The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Down Memory Lane with Katrina


Hurricane Katrina was anything but a "natural" disaster. New Orleans' vulnerability to a Cat 5 hurricane has been well documented since the 1970s, if not earlier.


This has been deja vu week at SYNERGY/Planning what with Katrina bashing the gulf coast, crude oil passing $70 a barrel and gasoline moving up toward $4.00 a gallon. No sane person would wish a Category 4 hurricane on anyone. However, there is critical history to understand and important lessons to be learned.


Let's start by being very clear: This is not a “natural” disaster, it is a governance disaster. Mother Nature did not build, nor is she responsible for managing Greater New Orleans or the rest of the urban development on the Gulf Coast.


As we noted in “'Collapse,' An Appreciation," Aug. 8, 2005, Jared Diamond believes that there are two overarching causes for the collapse of societies:

  • Diamond’s first key to collapse is the failure to plan for future contingencies. It turns out that the citizens of Louisiana paid for a long-range plan which, if implemented, would have yielded a far different result from Katrina, especially for Greater New Orleans.

  • Diamond’s second key to collapse is the failure to reconsider traditional values. Traditional political, economic and social “values” rooted in 18th and 19th century ideals put Louisiana–and other Gulf states–on the path to destruction.

The question is: Will Katrina cause citizens, not just those on the Gulf Coast but on the Atlantic Coast, to develop and implement rational, long-term plans and reconsider the “traditional values” which turn out to have a deadly cumulative impact on society as a whole?




In the 1970s I was a Senior Vice President responsible for planning division of RBA, an Architecture and Engineering firm that specialized in planning, design and implementation of Planned New Communities. The firm was quite good at what it did. We were involved in the plans and applications for four of the first eight Planned New Communities approved nation-wide under title IV and VII by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


Louisiana, like other Southern States, has been adept for at least a century at securing generous payouts from Federal subsidy programs. That was especially true in the Johnson/Nixon era. Thus, it was not surprising that the State of Louisiana hired RBA to help the state and some of its land owners get Federal funds to subsidize creation of Planned New Communities. The prospect of federal money for politicians and their friends with large land holdings they wanted to develop was “a natural.” (For a summary of Planned New Communities see “Balanced Communities,” Aug. 23, 2005.


It took RBA’s planning team a very short time to determine that:

  • There was no basis for job or housing demand projections robust enough to support the build-out of even one substantial Planned New Community in a time frame that would yield a reasonable return on investment, with or without federal subsidies.

  • The large land holdings that were suggested as possible sites for Planned New Communities were without exception “alligator eviction programs.”

Any development of these vast land holdings would require huge infrastructure investments. That is why the developers needed federal subsidy. But even a fat subsidy would not suffice to create a positive cash flow in the face of modest environmental and safety criteria–especially without a focused market.


One Planned New Community site owned by Lady Bird Johnson and others had already gotten four (yes, four) full interchanges paid for with federal funds to access Interstate-10. Even with this windfall, “New Orleans East” never became a viable Planned New Community.


RBA considered itself to be on the front line of the environmental movement having just collaborated with Ian McHarg on the plans for The Woodlands, Tex., Planned New Community. We were not about to get into the alligator eviction business. However, like any good planning firm with a $250,000 contract and threshold conclusions derived from $10,000 worth of staff time, we looked for other tasks that fit within the general scope of our agreement with the State of Louisiana. We came up with the idea of a long-range, ecology-based plan for the state.


The young professional planners in the Louisiana State Planning office agreed that such a plan was needed and, thus, The Louisiana Growth and Conservation Strategy was created. The strategy that RBA developed involved Planned New Communities -- without the alligator evictions.


Elements of the Plan


Coastal Louisiana and adjacent Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are in a precarious ecological context for intensive urban land uses: e.g. Galveston 1900 and 1915 and Mississippi/Camille in 1969. The New Orleans urban agglomeration has dodged disaster by pure luck over the past 250 years. One did not have to go far to find ecologists, marine engineers, and environmental planners who had articulated the grave danger of expanding urban development -- especially petrochemical and freight transshipping -- on the fragile Gulf Coast. (For an update of what was known and what has happened since 1972 see “Drowning New Orleans” in Scientific American, Oct. 2001.


New Orleans did not recently become a large urban place mostly below sea level. It was a disaster waiting to happen in 1950 and in 1972. When Katrina gained strength over the warm Gulf waters and headed for the mouth of the Mississippi we recalled The Louisiana Growth and Conservation Strategy. This state plan was not written with the focus or vocabulary I would use today but the basic objectives are all there. Stated in today’s vocabulary, the four core elements of the Strategy can be summarized this way:

  • Pipe the crude oil north to high ground from the Gulf platforms, from coastal wells and from supertankers off loading foreign crude. Over design the extraction and transport facilities if they must be built,  but refine the crude and produce the chemicals on solid ground not in the bayous or behind levies. (From 1972 to 1974 a facility to offload supertankers was still being debated. So was the wisdom of extensive drilling in the Gulf and in the marshes.) In summary: relocate petrochemical jobs and create new petrochemical jobs in the sustainable north, not in the fragile south. (We argued that energy conservation should eliminate the need for oil and gas extraction in vulnerable locations–more on that later.)

