The Riverbend center on Carrolton @ St Charles should be replaced with a 3-4 story building to enhance the neighborhood shopping district while enabling housing. Smaller parcels such as the Burger King and gas stations should be replaced with infill. [New Orleans will need far fewer gas stations, providing many opportunity sites for infill on smaller parcels]. The supermarket and car-oriented businesses on Claiborne @ Carrolton should be dramatically reconfigured to a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood center with dense infill housing and a revitalized Palmer Park. Claiborne Ave would be narrowed to create a denser neighborhood commercial center. The median greenspace would used for a bike and pedestrian path.
Education will be a vital part of the New Orleans economy in the future. However, all Tulane and Loyola parking lots should be utilized for infill. Student housing, faculty housing, and staff housing should get priority to keep employees & students close to work.
The historic streetcar would remain intact on St Charles Avenue, with large bike lanes added along the entire length of the Avenue. A transit priority treatment along the corridor would speed up travel times between Carrolton and Canal St. Additional streetcars would be added (similar to the Czech streetcars considered in 2000). Much of the densification in Uptown sections of St Charles would focus on church parking lots. Other smaller opportunities include the drug stores on Napoleon and Louisiana Aves, which would be reconstructed to provide mixed-use infill. In Uptown, much of the built environment of St Charles would remain as is. Further towards downtown, St Charles from Jackson Avenue to Lee Circle would receive full densification / infill treatment on all non-historic structures (there are many of them in this stretch). This includes the empty parcels north of St Charles Avenue heading into Central City.
The CBD would undergo massive transformation. Much of the financial, service, and oil-and-gas related office work will likely leave New Orleans. With information technology and the mobility of capital, New Orleans should not expect to rival Atlanta or Houston in terms of office jobs. Expect Baton Rouge to become the state's financial and office-worker hub. New Orleans already had a glut of office space in the CBD. It is time to remove the high-rise office buildings and re-orient the economy. To be sure, the CBD would remain the regional government, banking and branch-office center, but at a considerably smaller scale.
The Superdome and adjacent Hyatt Regency complex should be demolished and replaced with high-density transit-oriented development. This redevelopment would include a new neighborhood park and would be located adjacent to a new passenger rail station (built as extension to existing Union Station). [Let the Saints leave. Do not subsidize professional sports.] The existing basketball arena should be preserved if useable, and used as civic auditorium and public gathering place.
A new passenger rail and transit center would be constructed adjacent to the existing Union Station on Loyola Avenue. The rail station would have regular, frequent, fast, 24-hour service to Armstrong Airport and Baton Rouge. It would be served by high-speed rail linking New Orleans to Houston, Atlanta, and Jackson. Commuter rail would link New Orleans to Baton Rouge, the River Parishes, Hammond, and the North Shore. [These areas would experience population increases as many people in the sprawl around New Orleans would relocate and sprawl would be converted back into cypress swamps or marsh - see below]. The station would be the primary entry point for all tourists coming into the city, including tourists who fly using Armstrong Airport. Air rights over tracks would be used to create a new major retail center for the greater New Orleans area. The station would be modeled after stations such as Zurich Main Station. Most of the city's bus and streetcar routes would be re-oriented to focus on the new station to make intermodal connections seamless. Loyola Avenue, Poydras, Canal, Howard Ave., and other streets would be transit priority streets. A large bicycle parking facility would also be constructed at the station, and housing located in the vicinity.
The viaduct leading to the Crescent City Connection, and the bridge itself, would be retrofit to handle light-rail vehicles linking the new station to Algiers and the natural levee communities of the West Bank (Gretna. Marrero, Westwego).
Office functions would re-orient from Poydras Street to Loyola Avenue, proximate to the new train station, City and State government offices and medical centers. The University of New Orleans, currently located on the Lakefront, would be moved to downtown in the Poydras corridor. The new campus would build in the blocks that are currently occupied by high-rise office towers such as One Shell Square and Place St Charles. An urban campus would focus on sustainable urbanism, social sciences, engineering, humanities, arts and music. Substantial new housing would be constructed in the Poydras-Canal street area of the CBD. Concomitant with the relocation of UNO, removal of most high-rise office buildings in the CBD would include replacing them with 4-5 story buildings with mixes of office, housing, and retail. Mixed-income housing would be a priority. The Lower Warehouse District has scattered surface parking. All surface parking should be converted to mixed-income housing for residents working in the downtown area. A new park would also be constructed on a designated surface parking lot.
