Cover story: Designing for the Delta

The debate over the future of New Orleans can’t begin and end with the levees. If Hurricane Katrina taught us anything, says Anuradha Mathur, it’s that we need to change the way we look at our landscapes—especially those prone to flooding.

“What if you started to rethink the rebuilding of New Orleans as if there were no levees?”

For about six months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Anuradha Mathur avoided the debates about the future of New Orleans. Instead, she listened.

She listened as some called for the failed New Orleans levees to be rebuilt, bigger and stronger than ever. She listened as others—including Penn Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Bob Giegengack—suggested the entire city be moved elsewhere. But when experts from around the country this fall convened at Penn for a two-day symposium about Katrina, Mathur finally spoke up.

“At the symposium the conversation was, ‘Let’s just rebuild the levees then talk about what to do—how to get the people back,’” says Mathur, an associate professor of landscape architecture who, along with her husband (and visiting professor) Dilip da Cunha, has researched the Mississippi extensively. “We felt the question was more about looking at the whole design regime.”

Mathur and da Cunha, who co-authored a 2001 study of the Mississippi Delta, “Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape,” believe it’s time we reconsider our relationship to “dynamic” landscapes such as those found along the Mississippi. If we can find ways to “negotiate” the dynamism of these areas, we might be able to better endure the storms of the future, says Mathur. “We obviously can’t undo 200 years of design,” Mathur says. “It’s not about abandonment [of previous plans]. It’s about how we actually inhabit the landscape. There are many parts of the world where people don’t have a choice but to inhabit [flood prone areas] and they find ways to invent. We felt compelled to bring the Mississippi back to the conversation.”

Q. What first intrigued you about the Mississippi?

A. We felt the Mississippi was almost symbolic of an attitude toward the landscape. We were fascinated by it as an entity, too, but there was something about the way it was written about, the way it was discussed—that it was this artifact that could be managed and controlled. Always, it was in “battle mode,” also. We felt there was a power and an allure to this landscape which speaks for itself, and cannot just be squeezed into those two lines on a map.

Q. At the Katrina symposium, you called for us to reconsider our relationship to dynamic landscapes. What do you and Dilip mean by that?

A. We felt what was missing in the whole conversation of Katrina—this is where I side with Giegenack—was the whole question about the design of the Mississippi. It’s only when the design or habitation comes into contact with some phenomenon that we call it a disaster. And so I felt we were just asking the wrong question. … . You can’t say, “Let’s dismantle 2,000 miles of levees … and years and years of construction holding that river back.” Our navigation depends on it. Trade depends on it. Prices would go haywire. But on the other hand you just can’t ignore the issue anymore. So what if you started to rethink the rebuilding of New Orleans as if there were no levees? If you had to have this dual approach, where you know there are levees, but your second line of defense starts with building as if you were in a much more fluid terrain?

Q. So what exactly would you like to see done?

A. We feel it really is a moment that we as designers and engineers need to find new modes of living. I can’t give a one-line answer like, “This is what I’d do.” I’m actually doing a study with my students this semester in which we’re exploring this question. How would you re-inhabit the city? How can you bring this idea of sedimentation, which Dr. Giegengack talks about, back into the picture? The difference, I think, is when he discusses it, he’s going back to the way the Delta “should” have been, as if there’s some natural state. I believe as a designer it’s already a designed entity, and you can’t go back. This may sound very basic, but there is a desire to separate, as if, “This is H20 and this is soil.” But then every time it floods that whole equation gets mixed up.

Q. How does the flood management in New Orleans impact other cultures?

A. What I think might be most significant, and what I’ve found in my own work, is that what we’re doing in Mississippi—that language is being passed on to the rest of the world. And I don’t think it works completely. There are a lot of flaws in it. In Bangladesh recently, they are trying to build a “bowl,” just like New Orleans, and they didn’t have a bowl before. The practice of levee-building as flood control moves across the world, even as we’re questioning it here.

Q. It’s shocking that anybody would want to replicate New Orleans.

A. Yes, but that flaw is only being talked about after Katrina. And even now they are talking about reinforcing the bowl. They’re not talking about taking away the bowl. Because once you have a levee, you have to get addicted to the levee.

Q. Speaking of India, tell me about your new book, which is about the Deccan Peninsula and the city of Bangalore.

A. Bangalore is sort of the outsourcing job capital of the world today. It’s a major metropolis. And development in countries like India that have a history of colonialism, it’s very rapid—it’s almost like a flood. We took on the challenge of finding out: How was this city made? How was it inhabited? And where can we go with it today?

Q. What is the city like?

A. Bangalore has actually grown from many seeds, and they’re all being accumulated, so today it’s a city of about 6 million people. People in India describe it as “the garden city of India.” It’s more verdant that other cities, it has a wonderful climate. The young people want to go there, and the old people want to settle there. There’s a lot of IT companies in the world today that are actually there. But because of Bangalore’s success in marketing itself, it’s also like many other cities in India or Asia, and it’s just developing without any thought to the land or the landscape.

Q. So New Orleans and Bangalore, though very different, seem to face the same challenge: Finding a way to develop in a way that nature will allow.

A. We don’t define it as a divide between humans and nature. All design, even in the Mississippi, will always have a human hand. We’re just saying, ‘What kind of attitude toward habitation should we have?’ When people live in the delta of Bangladesh, their hand was in the landscape [but] a key thing is that they negotiated that dynamism rather than controlled it. I think we’re just trying to move out of the “battle” language. It doesn’t work in Iraq and it’s not going to work with these landscapes. You cannot separate soil and water.

Q. So you would like to see us, maybe, accept the presence of water in these areas?

A. I think you can harness it to work for the way we want to live. It’s harnessing it rather than trying to shut it out. The difference is, you build a wall of resistance and the pressure on the other side gets more and more and you keep building the levees higher. It’s on that trajectory. Then why not just change the question and say we’re going to negotiate this fluidity. Which doesn’t mean you live in a less developed way or have to go into some romantically rural attitude, but it has to have a different kind of tenaciousness into how we think of architecture, engineering, structures, the practice of what we do, why we are living there. All of that is up for question.