Towards a Sustainable New Orleans

Dr. Marty Rowland
Professional Civil / Environmental Engineer, Urban Planner, and Urban Infrastructure Expert

New Orleans began to experience the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history when the eye of Hurricane Katrina made landfall just east of the City on the morning of August 29, 2005. An unprecedented effort is now required to rebuild the City, but experts and special interests have widely divergent views on what the new New Orleans should be. The problem with the current situation is how the City and the governments of the metropolitan region managed their critical infrastructure systems in the pre-Katrina era; i.e., a lack of fiscal accountability and transparency, a lack of infrastructure investment, and a lack of social justice in the regional economy that is not unlike other major urban U.S. areas. Nothing at this time suggests that any lesson has yet been learned from this disaster, as many officials and private citizens who guided the development of the New Orleans metropolitan area to its current state of affairs are now in leading positions to rebuild the City to their own visions. The solution to this problem includes 1) the establishment of guiding principles for the rebuilding effort, 2) acknowledgement that the City's public finances have been ill managed for generations, and 3) a commitment to hold public financial management to a high standard of transparency and accountability.

Post-Katrina New Orleans

Hundreds of thousands of homes have been judged currently uninhabitable and may need to be demolished. The question thus raised is, what happens to the hundreds of thousands of people who once lived in the City who now desire to return? Where are they to live, where are they to work, where are they to go for healthcare, where are they to go to educate their children, and where are they to go for all the other things associated with a viable urban culture? Those homes and businesses deemed unsalvageable because of the level of flooding need to be replaced if these displaced New Orleans residents are to once again live here. Temporary housing, as with trailers, near the damaged residences has been a critical need since the disaster began to unfold.

Problems We Face

Although the problems facing New Orleans' residents and their leaders are enormous, they are not innumerable. Seven main problems are subsequently listed, followed with proposed solutions for them. First, the pre-Katrina City and Orleans Parish failed to properly manage its existing critical infrastructure systems which included its levees, roads, drainage, water and sewerage systems, school buildings, healthcare facilities, and environmental infrastructure. Second, systems of public finance were ill managed. Third, the City and Parish had no accountability or transparency in fiscal matters. Fourth, there was a culture of under-funding infrastructural investments. Fifth, the New Orleans metropolitan region lacked a commitment to social justice, not unlike other major urban areas in the nation. Sixth, thousands of homes need to be elevated, or demolished and rebuilt to an elevation more protective against future flooding. Seventh, there is widespread ignorance of the difference between using long-term, federal, physical economic debt for reconstruction versus using ready-means money diverted from current federal revenues. Whereas the former is repaid through future revenue streams of the remade City, the latter is taken from revenue better designated for the provision of current, ordinary public services, such as police and fire protection. This nation has used the long-term, federal debt fiscal mechanism since its founding and it is desperately needed today in New Orleans.

Solutions for Our Current Situation

Acknowledging that these problems have been denied for decades and generations is the initial step toward solving them. Once acknowledged, consensus must be reached as the first priority on the guiding principles for rebuilding a sustainable New Orleans. Such principles must be used to judge all subsequent proposed rebuilding projects. With the principles identified, we must then acknowledge that pre-Katrina public finances were ill managed. Consensus among the people of New Orleans on how future public finance matters will be held to high standards of transparency and accountability must be reached.

New Orleans has a unique opportunity to be positively transformed. New Orleans can be, if we are successful, the model by which other US regions address similarly afflicted urban places.

Ten guiding principles are suggested:

1. Returning the City to its pre-disaster state of affairs is not acceptable, as those conditions set the stage for the resultant devastation.

2. All pre-Katrina residents of New Orleans have a right to return to the City.

3. Congressional funding for Category five hurricane levees is needed immediately so as to mitigate the City's vulnerability during the 2006 June-November hurricane season. Even if such funding were approved before Katrina hit, however, few of the levees could be of that level of protection by June 2006. Proper designs, management, and construction oversight are required and each must be carried out with an adequate budget and a commitment to excellence. The priority must be to bring the most critical levees to the Category five standard, beginning at the Industrial Canal in the Lower Ninth Ward. The coastal storm surge protection structures described in the October 25, 2005 issue of the Times Picayune (page A-8) must be completed as soon as possible.

4. Because adequate protective levees and coastal storm surge structures will not be fully constructed for years, the Gulf Coast region needs a competent evacuation system that does not rely on private means of transportation. Such a system should be reserved for emergency purposes between June and November of each year, but otherwise available for commuting, tourism, and economic development for the other six months of the year.

