At the start of the twentieth century, the Army Corps of Engineers strongly believed that their manipulation of the environment with the levee system could protect New Orleans against the forces of nature. Over time, and through recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, nature has shown the cost of complacency and overconfidence. In recent years, there has been urgency for the development of “urban resilience” in New Orleans.
Urban resilience is defined as a city’s ability to survive and adapt to acute stresses, and in New Orleans’ case: stresses from nature. The resilience of individuals and communities can be improved through “large scale environmental planning projects” that John Lewis discusses in detail (6). This essay argues that balancing regional planning and infrastructure against the needs of the people in Southeastern Louisiana is a key issue that needs input from all communities. While it is inevitable that coastal communities and fishing industries will be affected by new projects, there must be increased awareness due to the city’s history of prioritizing certain demographic groups over others.
Firstly, the spillways and river diversions that Lewis describes are effective projects for increasing resilience, but they also demonstrate how the cost of these projects can be placed on major communities such as the fishing industry. The spillways protect New Orleans from flooding, and instead flood Lake Pontchartrain (Lewis 5). This sudden increase in freshwater displaces many salt water species such as shrimp and catfish, and as a result fishermen may be forced to head out into deeper water for their harvest (Lewis 6).
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In addition, while river diversions may create landforms that offer meaningful resilience from storm surges, they will also displace “lucrative salt water fisheries, oyster beds and shrimping grounds” (Lewis 9). This creates great economic expenses for Louisiana’s fishing industry, which produces a third of the country’s total fishing harvest (Lewis 8). Therefore, the same projects that fortify New Orleans will also bring economic and social costs to those who produce the seafood that is so integral to New Orleans’ cuisine and culture.
In addition, if large scale regional planning is not done without the input of all community groups, it will merely further the effects of structural racism and create a new landscape of segregated risk. In the past, poor African American communities have borne the costs of the city’s infrastructure projects. An examination of the Bonnet Carré spillway demonstrates how the government has prioritized New Orleans over the rights and dignity of African Americans. The Bonnet Carré spillway was built to prevent the flooding of New Orleans, however, its spillway footprint includes “two slavery-era African American cemeteries” (Lewis 5). This illustrates how the rights and dignity of African Americans have been disregarded in the past for the sake of the city.
Additionally, the treatment of African Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina gives no indication that structural racism has diminished, suggesting that the city will continue to prioritize economic growth over its black communities (Lecture 7). As the state demolishes low-income public housing and privatizes even more public schools, it is clear that they have taken a market-based approach in rebuilding the city (Lecture 8). If this approach extends to development of water management, it is likely that equity will not be prioritized. As a result, historically ignored demographic groups such as poor African Americans may not share in the benefits of “urban resilience” and could even bear the burden of the regional planning.
To conclude, there is no doubt that New Orleans must make long-term environmental and regional plans to increase its “urban resilience”. Such large-scale projects mean inevitable tradeoffs that may burden some groups, such as fishing communities, more than others. However, with proper evaluations that consider the possible consequences of all demographic groups, it is possible to mitigate the negative impacts. Structural racism has a long record in New Orleans and is still present today, and so the extent to which the region’s resilience should be assessed and enacted must be carefully balanced with the needs of its diverse racial groups, so that the benefits of “urban resilience” may be shared more equitably.
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