Meet David Waggonner: the urban and environmental architect who wants New Orleans to come to terms with the fact it is a delta city.
When Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge flooded southeast Louisiana, living with water was a nightmare for New Orleanians. For the past decade, one architect has dedicated himself to making life with water a dream for the Crescent City—and he’s teamed up with the Dutch to make his vision a reality.
David Waggonner is an urban and environmental architect. Since Hurricane Katrina decimated his city, he’s been focusing on urban stormwater management, mapping out designs for New Orleans that would mimic the way Dutch cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam deal with water. In the Netherlands, people “invite water into the city,” meaning water is visible everywhere. Excess stormwater is stored in canals or green infrastructure like parks, rain gardens or underground cisterns. “In Amsterdam, you don’t want to walk on a dry street, you want to walk on a wet street,” says Waggonner. “In New Orleans, we’ve hidden and squandered the asset.”
Waggonner is referring to the fact that many of New Orleans’s canals are either surrounded by high walls on top of levees or run underground, below streets and medians (known locally as “neutral grounds”). In Amsterdam, the canals are both beautiful and functional.
Through a series of conferences called the Dutch Dialogues, Waggonner, his colleagues, and Dutch water experts transformed how the city thinks of stormwater management post-Katrina. Together with economic-development organization Greater New Orleans, Inc., they’ve created a comprehensive water plan for the city’s future.
Waggonner is described by his peers as an instigator with stubborn dedication, an old soul with a new vision, a water freedom fighter, a team coach leading the charge to transform New Orleans’s relationship with water. More than one of his friends says Waggonner carries on his shoulders the heavy burden of what could go wrong with New Orleans if change doesn’t happen soon.
Waggonner’s firm, Waggonner & Ball, had not worked with water management before Katrina, but now Waggonner and his firm are known for it.
“I think he’s been a catalyst for transforming the way water is thought of,” says Mark Davis, the director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy. “Most people think of architects as people who design buildings. David thinks in terms of designing spaces or communities where buildings are a part of it. This is a bigger blueprint to work on.”
“When talking about water, Waggonner quotes the Bible, the Rolling Stones, and an inscription from the entrance to the old port of Amsterdam.”
Former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who has herself been instrumental in the city’s post-Katrina transformation, says, “He’s been the driving force and the pivotal professional involved in pushing everyone, our own elected officials, both local and state, and encouraging me along the way, to continue the effort.” She adds, “He educated himself and his team and has been doing a lot of education of students and professors in the city.”
“He was pushing the car,” says Dale Morris, an American who has been working as senior economist to the Netherlands for twenty years. He co-founded the Dutch Dialogues with Waggonner. “He was doing it all trying to cajole and convince and persuade and do all of the things someone does trying to change the dynamic of the debate.”
“It’s almost like he’s a guru on water,” says Ramiro Diaz, who works with Waggonner at his firm. “He talks in haiku about it almost. He takes it to a larger, metaphysical discussion.”
Diaz is right. When talking about water, Waggonner quotes the Bible, the Rolling Stones, and an inscription from the entrance to the old port of Amsterdam. He compares the duality of good and evil that exists between humans and water to the duality of our souls. “This is a passion play,” he says, while speaking about the way the city has mismanaged water. The vision portion of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan is riddled with quotes from authors, philosophers and anthropologists.
Waggonner is from Plain Dealing, Louisiana. He declined to tell me his age, saying only that he was “north of 60.” His passion for the future of New Orleans is infectious, and it’s not limited to water. Waggonner, a Yale-educated architect, is also working on restoring an 1816 French Quarter house as part of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Waggonner stresses that New Orleans is not just about resiliency and recovery, it is growing and building new facets of its identity.
“He’s a fatalistic optimist,” says Davis. “He’s continually looking for things that can make a difference and a role he can play, but he’s always deeply skeptical of whether it will ultimately matter—but it never keeps him from stepping into the ring for the next round.”
New Orleans’s latest working relationship with the Dutch began in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, Dutch ambassador Boudewijn van Eenennaam and senior economist to the Netherlands Dale Morris knocked on Senator Landrieu’s door to offer their services.
“They relayed the tragic story of the flood of 1953,” says Landrieu, “when a large part of the Netherlands was inundated with water from the North Sea.”
Morris and van Eenennaam offered their help and services, flying down to New Orleans in early November 2005. They planned a trip to the Netherlands for January 2006, to show Landrieu, New Orleans politicians and businessmen how the Dutch manage water. Waggonner was one of the businessmen who attended and Landrieu said it was at his urging that she decided to plan the trip to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, Waggonner was inspired by the multi-layered defense system the Dutch have. There is a redundancy to these layers, so the failure of one layer doesn’t result in disaster. “There was Dutch-envy in post-Katrina times,” says Waggonner.
“Many of the Dutch asked, “If this is a water city, where’s the water?”
