Moments in history often compel us to reinvent our lives in ways that may not have seemed logical before. We often arrive at these instances of clarity through strain and distress. New Orleans is no exception to this. The city will need to re-invent itself because the normal systems in place have broken down. Wetlands are eroding at remarkable rates. Barrier islands are disappearing. The river is depositing large quantities of valuable silt into a hole in the ocean floor where it is doing nothing to regenerate the coastline. And the lake is becoming contaminated with saltwater, killing the freshwater ecosystem that provides the region sustenance. A city that is surrounded on one side by a river, and on the other by a lake, New Orleans has had a historical relationship with water. The canal systems built over the years provide thoroughfares for drainage into the lake when the city floods. Pumping stations have been installed throughout the city. Perhaps New Orleans has grown too comfortable with this aquatic relationship. Perhaps this stretch of land was not meant to harbor a population this dense. Whether these historical developments are true or not is not of significance – hindsight only teaches us about our mistakes, but can do little to repair things in disrepair. The city is here now, and we must make critical decisions regarding and reassuring its continued existence. Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call – an unspeakable tragedy to be sure, but, in one of those rare moments in history, this event has opened up some possibilities to discuss and rethink our relationship with the natural order.
There are many issues that need to be addressed. Citizens that once called New Orleans home are now spread throughout the country. Extensive amounts of debris will be collected and will need a proper disposal. The protection systems in place for the city’s survival are in need of repair. Communities and neighborhoods have to be re-analyzed and rebuilt. And perhaps most importantly, the city needs to learn how to live with the water for its very survival. As politicians and government agencies analyze ‘what went wrong’ with the initial response, long-term responses are suffering. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without homes, temporary or permanent. The city’s critical mass is missing, and many of the common functions expected of an urban area can not operate properly. Where to start is a simple, but quite overwhelming question.
New Orleans is a city thick with culture. It has provided this country with perhaps the one true American art form – jazz. It throws the world’s greatest party once a year. And it provides some of the best flavors life has to offer. All of these things have little to do with the river or the lake or any of the geographical dependencies that the city has. But the city has a history – one that is most dependent on its people. New Orleans will live and die as a city because of its citizens – they are the ones that play the trumpet, they are the ones that dance for beads, they are the ones that cook up the flavor. The single most important element in the preservation of life and culture in New Orleans and its adjacent regions is the people. Without the people, it is certain that New Orleans will never be the same.
denCITY is a modular proposal. The goal of denCITY is to provide the opportunity to return home - allowing for the inclusion of all citizens in re-development efforts as members of an existing community which finds itself displaced because of a natural disaster. denCITY is an opportunity to provide a voice to those affected - to return, live, contribute, re-acclimate, and re-build a life in the place always known as home. Displacement should not be synonymous with abandonment. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina should be seen as an opportunity to re-evaluate what systems are in place for re-locating citizens, re-establishing communities, and re-integrating structure to lives dealing with chaos. It is a model for the future.
Population estimates for returning citizens are below 50% of pre-disaster numbers. These return estimates could considerably change the re-development options proposed by city planners as nearly half of the residents of the city will not be present to take part in planning discussions and proposed neighborhood planning teams. Thus it is proposed that a new standard in re-integration be considered and put into place giving all citizens the option for a quick and timely return. denCITY is that new standard.
denCITY is a new concept in providing mass housing for displaced residents as a result of a natural or unforeseen disaster. When homes in concentration are destroyed, people of all economic and social strata are affected. Some have economic means to recover, others do not. Some are properly insured, others are not. These disasters do not pick and choose whom they affect, thus re-development plans should consider how to effectively conjoin all citizens in the re-planning of communities, neighborhoods, transit, and public spaces.
How do we provide suitable housing opportunities for displaced citizens so that all residents can contribute to the effort? How do we provide adequate healthcare and education for citizens that choose to return when most facilities and much of the infrastructure has been destroyed? denCITY is made up of modular, factory-built units that are efficiently constructed and considerably less than newly constructed homes. These units are stackable, and can join with other units to provide increased and relatively immediate urban density. Units are fabricated out of a panel system, a kit of parts on a superstructure, and are deployed to the site en masse, cutting construction schedules by months. The system of panels are not universal to housing construction, therefore the same systems can be employed to quickly and affordably construct needed support facilities such as schools and hospitals. denCITY is thus a system for constructing a village – an immediate and affordable response to building density to allow the city to continue functioning as an urban arena.
Modular technology has advanced beyond the ‘trailer park’ conceptions of previous ‘FEMA villages’. By stacking and joining units into single structures, four unit, eight unit, even twelve unit apartment buildings can be achieved in a much smaller footprint than was previously required, and on a much faster timeline. In the case of New Orleans, the high ground provides a suitable site to begin constructing new villages for re-density. The industrial tracts are abandoned in many areas. Buildings are left in disrepair. By clearing the sites, erecting the superstructure, and assembling units out of the plug-in wall and floor systems, schools will be erected, hospitals will be built, and homes will be provided.
By utilizing denCITY to its fullest potential, any urban area can benefit from the full service of its citizens who return. Preservation of city character and life can be planned with all considered, all with a voice. With careful integration and planning, the most important elements of the city fabric can be maintained – including public recreational spaces, historical urban fabric in need of preservation, and transportation systems integration. Redevelopment can employ the citizens rather than outside contracts with corporations. The citizens return to find homes, jobs, and a vibrant energy to re-build.
denCITY is no less than a reaction – a need to quickly re-populate the urban arena emptied by chaos has forced its development. And the benefit of a consistent and immediate plan provides jobs, homes, schools and healthcare facilities, as well as a morale boost to a population in distress.
