The recent AIA National Convention in New Orleans provided a venue to assess the past, present, and future of sustainability as a strategy for healthy urban centers.
I gleaned some of the most compelling lessons by looking out over the city from my room on the Hilton’s 29th floor. The landscape between the hotel and the convention center was pockmarked by hard-surfaced parking lots. There were no green barriers and no permeable surfaces to absorb rainwater. I also searched in vain for evidence of green roofs and solar arrays.
The green median of the street that ran by the convention center was not planted with the indigenous live oaks, whose branches would have provided shade. Instead, there was a row of palms in a self-conscious branding gesture that told visitors they had arrived at a subtropical destination. I would have welcomed the shade.
The trolley system was nice, but limited; and I saw few bike lanes and no system of bike rental stations, as you find in Washington, D.C.—a relatively new innovation there, but hugely successful. Of course there was the river, corseted by levees and floodgates, and downstream the various channels cut by the Army Corps of Engineers to facilitate commerce—mainly by the oil and gas industry so essential to the city’s economic well-being, but also a threat.
Walk a few blocks from the Central Business District and there’s another New Orleans. The Warehouse District’s empty buildings are filling up with restaurants, galleries, lofts, and condominiums. New life spills out onto the sidewalks in what was undoubtedly a dead zone not too many years ago.
In the French Quarter and the neighboring Faubourg Marigny, thick walls of the businesses and residences mitigate temperature extremes, large shuttered windows admit air while shading the interior, and ceilings are inordinately high. Behind the façades, there are often cool shaded gardens that, incidentally, absorb rainwater.
The wide avenues and side streets of the Garden District are canopied by live oaks—and accessible by streetcar. The abundance of green space decreases pollution, cools streets and houses, and, sponge-like, soaks up the rain.
For New Orleans and most American cities, the presence of a sustainable past offers a window to a more sustainable future. Recent work by local architects and those who have come to the city in the wake of Katrina provides evidence that these lessons are being learned. Let’s hope they succeed. Not only is it vital to the future of this great city, it’s a strategy for a more livable urban planet.
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President