5. An urban / metropolitan transportation system must be linked with a regional public transportation system so that hundreds of thousands of people with no private means of evacuation have the ability to escape. Serious consideration must be given to installing elevated transportation networks upon newly constructed perimeter levees and over the existing canals (i.e., radial arteries toward downtown from the perimeter levees) that had been made into concrete culverts of exceptional strength and integrity. Levees with foundations resting upon competent sandy soils must be assured. All poorly constructed levee systems must be replaced.

6. All urban infrastructure systems and social service systems must be managed sustainably. The recent history of the City and its surrounding suburbs demonstrates that they were not so managed. At the point the multi-decade replacement cycles for such infrastructure systems had run their course in New Orleans, the suburbs began new cycles with a transferred revenue base (i.e., property, business, sales, and income taxes) that was needed for those systems in the City's urban core. A model for sustainable, elevated structures is the I-696 overpass in Oak Park, just north of Detroit, Michigan. The design and construction of that overpass delayed the completion of a Detroit bypass corridor for years.
That overpass achieved the requirement for a minority community to not be divided by a federally-funded project. Over one-thousand feet wide, the overpass could support living space, community commons areas, and transportation networks. Applied to New Orleans, secure foundation-designed structures could be built in those areas of Gentilly, Lakeview, New Orleans East, and the Lower Ninth Ward that had 8 to 15 feet of flood water from the recent hurricanes. Such structures could be identified as a sustainable urban infrastructure system in that they could achieve three separate ends:
a) Raise living quarters of homes to levels not impacted by hurricanes Katrina or Rita, such as to the elevations of the French Quarter, Algiers, Bywater, and Gentilly Ridge;
b) provide a storm water retention capacity greater than what was available before Katrina in the space where homes had to be demolished, beneath the raised homes; and,
c) provide a ground level transportation corridor for light rail / street car / monorail that connects the City's university campuses and its existing downtown / uptown street car lines. Each component adds to the future economic viability of the entire City. With an assured level of economic growth, we will have the economic base to collect sufficient revenues to repay any long-term federal debt.

7. Regionalizing critical infrastructure systems is preferable to the excessive duplication of services as they are provided today. A case in point is the 19 separate law enforcement entities within the Parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, and St. Bernard. The fact that none were viable during the Katrina disaster and its immediate aftermath begs the question of why not. Also, why wouldn't a centralized public safety agency be more capable in an emergency? Are there other such infrastructure systems that would benefit from centralization? Is public education one of them?

8. The lessons of New Orleans' pre-Katrina emergency response readiness and its infrastructural systems adequacy must be debated and consensus reached on what those lessons are. These lessons must become, themselves, guiding principles for how the replacement / rebuilt systems of New Orleans are to be constructed and managed.

9. A vision of where the City will be economically (both fiscally and in terms of its physical economy) in one year, five years, ten years, and 25 years must be debated and consensus reached on that vision. That vision, likewise, must generate guiding principles.

10. Periodic public meetings must be held to assure that the City has a system of governance that is both transparent and accountable, and is being managed such that the consensus visions for the City are realized, and if they are not, what actions need to be taken to see that they are realized.

How Do We Implement These Solutions?

I refer the reader to my website ( for how these solutions can be realized. Of particular importance is the paper among the "economic / philosophic papers" that is entitled Public Revenue / Outlay Transparency. That paper establishes a framework by which an urban executive can assure and be held accountable for appropriate ratios of revenues and outlays that are maintained to achieve consensus objectives and goals, with transparency for all public expenditures and revenue streams. Another important document is the proposed standard of urban governance, entitled Governance Systems, within the "resource management system science" link on my website. Those familiar with environmental management systems (or EMS) of the International Organization of Standardization (i.e., ISO 4001) will recognize that Governance Systems is a parallel method of managing things that are public, with objectives, goals, metrics, and executive commitments similar to a private EMS.


The desire to restore New Orleans to the best that it was is in the hearts and minds of all of its pre-Katrina citizens and their leaders. If that is all we did, a tremendous burden would have been lifted from us all. I speak for many when I say that that would not be enough. The City has a unique opportunity to be much better than it was before Katrina. Only through a process similar to that which I've outlined above will that better New Orleans be possible. Our posterity will be the judge of how we either rose to the occasion or failed to do so. The question we must ask ourselves is, why not?

Note: Dr. Rowland developed and taught a course in urban infrastructure at Tulane University's College of Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering