The American Resilience Roadtrip series follows concerned citizen Ben Colombo on a year-long, 50-state tour to find out how city governments, citizen groups, nonprofits, and others are making their communities more sustainable, more resilient, and better served. Follow Ben and ICLEI USA on Twitter and Instagram as we discover a more sustainable, more compassionate USA thriving at the ground level.
New Orleans is a beautiful, eclectic gumbo of cultures that have mixed together over its nearly 300 years to create something wholly unique. The birthplace of jazz, its Spanish and French architecture, the Creole food, Mardi Gras, the people! I confess I’m biased, as I fell in love with the city when I first visited, but I don’t think I’m alone in having New Orleans conjure up images of vitality and vibrancy, festiveness and fun. Unfortunately, it also evokes other less positive images, and among those, perhaps none more seared in our collective memories than the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
Trouble and Promise on the Eve of The Big Easy’s Birthday
Katrina was a body blow for New Orleans — one that knocked the city to its knees and changed its composition in fundamental ways, if doing little to dull its spirit. As such, the specter of another storm wreaking havoc in the Big Easy is a source of anxiety for those who love New Orleans and call it home.
This was apparent when I spent time at City Hall talking to Jared Genova of New Orleans Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability. What was also apparent is that New Orleans isn’t sitting around waiting for impending disaster. The city was founded in 1718 and Jared told me that “we aren’t just looking forward to celebrating New Orleans’ 300th birthday, but we are working hard to make sure that the city thrives for the next 300 years and beyond.”
When you’re speaking about a city that is already below sea level in parts, is squarely in a high-risk zone for tropical storms and extreme weather, and on top of that is facing rising sea levels, it is far from unreasonable to wonder whether 600 years may substantially exceed New Orleans’ life expectancy.
Jared and his colleagues aren’t Pollyannaish about the challenges their city faces, nor the risks that a changing climate poses, but at the same time, the clear and present danger has helped focus the city on the need to become more resilient in a way that some other cities haven’t yet experienced.
Resilient New Orleans Strategy Lead, Jared Genova
New Orleans Models Resilient Infrastructure with Gentilly Resilience District
This focus, coupled with hard work and a sense of partnership with various community organizations has led to some innovative resilience projects, which could serve as a model for other cities.
For example, the Gentilly Resilience District is a combination of integrated projects that the city has designed and is implementing with the federal government, local government organizations and most importantly, the Gentilly community. As the project website proclaims: “The projects of the Gentilly Resilience District are rooted in the knowledge that one type of solution is not enough. In order to address complex issues such as crumbling streets and the overburdened drainage systems and sinking soils that cause them, a suite of approaches is needed in different places to add up to a network of benefits. That is why Gentilly Resilience District projects will take place in streets, in neutral grounds, in parks, on schoolyards, on open lots, and if you want, even at your house!”
The purpose of these projects — which include specially designed gardens and a network of blue, green and gray infrastructure — is to help reduce the neighborhood’s flood risk, while at the same time improving the health of its residents and making the District a more beautiful place to live (see the project’s Fact Sheet here). The City is working with partners such as the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) and Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans (SWBNO) to leverage existing investments in Gentilly and build on the experience of relevant pilot projects throughout the city. The Gentilly Resilience District will be a model for how other neighborhoods in New Orleans. In short, resilience is being built into the very fabric of the community.
Levees are an important and a crucial defense, but putting resilience at the heart of community development seems to me an equally important piece of the puzzle, if New Orleans is going to realize Jared’s aspiration of celebrating a 600th birthday.
The Gentilly District of New Orleans
Ben Colombo is a Senior Vice President at a New York based CEO advisory firm. He is inspired by the critical role that local governments and organizations are playing to address sustainability and resilience issues across the United States and is proud to partner with ICLEI USA on The American Resilience Roadtrip. Follow the Roadtrip on Twitter and Instagram.