After returning from the trip, Waggonner says he didn’t feel like enough was being done to emulate the Dutch. New Orleans was focusing on the levees and perimeter protection around the city, but in Waggonner’s eyes the city wasn’t doing enough to make the inside part of the city safe as well. He spoke with his father, a former congressman, about his concerns.
“My father said to me, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
That question, a call to action, stayed with Waggonner.
In the late fall of 2006, Waggonner reached out to Morris, the Dutch embassy’s senior economist, to start planning a way to change the water landscape of New Orleans and make the infrastructure safer.
“David was worried about what happens with the recurrent flooding from the storm and the interaction of overtopping or partial failure of that system, and what that would mean for New Orleans going forward,” says Morris. “He was getting a sense [that] the economic losses from the recurrent nuisance flooding was also going to bleed New Orleans and its economy dry.”
Together, Morris and Waggonner planned the first Dutch Dialogue conference. Waggonner raised money from his friends and the Dutch government provided funds to support flying in experts to lend their knowledge to the conversation. The conferences eventually became a series, which have expanded to other cities with water-management challenges, like Norfolk, Virginia. When the Dutch came to New Orleans, they were surprised to see what the city looked like. Waggonner said many of the Dutch asked, “If this is a water city, where’s the water?”
“New Orleans has these weird canals where you cannot see the water,” says Roelof Stuurman, a Dutch groundwater expert. “The houses are next to the canal and you have this concrete wall. New Orleans is one of the most beautiful cities I know but why can we not see the river? In Amsterdam and Rotterdam we are happy to see the river. The houses in Amsterdam cost more when you see the water.”
The three New Orleans conferences brought together landscape architects, hydrologists, urban planners, economists, politicians, community leaders, and hydraulic and civic engineers. The first conference, in 2008, was an information exchange, the second, in 2008, focused on designing and “reformatting the city” as Waggonner describes it, and the third, in 2010, added more details to the design. The workshops were co-sponsored by Louisiana organizations, Dutch organizations and the American Planning Association.
For Waggonner, New Orleans in 50 years doesn’t look exactly like Amsterdam or Rotterdam, although he credits the latter as being the main source of inspiration for the Urban Water Plan.
“I think New Orleans would be more natural than the Dutch cities,” says Waggonner, in his animated but soft-spoken manner. He sees the future city as a water-garden city but says reverentially, “What does it want to be when it grows up?”
Today, when rain falls in New Orleans—an average of five feet of it annually—it is managed by canals, gutters and high-powered hydraulic pumps. Sometimes the pumps get so overwhelmed that excess stormwater rushes into low spots throughout the concave-shaped city, flowing into neighborhoods like liquid into a bowl. When that happens the water can have difficulty reaching the pumps and can end up sitting for days.
Storing excess water in the landscape relieves pressure from the pumps. It also helps mitigate subsidence, which occurs when groundwater is pumped out of the ground, causing it to dry out and collapse, thus sinking the city further below sea level and creating sinkholes in the streets. Essentially, if you don’t keep the groundwater up, the land goes down. Broken streets are a staple in parts of New Orleans, and are a common complaint of residents in the city.
“Waggonner wants New Orleans to “embrace its own identity” and come to terms with the fact it is a delta city.”
Waggonner recounts Dutch groundwater-expert Stuurman telling him, “Quit sucking the water out of the ground.”
“We’ve forgotten where we are,” says Waggonner. He wants New Orleans to “embrace its own identity” and come to terms with the fact it is a delta city. He would like to see the concrete walls come down from some of the city’s canals. After Katrina, some of these canals, like the 17th Street Canal, were flooded by water from Lake Pontchartrain. Permanent pump stations and storm-surge gates are currently being built where three of these canals meet the lake. In theory, since the canals can now be closed off from the lake, their risk of flooding is significantly reduced. However, Waggonner would have to convince residents in the neighboring areas that they would be safe, which is not an easy feat.
“You better know how to deal with it, but you can’t take it for granted,” Waggonner says, presumably alluding to water but potentially also referring to life. It is difficult to tell sometimes with Waggonner, who loves to use double metaphors.
The Dutch Dialogues raised awareness amongst local politicians and nonprofit organizations about the need for stormwater planning. In 2010, regional economic-development organization Greater New Orleans, Inc. (GNO, Inc.) applied for and received $2.5 million from the State of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development Disaster Recovery Unit to fund the development of an urban-water plan.
Once GNO, Inc. received the funds, it put the project out for competitive bid. The Waggonner & Ball team found itself competing to design a project they had been championing for years.
Members of the team say they were concerned they could lose the bid to a larger, national firm. “It was a prestigious project,” says Morris, “We were worried that somebody else who was better-versed in writing grant applications would win.”
“100,000 people at AECOM were going against our 25-person firm,” says Waggoner, referring to one of the main competitors. He said if someone else had won and planned the urban water management in a way he didn’t feel was right, he wouldn’t have wanted to live in New Orleans.