But how does the city of New Orleans plan for the long-term future? How does the city itself react to this fragile eco-system, this ever-evolving geography? What is the long-term lifespan of the city? And what systems can be employed to direct its future? The river is contained and directed by man’s intervention, but should it be? Will humans try to re-direct it again? Is there another way to allow the city to sustain itself?
We see the river and the lake – the two are coincidental. The Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain have framed New Orleans since its inception – the curve of the river and the edge of the lake made a crescent – the Crescent City. The city began and evolved in between the two, and the city is now coming to grips with this precarious placement. Water temperatures are on the incline. Water tables are rising globally. And the coastline disappears day by day. The tidal basin will eventually fall into the Gulf of Mexico – it is inevitable. These natural systems that have for years protected the city will be very limited in the not so distant future. How will New Orleans defend itself?
Man-made obstacles have benefited the growth of New Orleans. We built levees and walls to help direct the river and allow it to build speed. We built levees and walls to control the movement and exchange of water throughout the region. We built levees and walls to protect the city so it could sprawl. What was years ago a wetland is what became urban streets and urban life. Lake Pontchartrain is suffering. Streams and rivers that once fed the lake with bountiful and needed nutrients have become stagnant and weak. Much of this nutrition was supplied by the annual overflows of the Mississippi, upriver where the streams begin. But we built levees and walls to restrict the river. This nutrient exchange no longer takes place. The river and the lake no longer work in tandem because of the man-made obstacles. The ecology of the region is perhaps a recorded history of man’s intervention and attempts to control nature, and the effects of these interventions are now being assessed. It is obvious that each barrier, each levee, and each wall constructed disrupt the intentions of nature. But it is not as obvious at first glance that the consequences are severe. We are simply trying to control nature when we should be dancing with her. New Orleans is not unique in this regard, but it is a unique city, and the city’s preservation will require a unique solution.
A re-densification will allow the commerce to continue. denCITY provides the immediate solution to the city’s needs. But New Orleans needs to start working with nature, with the water and the wetlands that provided the stability for centuries prior to the city’s existence. For this dance, this waltz with nature to occur, the city will need to break free from a stringent order, feet stuck in the mud, concrete walls and barriers, levees and canals, structure and order – when what is needed is the freedom to adapt, the freedom to step with nature. The walls need to be broken. Years of hard armoring along the southern coast of Lake Pontchartrain are now showing high salinity contents in what should be a freshwater lake. By breaking the walls and barriers down, re-establishing the wetlands just south of the lake, and giving the Lake its protective buffer from the waters of the Gulf, the lake can re-emerge. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet will be closed down – the outlet contributes more to nature’s demise than it benefits commerce. And the walls upriver, where the streams and rivers that supply the lake with its nutrient base benefit from their contact with the river will be broken down as well. Selective demolitions of these obstacles begin to allow the city to work with nature. As we flood parts of the old city, the portion of the city north of Gentilly Ridge which is the lowest elevation of the city and the most recent to be developed, we rekindle the earth with its past, its memory. This landscape was wetland before, and the Earth remembers a marsh full of Cypress.
denCITY has given the city back its vibrancy. The city is dense – perhaps too dense for comfort. Where 490,000 citizens played, worked, and lived before, is now less in size - nearly a third of the landmass has been given back to nature. A land bridge forms north of the city, across the marsh, and into the lake. This land bridge divides the marsh, but also feeds it. The land bridge carries systems for water treatment and collection, for water diversion, for wastewater management, for housing, retail, and city, for parks and recreation, for urban life as it should be. The land bridge is both fixed and floating, and new technologies will be tested as it is constructed. This new fabric weaves the old city with nature, stitching a wounded landscape, healing a wounded region. The stitching is not only physical, but mental, stitching the temperament of a world that knows no other way with the vision of what life will one day become. We build this fabric as a way to test new systems, as a way to relieve the density created in the stifled old city. Thus the land bridge becomes an experimental vehicle, testing technologies in the advancement of what will become the first ever re-generative city – the first global city to enhance nature through human interaction, above the zero level of sustainability. The fabric is porous allowing the marsh, the city, the people, and the systems to co-exist. And it is constantly aware that there can be no other way – with the pattern of life inevitably drowning the old city in the next century.
From this line of thinking, the concept of a floating city emerges. And much like the lake and the river are forever entwined, so it is with this urban mother and urban infant. The old city was born from the river. The new city will be on the lake, floating, as a lotus. And a city that floats will rise and lower with the tide, dancing on water, allowing nature to take its course.
We will one day see the old city re-emerge, growing from the floating city that watched it drown. Expansion and contraction, ebb and flow, river and lake, forgotten and rediscovered, the crescent and the lotus have a symbiotic relationship with nature - a waltz. Jazz and flavor, Creole and Cajun, Mardis Gras and life – what has always been known as New Orleans now finds permanence in this relationship. We can not control natures temperament, and we can not design resistance schemes to repel natures forces. We will lose that fight. But we can propose a new way of living, in cohesion with the landscape that we inhabit. The lotus city connects us to the landscape we inhabit, connects the old city to a new world, connects the river and the lake, and advances the discovery of how we can help our world rather than harm it.
‘… however heroic our efforts, there are moments when we can no longer avoid the inevitable flow of existence. The fluid river, uncontrollable, rejuvenating, chaotic, ineffable -- represents forces beyond our mastery. In the river, we confront the uncertain and primitive reality of life.’
- Mas Yendo