With the future restructuring of airlines and peaking of oil, the large-convention industry can be expected to experience decline. The Morial Convention Center would downsize and focus on smaller-sized conventions and professional meetings. The city would downsize its reliance on large-scale conventions and instead specialize on smaller gatherings.
Harrah's casino should be renovated into a Museum of the Mississippi Valley. The museum would focus on river and wetland ecology, urbanism on the River and human-environment relationships, Native American, Cajun, Creole, African-American, and ethnic European cultural influences on the city and have a special scale model of New Orleans in the 20th century as part of a historical exhibit. The International Trade Mart would be demolished and replaced with a park integrating the Museum of the Mississippi Valley with the River.
The entire French Quarter would be turned into a pedestrian/bicycle-only zone. Limited access for deliveries, shuttle buses, and taxis would be allowed. Decatur St would be designated a transit priority street and have wide bicycle lanes along its full length. Surface parking on the river side of Decatur St would be replaced with low-rise mixed-use developments, including housing for tourist-related employees. The aquarium should be moved to the Audubon zoo if it is damaged beyond repair, and a new ecologically sustainable exhibit created at the zoo.
The new Desire streetcar should be constructed on Rampart St, with the route heading east along St Claude Ave into Bywater, and west towards the new passenger rail station. This streetcar would be the focus of redevelopment. Infill housing should be constructed at the Esplanade intersection with Rampart and at other smaller surface parking lots in the area. A new National Jazz Historic District would be established.
The Iberville and Lafitte housing projects would be preserved for historical significance and converted into mixed-income housing. The Winn Dixie center and former train depot would be converted to high-density mixed-use development, and Armstrong Park would remove its gates and become a true neighborhood park and recreation center.
Behind Treme, the elevated expressway along Claiborne Avenue would be removed. With substantially less parking in the city, and thus less reliance on automobility, a 6-lane expressway gutting the city is not needed. Treme will be stitched back together and a new boulevard along Claiborne established. Businesses along the corridor would mix with new housing. A streetcar or bus rapid-transit line would run on Claiborne from North Bywater, through Treme, to the passenger rail station, and then into Uptown along South Claiborne Avenue, creating a new transit-oriented development axis in the city.
Like other parts of the natural levee, much of Marigny and Bywater survived the storm intact. However, there are some limited-opportunity sites for densification and infill. Along the Peters-Decatur section of Marigny, for example, there are multiple vacant lots and surface parking areas. The port has also experienced downsizing and de-industrialization in this area. If the port does re-locate activity from here, the removal of wharves and warehouses should be replaced with high-density mixed-use developments. The riverfront streetcar should also be extended. A new park in what is known as "Dog Park" on Spain @ Peters should be established to ensure that with densification comes public benefit. If the wharves are removed, the public right of way along the entire length of the River in Bywater should be reestablished with a bike path, landscaping, and pedestrian promenade. The intersection of St Claude and Elysian Fields should be narrowed, made pedestrian and bicycle friendly, and converted into a medium-density mixed-use development. The streetcar down St Claude to the Industrial Canal would be the focus of redevelopment and densification on non-historic parcels. Lastly, the Naval Station on Poland Avenue would be replaced by a high-density mixed-use development.
The thrust of the densification and infill strategy for the natural levee in New Orleans would be removing the spaces of automobiles. Automobiles consume vast amounts of space in the aggregate. Each car parking space is on average 250-350 square feet. 3 parking spaces make up an adequate 2-bedroom apartment. Vast spaces on the natural levee of New Orleans could be used in a more efficient, ecologically sustainable, and socially just way.