“And,” he adds, “You don’t coach to lose.”
Lose he did not. In 2011 Waggonner & Ball was awarded the contract and with it, additional credibility. “One of the problems of the Dutch Dialogues was the Sewerage and Water Board and the Army Corps of Engineers would discount it as ‘That’s just something those crazy architects put together’,” says Diaz. Now, he says, the Sewerage and Water Board are advocating for parts of the plan.
Waggonner and his team had always had a vision, now they had a client and a vehicle to work through.
Mac Ball, the co-founder of Waggonner’s architectural firm, made 3-D aerial views of the new dream city. Waggonner & Ball weren’t the only designers of the plan. More than 25 Dutch and Louisiana engineers, urban designers, landscape architects, city planners, and soil and hydrology experts formed the design team that dedicated two years on the plan’s development. In 2015, it won the APA’s National Planning Excellence Award for Environmental Planning.
“Living with water, not fighting water is something that is now part of the mainstream discussion.”
“The great story of New Orleans is that citizens really rose to the challenge and have been adding tremendous intellectual capacity and new knowledge to our community so that we can be a more resilient place,” says Mary Landrieu.
“We are really understanding that in the essence of what we are really, we really are a water city,” says Landrieu. “And David has helped us in realizing that. I think that’s going to be his legacy.”
The question is, will his plan ever fully become a reality? Maybe.
The city has hired its first stormwater manager, Prisca Weems, and chief resilience officer, Jeff Hebert. A new comprehensive zoning ordinance requires that new development and redevelopment retain, detain and filter the first 1.25 inches of stormwater runoff during each rain event. The Sewerage and Water Board has committed $500,000 a year for green-infrastructure pilot projects. “Water literacy” is starting to be taught through a program called Ripple Effect, aimed at educating young children about water.
The Urban Water Plan, unveiled in 2013, proposed seven demonstration projects, including the Mirabeau water garden. The project would use 25 acres of land for “stormwater storage and filtration, environmental education, and athletic fields to support the community.” FEMA has granted the project preliminary funding.
“The concept of subsidence was not a term on the lips of New Orleanians five years ago,” says GNO Inc. executive vice president and chief operation officer Robin Barnes. She talked about the impact Waggonner and his team have had by engaging the community as they designed the plan. “The concept of water as part of our culture—we didn’t used to talk about water except when it rained. Living with water, not fighting water is something that is now part of the mainstream discussion.”
Grassroots organizations have taken up the cause as well. The Greater New Orleans Urban Water Collaborative, for example, has more than 100 individuals working to support aspects of the water plan they want to see become a reality.
The challenge, as it so often does, lies in funding. “Every bit of this costs money,” says Waggonner.
Louisiana has endured a host of post-Katrina issues beyond urban water management, including struggles with public safety, coastal erosion, education, and racial and socioeconomic disparities. “There are a lot of other challenges also being addressed and there’s only so much time and money to go around,” says Morris.
Full implementation of the Urban Water Plan is estimated to cost $6.2 billion. However, GNO, Inc. frames it as an economic-development opportunity. The plan estimates it would secure $22 billion in avoided costs and economic benefits. This includes an estimated $8 billion reduction in flood damages, $2.2 billion reduction in subsidence damages and $609 million insurance-premium reduction. (The plan also estimates a $183 million increase in property values from additional waterfront property, and $11.3 million in regional economic impact because it would, its proponents argue, retain and attract more businesses.)
Tulane’s Mark Davis says, “The water plan is inconvenient. It now tells you something more is possible. It’s affordable, but not cheap. Suddenly responsibility moves from nature to us. How we embrace that or don’t is going to be the final chapter of this story.”
On August 25, the city unveiled its “Resilient New Orleans” strategy, which touched on urban water management as one of its aspirations. “We will implement our regional Urban Water Plan to reduce flood risk, mitigate soil subsidence, and beautify our communities,” reads a section of the executive summary.
Waggonner wants the plan implemented in full. “Anything less is an inadequate response to the problem,” he says.
“Time—we don’t have that long,” says Waggonner. “You have to put your money where your mouth is, you have to green the city, you have to take down the concrete walls.”
He says a former Dutch ambassador used to talk to him about an inscription at the entrance to the old port of Amsterdam, near the stock exchange. It reads, “The cost comes before the benefit.”
When asked if he is impatient about the plan, he says yes. “I am impatient. I am impatient for people to understand what I need to build a street. I’m impatient for belief not just in the plan but belief in each other. This is a challenge for people in a society that’s individualistic,” says Waggonner.
He quotes a lyric from the Rolling Stones:
“You don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus, you just want to see his face.”
As for the future of water management in New Orleans, David Waggonner leans forward and smiles. “At some point, you just want to see its face.”
This feature originally appeared in The Atlantic.