  • Use Planned New Neighborhoods and Planned New Villages to augment the existing urban places–Shreveport, Alexandria, Monroe, et. al.– so that they evolved to became large Balanced Communities or the cores of small New Urban Regions.

  • Enhance the natural buffers against natural forces–healthy marshes and swamps. The wetland between Greater New Orleans and the Gulf had been eroded, dredged, filled, canalled and subdivided over the prior 70 years. These natural buffers needed help to renew themselves. Improved air and water quality standards were noted as being critical to healthy humans and to a healthy environment.

  • To support the tourism, entertainment and transshipping as well as the traditional fishing, shrimping and related industries in the southern part of the state, the strategy called for hardening and enhancing the defenses against natural forces of wind and water. This started with evolving a smaller urban footprint for Greater New Orleans and for the other urban enclaves along the south coast. But it also meant building higher and better dikes with better pumps and better engineering–like the polders in the Netherlands. The object was to keep a smaller area dry and provide more area for flood relief both from the Mississippi River and from storm surges off the Gulf of Mexico. There is no better example of the need for a Clear Edge around urban land uses.

The four elements of the Growth and Conservation Strategy would shift new urban development to areas that could support it and protect the historic and ecological resources of the south. There was ample evidence of the need to expand the protection of low-lying urban enclaves. Yes, in the 1970s there was discussion of climate change and the need to prepare for rising sea levels and for more intensive storms.


Our reports suggested that continued Business-As-Usual -- in Louisiana they call it laissez-faire and it is a core traditional value -- would result in the collapse of the marsh and swamp ecosystems and depletion of the fresh water aquifers. These eco-collapses have not occurred in the time frames we suggested.


There is ongoing “political” debate about the need for and the health of both saltwater marshes and freshwater swamps. The same is true for protection of fresh water aquifers and the need for better air quality standards. There is no question that the area of functional wetlands has continued deteriorate as noted in the Scientific American story cited above.


The ecological head line has been the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico off the mouth of the Mississippi. This ecological Dead Zone has dramatically impacted the traditional fishing and shrimping industries of the Bayou County. The Dead Zone is not due just to dysfunctional settlement patterns and lax environmental controls in Louisiana but is the cumulative result of similar conditions in the watershed of the entire Mississippi/Tennessee/Ohio/ Missouri River System. Had Louisiana taken bold steps to plan a more sustainable future it would have the moral high ground to encourage better land, water and environmental management in the other states drained by the Mississippi River System.


RBA proposed a number of new institutional arrangements such as transferring development rights from south to the north. During the Louisiana project I did my first rough calculations of how much land at Planned New Community densities would be needed to support the population of Louisiana. The potential Planned New Community sites–10,000 acres here, 24,000 acres there, 50,000 acres somewhere else, etc. –added up to enough land at 10 persons per acre at the Planned New Community scale to relocate the entire population of the state. It turned out that even in 1972 much less land was needed for urban land use at sustainable densities than was already committed to these land uses.


Political Reality


Because RBA staff was very circumspect–perhaps even obtuse–in how it framed the imperative of Fundamental Change, the politically sensitive State of Louisiana staff liked the initial report and authorized Phase II examining a range of policy issues.  These documents were perhaps more obscure than they should have been but the client did not want to make it appear that the political leadership had been negligent in not having already addressed these issues in 1973.


The Phase III that followed was an innovative citizens education effort with a workbook that required participants to consider economic, social and environmental goals before and after an audiovisual presentation. RBA staff and consultants put together a three slide-projector presentation with a synchronized sound track that was as slick any contemporary PowerPoint product roll-out.  The education program was called something like “Hindsight: 2020” and had, as the title implies, a "Looking Backward" theme.


The graphics were powerful. I recall that there was a dramatic sunrise over the Atchafalaya Basin set to Richard Strauss’s Overture to “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” It was symbolic of the power of nature and the morning after “The Big One” hit Greater New Orleans if there were not Fundamental Changes in human settlement pattern.


The focus groups that viewed the program usually opted for the sustainable, conservative goals over the laissez-faire (aka Business-As-Usual) settlement pattern practices of the past.  But the new ideas did not convince everyone.  After one showing, a cagey political insider said he liked the ideas but had one question:  “Who is going to make a lot of money in the short run from this strategy?”


“Well, no one. This is the way for everyone to be prosperous and safe in the long term.”


He said, “Son,” (I was a lot younger then) “you do not understand the way things work here in Louisiana. If there is not someone who stands to make a lot of money in the short term, no politician is going to touch these ideas with a 10-foot pole.”


Others were more blunt: “Politicians will wait for a catastrophe and then blame God.  The relief effort will provide lots of money to pass around to their friends.”