With the removal of automobile parking, access to most daily activities in New Orleans will have to be by other means than automobiles. Pedestrian-oriented mixed-use infill would make it practical and comfortable to meet daily needs by walking for local errands, for recreation, and for some, to work or school. Complementing the enhanced pedestrian realm would be a dense, high-frequency, 24-hour transit system. This system would include expanded streetcar service, bus rapid transit, local shuttle buses, and demand response transit. Additionally, a comprehensive bike network, including bike lanes on key streets, bike paths, and extensive, safe, practical bicycle parking, would be essential. Bicycle movements would have priority over private automobiles in most street space allocations. City-wide speed limits for automobiles would be reduced to no more than 20 miles per hour. System-wide traffic calming techniques would be deployed. Overall the compact city would replace car space with space for housing and human-scale activity, and make it safer and more convenient for transit, biking, and walking. Limited parking would be reserved for car sharing pods, persons with special needs, deliveries, and taxi stands. For those who insist on owning a car, garages would be constructed outside of the city, near the Armstrong Airport, accessible by frequent train service. For a fee, the cars can be stored there for when they are needed.
Practically and symbolically, removing the spaces of automobility would also acknowledge the profound role that excessive automobility had in creating the conditions of this disaster. The oil and gas extraction in Louisiana's wetlands and Gulf Coast left New Orleans and Louisiana more vulnerable to surges, and accelerated coastal erosion. The paving over of vast cypress swamps and marshes to accommodate low-density, automobile-oriented sprawl meant that New Orleans effectively over-extended its levee protection system and paved over its natural sponge - the backswamps. Massive levees along the Mississippi held back vital sediments from replenishing marshes and swamps. These levees exist primarily to protect the petroleum industry and shipping, and to enable greater real-estate development in the lower Mississippi Basin. The levees are not bad, but breaching them strategically is much needed, and this would come at the expense of some developed land. For example, a managed breach in the River Ridge area could help replenish wetlands along the Lakefront. Similarly breaches in St Bernard Parish will be needed to replenish marshes along Lake Borgne. Breaches on the West Bank to replenish wetlands to the South of the city would also be necessary. Cleaning the River of toxic filth is also a priority, and inextricably bound to the petroleum-automobility complex.
Moreover, global warming and sea-level rise threaten the city. Warming produces more intense hurricanes while also accelerating coastal erosion. 25% of the greenhouse gases produced globally come from the US. A significant portion of this is from automobile emissions. If the US is to seriously address global warming, it must reduce dependence on automobility, and this means reconfiguring urban space in the manners outlined above. For this reason, the vision for rebuilding New Orleans includes a vision for all of South Louisiana, with a regional approach.
For too long Louisiana has been divided between metropolitan versus rural, city versus suburb, and Baton Rouge versus New Orleans. This political fragmentation and lack of regional cooperation has been counterproductive. Flooding, winds, and pollution do not know these boundaries. Segregation by race and class has been bolstered by these barriers. It is time to bring these petty boundaries down and cooperate regionally, including coordinating transportation, healthcare, education, and most importantly, flood protection and ecological restoration of the coastal wetlands, the Mississippi Delta, and the Atchafalaya Basin.
The regional ecological restoration would address the present course of the Mississippi, which is channelized by levees, contributing to wetland loss, subsidence, and the toxic dead zone in the Gulf. To begin, a greater portion of the Mississippi River would be diverted into the Atchafalaya. The flow down the Mississippi would be preserved but significantly reduced. About 60-70% of the total flow at Old River (in Point Coupee / Concordia Parishes) would flow eventually down the Atchafalaya. The channels would be managed slowly and carefully. A remaining 30-40% flow would continue down the present Mississippi.
This management of the Mississippi-Atchafalaya would impact commerce on the river. A new port complementing New Orleans and Baton Rouge would be constructed on the Atchafalaya at a suitable site, roughly near New Iberia or Franklin. Instead of building a single mega-port, a network of ports - New Orleans, River Parishes, Baton Rouge, and the Atchafalaya port - would operate as a single Southeast Louisiana regional port authority. These ports would not be in competition, but rather operated by one authority in coordination and cooperation.
While the compact, reconfigured New Orleans would be surrounded by a tighter and stronger levee system, the region would include cloistering on the natural levees of the Mississippi in towns between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – the River Parishes. Such towns as Laplace, Gramercy, Reserve, and Hahnville would have tightly managed growth boundaries to ensure that agricultural lands on the natural levee are preserved. Along the Mississippi River north and south of New Orleans, the levees would be breached and spillways for spring floods constructed, aiding in replenishment of wetlands. Elevated causeways for rail and highway would be constructed.
