Sunday, September 04, 2005

Awash in Civilization

David Sucher, an author on urban planning and community development, wrote the following to me in a comment:
Do you folks think it is worth rebuilding if it requires massive and expensive flood control measures? How much will you pay?

It seems to me that much of the city is in a place which current "sustainable growth" thinking would reject out of hand.
Despite the tone of his comment, I don’t think that he has decided himself whether or not New Orleans should be rebuilt, rather noting that the landscape and the environment of the city make reconstruction almost inconceivable. [Added:] He has posted some thoughts here and here.

David knows more about healing a city and keeping it healthy than I. I can speak first as an historian, second as a regionalist, which means that I only know of the historical challenges faced by cities as they develop a relationship with the natural and the social world. With all due respect to David, I don’t think that sustainable development, at least seen from inside the city, can be the sole, or even major, factor by which to judge reconstruction. Indeed, New Orleans’ disadvantage, its position with respect to major bodies of water, is also its advantage, and historically speaking, the growth of cities has always been a function of their relationship with water.

Note: I consider this to be a vital conversation, not just because of New Orleans, but because other cities will face environmental crises in the future. Everyone should chime in.

New Orleans cannot be taken in this instance as a collection of real estate properties and neighborhoods. Far more important is its relationship with its environment. Water both makes and destroys it. The city is situated at the best transfer point between the Caribbean and the Heartland. It’s positionality resembles other cities, including David’s own Seattle.

However, it is on poor land. It sinks every year from the settling ground; it will continue to do so because environmental infrastructure prevents the Mississippi from depositing silt to build it up. Consequently, New Orleans will become evermore like a bowl, distending downward and becoming the perfect receptacle for water.

The birth of the urban has, however, always been a matter of water. In Mesopotamia, urban governments and communities grew up around water control: irrigation of agricultural lands and limiting of inundation. In both the Eridu Genesis and the Enima Elish, cities chief role was moving water through the landscape; Sargon, the Akkadian king, was himself a water manager.

Fernand Braudel connected cities and waters more forcefully: water management was a priority of European civilization. Indeed, Braudel claims in The Identity of France that the primordial consideration in the location of a city is its relationship with a river or other body of water. It becomes a junction of two types of routes, fluvial and terrestrial. The city becomes a conduit between its hinterland and international markets. I would not be exaggerating to say that Netherlands, the ‘first capitalist economy’, was built on water management. Land clearing, canals and dykes are a centuries-old process that has been woven into urban development more than in America. And unlike America, it has been woven into urban democracy: political development involved all citizens in funding further development of water management. This ongoing dialogue with its river, swamps, and the North Sea gave Netherlands more cultivatable land in the south and established a ring of cities well positioned for the world economy that would explode in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Unfortunately Americans have never taken this subject as seriously as they should at any level of government.

Because of cities’ relationship with water, they are always at odds with them. They make improvements to flow and flood control, averting disasters in the short term. In the long term, floods become more and more devastating, something that communities along the Danube have learned recently.

New Orleans has been a viable city for centuries – with good reason. Well positioned between two large regional economies at a point where one must change modes of transport in order to move from river to sea and vice-versa. The economic effects of the hurricane will make clear very soon the role the New Orleans played in the American economy: not just gas, but a host of tropical products. Logistically there might be no better location than NOLA. Even if the city is bulldozed, someone at sometime will consider how to put a port there. That “new New Orleans” will be less likely to provide good neighborhoods for people who work and live there.

New Orleans is a unique case of a common problem faced by cities; over time New Orleans will become less exceptional. Other American cities face dangers from floods, especially with subsidence. Some of those threats are related to other dangers, notably seismic activity, as in my native Los Angeles. As an historian, I fear that something would be lost if we only consider our communities from the city limits in. In fact, I am not moved to dislike the location of New Orleans the way that I would a gated community that is shoved up against a rock face.

In general, the relationship of the urban to the landscape is a vital component of the internal health of the city. It determines what kind of city exists, how it looks, how it lives, and how it speaks. I don't think that sustainable development will have anything to say about whether or not NOLA is rebuilt. National economic imperatives will prevail. The environmentalists and urban planners will follow. I hope that they will be taken seriously.


At 5:18 PM, Blogger Peter said...

The economic effects of the hurricane will make clear very soon the role the New Orleans played in the American economy: not just gas, but a host of tropical products.

There are even bigger issues, not about tropical products coming in through the Port of New Orleans, but American products coming out. According to an article I saw the other day, more than half of the corn, wheat and soybeans exported by the US leave through the Port of New Orleans. The US is the world's largest exporter of these commodities, by a wide margin.

It will be possible to divert those exports to other ports (Galveston/Houston, Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville), but it won't be possible to float those exports to the port on barges, as it is with NO. That means the shipments will have to be carried to the ports by train or truck ($3 gas; how much is diesel?), at considerable extra expense to the shippers. So the price of the exports will go up, and demand will go down.

There are at least three states whose agricultural economies are heavily dependent on corn (Illinois, Iowa, Missouri); there are at least five states whose agricultural economies are dependent on wheat (Kansas, Nebraska, North/South Dakota, Montana). What will happen to those states if they can't export their products to foreign buyers?

So having a major port on the Mississippi is not optional, simply because the agricultural products of 2/3 of the continent can be floated downriver to such a port, reducing the cost of shipping. Theoretically, one could move such a port upriver, out of the hurricane hot zone (remember, there are several hurricanes every single year). But the next big cities upriver are Memphis and St. Louis. As we Californians like to point out, the Mississippi river valley between St. Louis and Memphis is the host of the largest earthquake in American history - the New Madrid quake of 1818.

Californians spend a lot of time and money preparing for earthquakes. What is Memphis doing to keep the town standing?

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Brdgt said...

The New York Times Science section today had several excellent articles about the options available to New Orleans, especially by following the lead of other cities/nations that must deal with flooding issues.


At 10:20 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...


I was, of course, thinking of how Americans will pay in their own homes, at their own tables, because the disaster. From the "macro" perspective, you're right. American agriculture won't move as effectively to port. I was wondering whether or not grains could be sent north and transported along the St Lawrence, but even that would require more shipping via trucks.

In the long term US grains will not be competetive on the global market. Added shipping costs will make them a less attractive product, and most production will either be wasted or absorbed into the continental market.

BTW, I can't help thinking that Californians think more progressively about disasters than anyone else. Last major earthquake, ~45 deaths, mostly heart attacks.

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