Building a Healthy Relationship with Water

Oct 18 2010

By Taylor Galyean
Feldmeier Galyean

Over the past few weeks, in the wake of the fifth anniversary of Katrina, there has been particular focus on New Orleans’ relationship with water.

We have been hearing of innovative ways to provide increased flood and storm protection, not only with gates and pumps, but by more fully incorporating water into our city environment. But reactions to these insightful plans have also shown that there is a significant fear of water, in particular a fear of drowning, and this is affecting our ability to embrace these ideas. We need to address our collective fear of water in order to be in a stronger position to make the best decisions to protect our city and her people.

A first step in accomplishing this is to understand that providing access to water can be safer then trying to only protect ourselves from it. We need to have safe, comfortable, and fun ways for the people of New Orleans to engage with water. This, specifically, brings the example of the reconstruction of the revetments in Chicago along Lake Michigan to mind.

Chicago has the wonderful resource of Lake Michigan, in which many people swim. The continuous park that extends 20 miles along the lake’s edge has a combination of revetments and beaches. The old revetments were large stones that were stacked like a staircase coming out of the water. This provided a place for people to sit and get into the water, if they wanted. As these old revetments fell into disrepair, the Corps of Engineers came up with new designs for the revetments that consisted of large terraces of concrete ending abruptly at the water’s edge with a seven-foot drop-off to the water below. This caused a huge uproar as the citizens preferred the design of the old stone staircase revetments.

The primary concerns were comfortable and safe access to the water. With this new design, it wasn’t possible to sit with your feet in the lake, and it was very intimidating to get in the water. There was no place to hold onto if you got into trouble and only an occasional ladder to get out. And with the abrupt edge of the lowest terrace, it was much easier to fall in the lake by accident. One argument for the new design was that people should only be getting into the water at the beaches anyway, but if deterrence was the intent, clearly the only solution wasn’t to make it more dangerous in these other areas.

Neighborhoods that had the political will (Hyde Park specifically) were able to get the revetments redesigned to address these concerns. The revetment built here is based on the stone staircase approach and the benefits of thoughtful design at the water’s edge is notable. While it provides comfortable safe access for swimmers, it also does its job in creating an anxiety-free relationship with the water for the non-swimmer. People can comfortably sit on the edge without the concern of what may happen if they fall in. They can safely touch and engage the water, even as non-swimmers.

Here in New Orleans, Audubon Park, Bayou St. John, and City Park are good examples of places where you can walk up to the water’s edge and engage the water. And if you happen to fall in, you can get out with relative ease and minimal peril, as some young over-eager duck feeders can attest.

While there is a tendency to protect people from themselves, the way to do this is not to create barriers that are potentially more dangerous, but to give citizens safe access where they can be in control of their situation.

Before we are able to teach the majority of people to swim (which we need to do), we need to provide safe, comfortable, and fun ways for the people of New Orleans to engage the water where they are in control and feel like they are in control. And much of this can be accomplished with design and engineering that is sensitive to this issue.


Taylor Galyean is a principal of Feldmeier Galyean, a New Orleans based architecture and design firm whose projects include: campus design, resorts, spas, and aquatic centers. Watch Taylor’s 2010 TedXnola talk on this subject here.

Filed under: Editorials | Rebuilding New Orleans