New Orleans' long history of battling nature

By M. Jeffrey Hardwick

An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature
By Craig E. Colten
Louisiana State University Press, $39.95

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Cities are often seen as the antithesis of nature. Even America's notion of suburbia is founded on creating a bucolic escape from that "unnatural" environment, the city. But if anyone believed that cities were impervious to nature, Hurricane Katrina changed that perception. Indeed, New Orleans has a long history of grappling with the natural world, though the struggles have been less dramatic than what took place last August.

In An Unnatural Metropolis, a fascinating chronicle of cultural hubris (published last January, well before Katrina hit), Craig E. Colten, a professor of geography at Louisiana State University, details the extraordinary lengths to which New Orleanians have gone in an attempt to subdue nature. He focuses on the actual topography of the city—its water, sanitation, swamps, parks, and landfills—and traces the city's endless struggle to "transform the flood-prone, ill-drained, mosquito-infested site into a metropolis."

Of course, after Katrina, water seems the most pressing problem. Unlike other cities that bring in water (Las Vegas, for example), New Orleans has always worked to keep water out. And in New Orleans, watery problems come in two forms: the river and rainfall. Not surprisingly, the two are related. The threat of floods from the river is controlled with levees, and threats of flood from rain become more perilous as the city becomes a deeper bowl.

At its founding in 1718, New Orleans was sited on the natural levees of the Mississippi River. Its founders picked the best location available: New Orleans was high ground, built on the alluvial sands that the Mississippi had deposited when it overran its banks every spring. The city was an island oasis in a land of swamps. (Granted, the oasis was a thin, 1.5-mile-wide strip of land that at its peak was only 12 feet above sea level.)

In the 18th century, the French began building artificial levees to corral the river. By 1763, levees stretched for 50 miles outside New Orleans. (The city's levees have always been paid for out of public coffers, an interesting fact in light of today's debates about funds for hurricane repair.) First the French, then the Spanish, then the Americans all poured resources into keeping the city dry. Yet with additional levee construction, more of the river was trapped, so floods outside the central city became worse. Quite simply, flood protection in one area led to more flooding in another area.

Throughout the 19th century, floods in New Orleans were common occurrences: 1816, 1849, 1862, 1867, 1871, 1890—the list of severe floods makes one wonder how New Orleans ever survived. In fact, the city thrived, largely because of its crucial location as the port for the nation's breadbasket, the agricultural Midwest. Seeing the national importance of the city, Congress took over the responsibility of building and maintaining the levees on the lower Mississippi in 1879. And it all worked pretty well—until last year.

Just as Katrina exposed the continuing tension between New Orleans and its environment, events at the Superdome made clear that the city dwellers most vulnerable to nature were largely African American and poor. Colten's book shows that throughout the history of New Orleans, race has been tied to environmental problems. Sometimes even the most successful public health efforts have had unintended racial consequences. For instance, the installation of a more efficient pumping system in 1917 favored white neighborhoods and was one factor in the opening up of new, low-lying areas that African Americans moved into. The disparity in essential services led to more racial segregation and worse living conditions for African Americans.

As planners, politicians, and developers now imagine remaking New Orleans, one wonders: What will the future city look like? Will the levees simply be raised and reinforced, or will New Orleans incorporate wetlands and swamps more consciously into the city as flood-control reservoirs? Will it be rebuilt as a kind of theme park, hawking the French Quarter and Bourbon Street even more? Or could the city actually teach the rest of America a lesson or two about social equity, the environment, and the importance of working on these issues simultaneously?

Interest groups have already lined up to influence the region's future. Environmental groups are pushing to restore more of the wetlands. Oil companies want to open now-off-limits areas of the Gulf of Mexico to more drilling. New Urbanist architects and planners want denser developments and houses with front porches. If all of this jockeying for power is a little depressing, take heart: The process of remaking New Orleans has been going on for the past 300 years.

M. Jeffrey Hardwick is an editor at Island Press and the author of Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream.