Rain: An Untapped Asset

By: Emily Bahr, AICP | 
Read the full article from Planning Magazine here.

FYI in Planning Magazine
FYI in Planning Magazine

Rain poses a more regular threat than hurricanes in New Orleans – but it’s also an untapped asset.

Pumping Alone is Insufficient

Officials overseeing New Orleans’s drainage system initially said of this summer’s flood that the system had simply been overwhelmed by the intensity of the storm. They later admitted it had not been working properly, and several members of the city’s top brass resigned. As of October, when this article was being written, stabilization efforts and an investigation into the causes of the system’s malfunction continued.

The drainage system has long been in need of a major overhaul to replace decaying equipment, but insufficient funding and other challenges have hampered repair prospects. A citizen-led task force in 2012 outlined numerous deficiencies afflicting the system, noting that it was barely capable of handling a heavy rain of the sort expected to occur annually. Its report noted that even relatively high parts of the city are susceptible to flooding from routine storms thanks to inadequate infrastructure, clogged catch basins, bureaucratic oversight, and related problems.

Most agree that a fundamentally different approach is needed to manage the city’s stormwater. For a decade, New Orleans architect David Waggonner has advocated that water is an asset and should be a prominent feature of the urban landscape, rather than a nuisance hidden away by pipes and covered canals. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, his firm, Waggonner & Ball Architects, along with APA, helped to convene a series of sessions called the Dutch Dialogues. That process brought together Dutch planners, architects, and engineers alongside their American counterparts to strategize how to improve New Orleans’s urban water management by employing natural systems.

The result was the 2013 Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, developed by Waggonner & Ball and a team of water management experts. The plan, which received a National Planning Award from APA in 2015 outlines a 50-year roadmap of projects and principles to reintroduce water to the landscape. In 2014, the Greater New Orleans Water Collaborative, a multi-sector coalition, was formed to work toward implementation.

The water plan envisions a dramatically different-looking city. Flood walls lining unsightly drainage canals are torn down, blights on the cityscape transformed into urban waterways; abandoned lots become rain gardens and bioswales, neighborhood parks that retain water and prevent flooding in storms; cratered streets and medians along the city’s many boulevards are reconfigured with permeability in mind. It’s an approach, advocates say, that would reduce reliance on the city’s overtaxed and resource-intensive drainage system while helping to recharge the water table, shoring up subsiding soils.

The concept of living with water rather than fighting against it is “becoming part of the common language,” says Dana Eness, executive director of the Urban Conservancy, a local nonprofit that has been involved in various educational efforts around stormwater management.

There have been successes. In 2014 Jeff Hebert was hired as the city’s first resilience officer—with funding and support from the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program—and was charged with focusing on mitigating the effects of sea-level rise and flooding. In 2015, the city enacted new regulations as part of its comprehensive zoning ordinance requiring commercial developments of at least 5,000 square feet to manage the first 1.25 inches of stormwater on-site.

Also that year, Landrieu’s office unveiled its Resilient New Orleans strategy, which included actions on stormwater management such as implementing water plan projects and developing a program to encourage property owners to reduce flood risk by taking steps like elevating their homes and installing water-mitigation features. (That strategy received a National Planning Award, too.)

In 2016, the mayor made the Office of Resilience and Sustainability permanent, keeping Hebert at the helm. The 12-person office is now responsible for many of the city’s green infrastructure initiatives and features a new job: urban water program manager, Antrup’s official title.

Momentum is also building outside the corridors of City Hall. Eness says her organization can’t keep up with demand for its Front Yard Initiative, a program administered with philanthropic support that pays homeowners to rip up concrete in their front yards and install water-loving plants and permeable materials in its place. (She notes that the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustments is also stricter than it used to be about holding property owners accountable for violating city code prohibiting paving over yards in the name of parking or reduced maintenance.)

Read the rest of the article from Planning Magazine here.

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