Regenerated cypress swamps and replenished marshes would characterize vast portions of the region. A new civil conservation corps would not only manage these vital wetlands, but educate and instill pride in our habitat. The wetlands of South Louisiana should be integrated into a new National Park that functions as a buffer against future storm surges, a flood control basin for regular stormwater runoff from built-up areas, a natural filter for human-produced waste, and as vital habitat for our seafood industries and timber supply and a major eco-tourism destination. Within this new national park, substantial areas would be set aside as wilderness areas. Toxic oil and gas sites would be cleaned up across the region, and the matrix of petroleum access canals capped and plugged to stave off further saltwater intrusion.
A regional governance structure would coordinate the revitalization of Southeast Louisiana. The backbone of this regionalism, along with a regional port authority and regional conservation effort, would be a regional passenger and freight rail network that focuses development around stations. [A model could be the Swiss rail system and Switzerland's rail-focused development policies.] Baton Rouge would be the center of a regional high-frequency passenger rail system connecting to New Orleans and the River Parishes, Houston, Dallas, Jackson-Memphis, and the Gulf Coast.
With the establishment of a passenger [and freight] rail system as the spine of this new regionalism, Baton Rouge, like New Orleans, should also densify. Baton Rouge should be reconfigured into a compact city of 800,000 to 1 million. The Baton Rouge economy would function as a regional commercial, government, and service hub. Information, government, education, refining, petrochemicals, food processing, freight distribution, and a minor port would also make up a diversified 21st-century economy. A new rail station should be constructed in downtown Baton Rouge to anchor a high density housing and retail-services center. Downtown Baton Rouge would be the location of regional offices and producer services.
While the city of Baton Rouge would experience major densification, that densification would minimize direct physical impact on existing neighborhoods and instead be concentrated along the city's arterial roads. Areas of densification would include: Florida Boulevard, I-10 Corridor, Airline Highway, I-12 corridor, Scenic Highway corridor, Nicholson, Essen Lane, Bluebonnet, Siegen Lane, College Avenue, Scenic Highway, and similar corridors. New Urbanist designs would be organized with height limits of 4 stories along arterials. Buildings would include 3 floors of housing and ground floor retail. Little parking would be provided. Development along arterials would be transit oriented. Bus rapid transit, with priority bus lanes, signal priority, proof-of-payment and low-floor platforms would be constructed throughout the city. The city would also build a comprehensive network of bike lanes and sidewalks. Densification in single-detached neighborhoods would be allowed but with reduced height limits and under New Urbanist guidelines for residential infill.
This same pattern would characterize the infilling of Hammond, Covington, and Slidell. Compact development would focus on the passenger rail line from Baton Rouge to Florida, Parallel to I-12. The economy of this region would center on services, farming, food processing, and light manufacturing. Like Baton Rouge and the Hammond-North Shore corridor, Lafayette would absorb some of the displaced population from Greater New Orleans (but Baton Rouge would be the regional center). Lafayette would densify with minimal expansion of its physical footprint, with new development focused on arterials, following New Urbanist guidelines. Transit and bicycle networks would be created and expanded.
To finance this vision, a bold approach is needed. A national gas tax would be established. The climbing gas prices the nation is experiencing should be capped by price controls, and a tax of 50 cents per gallon established, with low-income households exempt. Louisiana, more than any other state in the nation, has borne the brunt of the consequences of decades of oil and gas extraction and ecological destruction. Louisiana and New Orleans have experienced a traumatic failure of the policies of promoting and subsidizing low-density, automobile-oriented sprawl, of refusing to cooperate globally on climate change and refusing to regulate carbon emissions, and of policies that allowed much of New Orleans's poor to be left behind while sprawl was subsidized. It is time for the nation to give something back. The tax would not simply generate revenue, but would provide a way to truly address myriad ecological and social problems faced by New Orleans, Louisiana, and the nation. A 50-cent national gas tax for the revitalization of New Orleans and Louisiana is a good place to start.