We tried to find a way to have friends of those in power make a lot of money in the short term–other than by corrupt practices–but we could not think of one. After all good government should be its own reward, right?


The massive construction projects required to implement the Growth and Conservation Strategy would result in an honest profit but no windfalls.  More important, there was no obvious source of money to implement the Strategy without public expenditure, and that smelled of taxes. Twenty five years of scattered urban development and scattered, vulnerable petrochemical facilities had already made Fundamental Change expensive.


Sure enough: No one in power would touch the Growth and Conservation Strategy with a 10 foot pole. They waited for a catastrophe.  There may have been other plans that were shelved. I only know about the one which has my signature on the transmittal page.


Katrina's Impact


Katrina did not make a direct hit on the core of the New Orleans urban agglomeration but it still washed over Greater New Orleans. In many places, a 10-foot pole would not reach half way to the flooded street. The Corps of Engineers says it will take a month to repair the levies and pump out the water.  And then what?


If the Growth and Conservation Strategy had been implemented and Katrina had hit in 1985, the strategy would not have helped much.  But by 2005 implementation of the four elements of the strategy would be well along and the result would have been far different than the last week’s headlines.


We have had occasion to visit the New Orleans New Urban Region often over the past three decades.  We have had some wonderful times in the Big Easy: Great food, a World's Fair with a nifty entrance feature, architecture and urban fabric unrivaled in the Untied States.  Denizens of Louisiana love to boast of a lifestyle based on laissez-faire and laissez les bon temps rouler.


We watched as swamps were filled and cut apart by canals, as urban development spread across the lowlands, as low bid drilling rigs sprouted in the Gulf and as land was wasted in the uplands.


It is important to keep in mind that it is not just Louisiana that has made grave mistakes. One media report said that a resident of Boloxi, Miss., watched as his neighbors house was washed off its pilings. Hello?  Pilings?  Why was there a house on pilings?  What could you expect when you built houses on the beach at Waveland with no barrier island–or even with one.


What were enterprises and governance practitioners thinking when they paid for/allowed barges with casinos on them to be tied up to the sea wall? We address this issue on a nation-wide basis in “Fire and Flood,” Nov. 3, 2003.


From the Southwestern tip of Texas to the Everglades, dysfunctional settlement patterns have agglomerated on the Gulf Coast.  And then you have the Florida Keys and the whole Atlantic Coast which, with few exceptions, is ripe for disaster from a Category 4 or 5 storm. These storms are not rare, at least not in recent times. Two Cat 4 or 5 storms hit the Gulf Coast last year and this is the second one this year and the official Hurricane season is only half over.  Cat 4 and 5 storms are not something new.  There were big storms in 1900, 1915, 1926, 1944 and three in the 60s.


What Besides Katrina is a Reminder of the '70s?


Katrina got us thinking about other sound initiatives that we worked on in the 1970s. The first thing that comes to mind when one hears about $70-a-barrel crude oil is 1973.  You may have heard of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo and the need for energy conservation?  Last Thursday’s WaPo has a headline: “70s Conservation Measures May Make a Comeback.” Hello! Who thought there was a reason to abandon them so a “comeback” was needed?


In the '70s we worked on creating energy efficient patterns and densities of land use. We also worked on Modular Integrated Utility Systems (MIUS) that were promoted by HUD.  These were recycling and waste recovery systems that provided self-contained heating and cooling at the neighborhood scale instead of inefficient unit scale systems. A new chilled water system proposed for Toronto this week would reduce energy costs by 90 percent.


We also promoted Telework in the '70s, moving work to people instead of people to work.  We argued that Telework would reduce travel demand until settlement patterns evolved to require less vehicular travel especially private-vehicle trips.


When Jimmy Carter proposed a 50-cent gas tax he was laughed out of office, and that ended concern for energy conservation and real conservatism.  In came the answer to malaise: tax cuts and hyper-consumption to drive the economy.  This left citizens vulnerable to “natural disasters.”


As Zonker said in Doonesbury: “Only the poor suffer and they are used to it.”  Well, guess what it is not just the poor who are suffering even though a disproportionately large number of them are left with nothing, no place to go and no way to get there.  Is that civilization?


What Comes After Katrina Besides Hurricane Lee?


What will citizens and their governance representatives learn form Katrina?  Will the hurricane cause citizens, not just those on the Gulf Coast but on the Atlantic Coast, to develop rational, long-term plans and reconsider “traditional values” that turn out to be deadly for society as a whole?


The President, FEMA spokespersons, the Governors and Mayors are calling Katrina a “natural disaster.”  When there is so much sound evidence of an impending disaster and when nothing was done about if for 100, 50 or even 30 years, can it be called a “natural” disaster?


How about one of these:


A political disaster


A governance disaster


A societal disaster

Any of them would be more accurate than “natural” disaster.


Have you bought your copy of "Collapse" yet? Have you contacted Professor Freeman about signing up to help out with PROPERTY DYNAMICS?


-- September 5, 2005
















Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.