In Flood-Prone New Orleans, an Architect Makes Water His Ally

Feb 25, 2014 by


Photo Essay



New Orleans Photo Essay

Dutch Dialogues II
Water storage is fundamental in New Orleans. This vision of Felicity Street uses vegetation and stormwater catchment basins to mitigate runoff.
View the photo essay.

No city in the United States faces as grave a threat from flooding, hurricanes, and rising seas as New Orleans, part of which lies below sea level. But New Orleans architect David Waggonner and his associates, learning lessons from the Dutch, have proposed a revolutionary vision for New Orleans that seeks to make an asset of the water that surrounds the city, remaking unsightly canals into an important and scenic part of the landscape and mimicking nature to store rainfall. Waggoner’s firm has been chosen to help develop a Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, a first step in what could be a multi-billion dollar project to redesign the ways in which the region co-exists with water. “To sustain the city in this difficult site in an era of rising seas and more extreme weather, we must convert our necessities into niceties, into desirable places that connect with people and culture,” Waggonner told Yale Environment 360.

At top, an aerial photograph of the Lafitte corridor in New Orleans, a city-owned strip of land surrounded by little-used or vacant commercial and residential properties. Waggonner and his firm, Waggoner & Ball, propose turning the corridor into the “Lafitte Blueway” (illustration at bottom), with a large canal used to recharge groundwater, provide habitat for wildlife, and create a green space for pedestrians and cyclists. “You have to do more than just solve the technical problem,” says Waggoner. “You also have to enliven the land, the society, the economy. So one way to enliven the economy is add water. We have so many opportunities to do that. At another level, it’s a real estate stabilization program. We have excess property here, what do you do with it? You have excess water here. You don’t have to be really smart to figure out that you might overlay those two possibilities.” (Photo courtesy of Waggoner & Ball. Drawing by Bosch Slabbers.




In seeking to help the New Orleans area become a region that is “living with — rather than against —water,” architect David Waggonner takes his inspiration from the Dutch, who over centuries have perfected the art of living in a low-lying land. These photographs — with scenes from the New Orleans area, at left, and scenes from the Netherlands, at right — are a striking illustration of how Waggonner wants to transform New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Dutch canals are integral to many neighborhoods, while in New Orleans canals and bayous are often unsightly — and out of sight. (Photo courtesy of Waggonner & Ball Architects.

At top, an existing view of a ditch along Canal Street in Jefferson Parish, which borders New Orleans. Stagnant and with low water levels, the ditch could be transformed (illustration at bottom) into the centerpiece of an urban byway with higher levels of flowing water in the canal and stormwater intake basins — shown bordering the canal — to manage water during heavy rains. “The paradigm that is operative in New Orleans today is pave, pipe, and pump,” says Waggonner. “Basically, we’re saying slow it, catch it, delay it, then store it and use it.” (Photo courtesy of Waggoner & Ball. Drawing by Dana Brown & Associates.)

At top (photo with illustrated cross-section), a view of the London Avenue Canal in New Orleans, which is used to pump water from the city into Lake Pontchartrain to the north. Under Waggonner & Ball’s plan (illustration at bottom), the vacant lots on the side of the canal would be turned into a park-like corridor crisscrossed by bike paths, walkways, and pedestrian bridges. The new canal would connect Dillard University, the University of New Orleans, and a wetland park. “In some sense this is landscape repair — a re-naturalization of the city in a subtle way,” says Waggonner. “So each part of the city has its own program but on the whole it becomes more garden-like, it becomes greener, it becomes softer, it becomes cooler.” (Photo and architect’s rendering courtesy of Waggoner & Ball.)

At the heart of many of Waggonner’s plans is the concept of catching and storing rain, rather than just letting it flow unimpeded into canals during heavy rains or hurricanes. Shown here are three visions of Felicity Street in New Orleans. In the photo at top, asphalt dominates, allowing water to run rapidly into overburdened canals. Waggonner proposes using vegetation and stormwater catchment basins, as seen in dry conditions (illustration at middle), and during rainstorms (illustration at bottom). “The Dutch are brilliant at urban design,” says Waggonner. “So you take from them certain principles, ways of thinking, ways of looking at the land and water, ideas that storage is more fundamental than pumping.” (Drawings from Dutch Dialogues II workshop.)

Waggonner and his colleagues have designed what they call “floating” streets or sidewalks. In a city where water easily infiltrates the low-lying land and pumping out water only causes the ground to further subside, Waggonner & Ball have other ideas for flood control. Their concept is to slope road drainage in one direction so that rainwater flows into a “bioswale.” Those bioswales collect the water and slowly infiltrate it back into the ground or to surface and subsurface drainage that channels water into parks or vacant lots. The drawings depict a street in the city’s Lakeview section in dry (illustration at top) and wet conditions (illustration at bottom). “The separation of water and land is not nearly as absolute as we have in our minds that it is,” says Waggonner. (Drawings by Bosch Slabbers.

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