A $2.5 million plan could see New Orleans embrace its water resources and help create a new identity similar to the Dutch cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

The Urban Water Plan, developed by local firm Waggoner and Ball in collaboration with a team of international water management experts, addresses groundwater and stormwater as critical factors in shaping a safe, livable, and beautiful city.

Forecasters predict the upcoming hurricane season to be quieter than usual. Though New Orleans is getting back to normal after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there are still areas of Louisiana which yet to be rebuilt.

Planners are not looking short-term however, as they realize how unpredictable hurricanes can be. The Urban Water Plan outlines a 50-year program of systems retrofits and urban design opportunities for achieving a safer and more sustainable balance between ground and water.

Greater New Orleans relies on forced drainage systems to keep dry. This single-purpose approach to stormwater is resource-intensive, yet the city’s streets still flood regularly. This approach is also the primary cause of subsidence in the region and diminishes the value of the area’s waterways and water bodies as public assets.

For a region built on swampland between river and lake, water is remarkably hard to find. Most of the region’s canals and other waterways provide little value as spaces for public life. The water infrastructure that exists today is in many places unsightly and dangerous.

“Water management doesn’t have to look like a wall, a pump or a fence,” Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy told a local radio station.

Amsterdam Canals

Amsterdam Canals

Citing the examples of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the plan highlights how beautiful waterways can define the identity of entire neighbourhoods, spurring development even as they function as part of the drainage systems. In contrast, water in Greater New Orleans is hidden or buried.

The current approach to managing stormwater in New Orleans says that every drop of water that falls must be pumped out.

In place of the existing single-purpose drainage system, the proposed system prioritizes storing and slowing the flow of stormwater over pumping. The result is a city that is rich in water assets and public spaces, characterized by flowing water and buoyant land rather than flooded streets and sinking ground.

In the region’s bowls and lowlands, circulating canals would sustain local habitats and recharge groundwater. During wet weather, they continue to serve as drainage conduits.

Strategic Parklands at key junctures of the integrated living water system contain vast quantities of stormwater during heavy rains and would provide invaluable open space and recreational amenities.

The region’s diverse flora and fauna already store, filter, and grow with water. Integrating these natural processes with mechanical engineering systems enhances the function, beauty, and resilience of the region’s water infrastructure and landscape.

The New Orleans plan would see seven initial demonstration projects, all showcasing a different approach to water management, and could have a major economic impact if fully implemented. Estimates suggest an $8 billion reduction in flood damages could be achieved.