The devastating flooding in south Louisiana in 2016 and recently in Houston from Hurricane Harvey shows that the idea that engineering can transform where people can live “has come back to really bite us," a New Orleans official said Tuesday.
“The development of New Orleans up until the 1940s was all on high ground,” Jeff Hebert, the deputy mayor and chief resilience officer for the city, said during a panel discussion at Tuesday’s Louisiana Smart Growth Summit in Baton Rouge. In the post-World War II environment, those concepts went out the window.
“Then we decided we could transform areas to something where we can live,” he said.
“I hate for the message to be the people of this state don’t know what they are doing,” he said. “We did this in the past, only a few decades ago.”
Hebert said if people look at how south Louisiana cities originally developed and the styles of architecture that were used, they’ll see a vision and a pathway for future development.
Hebert was one of the panelists on the opening day of the annual summit, which is sponsored by the Baton Rouge-based Center for Planning Excellence. The event at the Shaw Center for the Arts will conclude Wednesday.
Steps can be taken that enable cities to handle heavy rainfall better and for not a whole lot of money, said Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development. Solutions can include building structures to hold water on people’s property, instead of dumping it quickly into an overtaxed drainage system.
But for people who have homes in low-lying areas that consistently flood, the solutions are not easy. That requires expensive measures, such as elevating houses or moving entire neighborhoods to higher ground, Forbes said. “This is caused by incentivizing development that is not very smart,” he said.
Kurt Culbertson, chairman and chief executive officer of the Design Workshop, an international landscape architecture and design firm, said it took more than 300 years to get south Louisiana in the condition it is in. It will take that much time to fix the infrastructure and make it smarter.
“People latch on to green infrastructure as a silver bullet,” he said, “but you’re not going to solve problems if you’re still building in a flood plain.”
The summit also featured a keynote address from Carol Coletta, a senior fellow with The Kresge Foundation’s American Cities Practice. She is spearheading a proposed $40 million collaboration of foundations, nonprofit agencies and governments that will discuss how civic assets can increase prosperity for cities and neighborhoods.
She said cities need to develop public spaces and neighborhoods that attract people from all economic backgrounds and demographic groups. “Everybody gets excited when they see a lot of different people on the street,” she said.
Not only does this increase the unity of a community, but there are economic development benefits. Coletta cited studies that showed people with less education have a higher income when they are living in a community with people who are better educated.
“If you want to build an economic growth strategy, you need more people with college degrees living in your community,” she said. Baton Rouge needs to take advantage of what it has in LSU and Southern University.