Building Resilient Districts

New Orleans’ place-based approach is tackling flood risk and creating jobs

New Orleans is creating a neighborhood model in its Gentilly District that addresses the interrelated risks of flooding and soil subsidence alongside the needs of a vulnerable community. Rather than just installing new water management infrastructure, the project also fosters economic development, empowerment, and social cohesion.

The resilience of a city needs to be built at many scales, ranging from the resilience of its regional economy to the resilience of individuals and families at a household level. Districts serve unique purposes and functions for distinct cultural communities or business or recreational activities.

Districts and neighborhoods have proven to be a critical scale for problem-solving, reinvestment, and innovation in cities. Districts serve unique purposes and functions for distinct cultural communities or for distinct business or recreational activities. The different areas of a city may have different exposures to flooding, fires, and other natural hazards. They are also the scale at which most development occurs, often requiring special area plans. For all of these reasons, the implementation of city-wide Resilience Strategies will often need to be tailored district-by-district, neighborhood-by-neighborhood.

Many 100RC members, such as New Orleans, are already planning on the district scale. A 300-year-old city, home to one of the United States’ most unique cultural traditions and famed for its Mardi Gras celebrations, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, flooding 80% of the city and claiming nearly 1,000 lives. The lessons of the storm directly informed the resilience efforts of the city when it released its Strategy a decade later. As Mayor Mitch Landrieu wrote in that document, “it is safe to say that New Orleans has faced the biggest challenges any American city has ever faced. But New Orleans is a resilient place with resilient people. With resolve, determination, and commitment from the entire nation across public, private, and philanthropic sectors, we not only came back, but we are rebuilding New Orleans better and stronger than before.”

New Orleans, USA

Rather than resisting its changing environment, the city has chosen to embrace it. Laying atop a river, surrounded on three sides by lakes and on the fourth by the Gulf of Mexico, the city has learned that it cannot see water as a force to battle against, but rather one to coexist with as a permanent feature of its urban landscape. In the process, New Orleans has become a model for other cities struggling with water management around the world.

One project that embodies this adaptive approach is the Gentilly Resilience District, a pioneering effort for the city. Launched in 2015 with a US$141M grant from the U.S. federal government, the project will introduce new water management systems across the residential neighborhood. It is designed to reduce flood risk, address soil subsidence and groundwater retention, shore up infrastructure, and foster community revitalization. Gentilly, with about 11,000 households, was chosen as the location for this project because of its low-lying land, multiple vacant lots, and because half of its residents are low- or moderate-income.

The Gentilly Resilience District will pursue four distinct strategies:

  • Community Adaptation — engaging local residents about on-site water storage, storm-water management and home elevation for low- and moderate-income homeowners.
  • Workforce Development — training underemployed individuals to build and maintain Gentilly Resilience District projects.
  • Reliable Energy & Smart Systems — investing in diversified energy programs, energy redundancy at critical infrastructure sites, and a water-monitoring network to better manage subsidence and water quality with comprehensive data.
  • Urban Water Infrastructure — building parks and on-street infrastructure that can accommodate excess water and complement the city’s system of pipes, pumps, and levees.

The Gentilly Resilience District combines many small projects with various approaches to water and land management under these strategies, which, when implemented together, will set a precedent for the city and exemplify the potential of integrating district-wide resilience thinking into city design, planning, and budgeting.

Across the Network: Resilient Districts

Many 100RC member cities are pursuing similar work, developing initiatives and other efforts that focus on a certain district.

  • GLASGOW has selected the north part of its city as a “resilience exemplar” district, where they will implement an integrated resilience planning approach. The communities in this area share several stresses arising from the city’s postindustrial legacy. To address its concerns in an integrated way, the Glasgow North program aims to elevate social resilience by undertaking the development of extensive green space, district heating schemes, and investment in smart technology, as well as risk assessment mapping and capacity building, all through a lens of inclusive growth and equity.
  • GREATER CHRISTCHURCH has devoted an entire goal of its Strategy, “Securing Our Future in Eastern Christchurch,” to specifically addressing the needs of that district. Eastern Christchurch faces “a range of challenging socio-economic issues including poorer educational attainment, below average incomes, higher levels of people on state benefits and poor quality social housing. The 2011 earthquake hit this area the hardest, causing damage so severe that the government had to step in and buy nearly 7,300 homes.” The district is also at risk of inundation from sea level rise and further seismic events. The resilience effort will focus on generating multi-party collaborations which will begin by conducting baseline needs assessments and risk analyses of the area, and progress to developing solutions capable of truly addressing these intertwined challenges and regenerating the district.
  • LOS ANGELES’ river is mostly familiar as a concrete-covered infrastructure project featured in many iconic movie scenes. Designed nearly a century ago for flood control, it has had a corrosive effect on the communal and ecological systems that surround it, causing habitat fragmentation, the erosion of biodiversity, and diminished access to open space and natural resources for the people and animals living along its corridor. The city is now working to revitalize the L.A. River district with a range of interdependent initiatives for environmental restoration that all have social cohesion and equity co-benefits at their core.
  • PITTSBURGH has launched a first-of-its-kind Eco-innovation District, which combines the goals of two existing models for building district-scale resilience in use around the country — the focus on bottom-up planning for sustainability of Eco Districts, and the focus on job growth and economic opportunity of Innovation Districts. The Eco-innovation District will be implemented in the Uptown and Oakland neighborhoods, and represents “an opportunity to identify the ways in which redevelopment can improve the environment, support the needs of existing residents and expand entrepreneurship and job growth.”
  • PORTO ALEGRE has devoted multiple initiatives in its Resilience Strategy to the revitalization of its 4th District. This 892-hectare zone suffers from blight and depressed economic opportunity, and lies in a strategically central location for the city as a whole. The city plans to invest in new technologies, with a focus on attracting a strong health-services sector grounded in advanced ICT-capacities. The city is making these investments in the 4th District in ways which will ensure the productive inclusion of district residents, particularly the poor and vulnerable, and disenfranchised youth.
  • VEJLE is using the area of Fjordbyen as a laboratory for climate change adaptation and flood control, where they will improve water management by exploring innovative and integrated solutions such as retrofitting new public spaces, in order to encourage economic growth while reducing risk. They will specifically highlight the neighborhood of Østbykvarteret as a best practice demonstration of how flood management interventions can have recreational values for their communities, to encourage citizens to embrace the ethos of “living with water.”