Move Your City: Ethics, Place and Risk in the Reconstruction of New Orleans

By Graham Owen.

Published by The International Journal of the Constructed Environment

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Article: Electronic $US5.00

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, several influential figures called for serious consideration of whether New Orleans – 80 percent of which was still under water – should be rebuilt. One provocative proposal, by Robert Mittelstaedt and Wellington Reiter, suggested that only the historic districts be maintained, as a “living national park”, and that the rest of the city’s activities and inhabitants be relocated on higher ground to the north or northwest, and much of the city’s footprint returned to water. “Should the nation’s taxpayers ever allow this or any other region at very high flood risk to be rebuilt time-after-time?” The same sentiments were repeated, albeit at the smaller scale of the city itself, in the Urban Land Institute’s plan for reconstruction, of November 2005, and the Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s plan of early 2006: each proposed that those areas worst flooded should be converted to flood-retention parkland, with the returning population reconcentrated on the city’s own higher ground. Both sets of propositions invoked utilitarian calculations: the displacement of the few would be to the greater good of the many. Yet this ethical calculus, evidently so rational to those observing from outside, was fiercely opposed by many who returned. Within the distinct culture of “the city that care forgot”, other ethical models have come into play over the last six years to motivate its reconstruction: the virtue of defiance had to hold sway over the rationale of caution if social and environmental justice were to be realized. This paper examines those ethical models (both explicit and implicit) and their implications for the urban and architectural projects to be founded upon them: what, where, when and how to rebuild, and for whom? At stake is the reconstruction of a unique urban culture, the uniqueness of which is rooted in specificity of place, that which cannot be moved.

Keywords: Ethics of Urban Reconstruction, Urban Culture, Cultural Sustainability, Ethical Sustainability, Ethical Roles of Professions, Design for Risk, Reconstruction and Resilience, Flood Resilience

The International Journal of the Constructed Environment, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp.23-36. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 723.702KB).

Prof. Graham Owen

Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Prof. Owen is an architect teaching in the areas of design, contemporary history and theory, and the ethics of practice. He is editor of Architecture, Ethics and Globalization (Routledge, 2009), in which contributors from sociology, literary theory and philosophy, as well as architectural theory and practice, examine the shifting ground of ethical judgement within the context of globalized practice. He has also published works of history, design and criticism in a number of journals internationally. Prof. Owen has taught and lectured in Canada, the US, Europe, and Africa.