Lessons from Louisiana

Lessons From Louisiana: Learning to Live With Water

There is a well-worn phrase which counsels that “a disaster is a terrible thing to waste.” In post-Katrina New Orleans, Waggonner & Ball began an accelerated course in water management and urban design, learning from and working with an illustrious faculty and cohort of Dutch designers, scientists, and officials. From three Dutch Dialogues in New Orleans through the Greater New Orleans Water Plan, this thinking was applied to place and then translated to the American context. This design-driven inquiry was further advanced through Rebuild by Design, multiple National Disaster Resilience projects, a Water as Leverage project in Chennai, as well as Dutch Dialogues in Virginia, Houston and Charleston, for which these lessons were written.


Value the past and study how people lived here before us. But don’t hold to it so tightly that you can’t adapt.

Adaptation is different in every place. With adaptation, mitigation has impact.

Culture is pivotal.

Topography matters.

Design is a matter of scale. Scale is a question for design. Use the smallest scale that works.

The polymaths were of another era. Today we need teamwork and collaboration.

Learn from others. 300 or 350 years in America is not so long.

Respect and reinforce the inherent patterns.

Landscape is a process that grows and can heal. Trees shelter and protect us.

Nature feeds and rests in its rhythm. We are not separate from it.

Water is essential, our source. The fresher, the better.

Make space for water.

Make water visible. Include it in civic space.

Balance land with water. Value both.

Use mapping and design to inform community.

Meet people where they are. Listen.

Truth and trust are fundamental for consensus.

Get people facing in the same direction.

Action requires alternatives.

People must see another way for themselves, in their terms.

Everyone needs something they can do.

Think three steps ahead, take one.

Learning is mostly by trial and error.

Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do twice.

Failure favors inaction. Convincing ourselves of the status quo and why change is difficult ensures failure.

Performance is beautiful. Value it, measure it, track its impacts. Check your course.

Operation and maintenance are impossible without design, planting, or construction.

Changes to infrastructure take a long time. These investments determine places for generations. Their design is more than engineering.

Be prepared. Disasters are opportunities for those who are. As in war, one can learn a lot in floods. People seek alternatives as well as meaning afterward.

Success will take all generations working together.

Develop an industry that integrates environment and adaptation.

Appreciate those who do the work and nurture them. Pay them.

Educate the children.

Inform everyone.

Even with money, you must organize to implement.

You have to love somewhere and give what you can to it.

Embrace uncertainty. Engage the present.

Featured image courtesy of Waggonner & Ball and H+N+S, Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan.


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