New Orleans's green dilemma
New Orleans's green dilemma
August 29, 2009
Four years have now passed since Hurricane Katrina made landfall and devastated New Orleans, and the task of rebuilding is slowly gathering pace.
Although we will never know whether climate change was a factor behind the severe weather that battered the city in 2005, it is clear that rising sea levels and warming waters will increase the frequency of Katrina-type storms in the future. So it's not surprising that the reconstruction is being driven by strong environmental considerations. But after numerous delays, and with many of the poor and predominantly African American population still homeless, one gets the troubling sense that those who lost most to the storm may now be becoming pawns in a green agenda.
Global Green, an organization that teamed up with Brad Pitt, is piloting a "green community" in the Holy Cross area of the Lower Ninth Ward, home to some of the city's poorest inhabitants. They say that if 50,000 homes destroyed by Katrina were rebuilt to their standards, over half a million tonnes of CO2 would be eliminated from the atmosphere â€“ the equivalent, they claim, of taking 100,000 cars off the road. New Orleans residents would save $38m to $56m every year. It's hard not to agree with this agenda in principle. A city built below sea level would be stupid not to be persuaded by the idea of carbon-neutral living, which its green homes will showcase to the rest of the US and the wider world.
But the problem with these technologically sophisticated green homes is that in the short term they are very expensive: organisations like Global Green and its offshoot, Make It Right, have been able to subsidise those homes built with private money. But massive subsidies would be needed if the entire city were to be rebuilt on this model. And of even greater concern for residents, these homes also take time: Global Green were on the ground in New Orleans in September 2005, and their first model green home â€“ now open to visitors â€“ wasn't completed until April 2008.
And time is not on the side of those who wish to reclaim their homes in New Orleans. This was made abundantly clear shortly after Katrina when Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission proposed converting large swaths of the city's flood-prone areas â€“ including the Lower Ninth â€“ into green spaces. The response of the city's scattered residents â€“ evacuated to far-flung places all over the US â€“ was to return to pitch tents on the sites of their former homes, and to make themselves human barriers to the bulldozers poised to tear down their neighbourhoods.
The scenes of widespread homelessness that continued for years after Katrina have been largely "solved" not by rebuilding but by people migrating from the streets to the floors of family and friends. Many displaced residents have yet to return to the city. Rebuilding in the Lower Ninth is taking place in the midst of a sea of vacant lots, many of which have yet to be cleared of storm debris.
The fact remains that the city has not yet recovered from its acute shortage of affordable housing, and the situation has been made worse - after Katrina - by the demolition of most of the city's public housing projects. Many of these projects were sitting on prime real estate long eyed up by the tourist industry, and were condemned partly on the grounds that they weren't green enough. This is typical of the way the green agenda, because it has been so widely accepted, has also been hijacked to promote much less worthy interests.
The environmental justice movement's efforts to rebuild sustainable green communities for low-income residents are without doubt to be admired. They have engaged closely with the communities in which they work, ensuring that the new homes do go to former residents in moves designed to mitigate the inevitable gentrification that has shaped much of the city's reconstruction. They have stepped into the gaping breach left by inept governments at the city, state and federal levels, all of which allowed talk of a much reduced and in all likelihood much 'whiter' New Orleans to go on for far too long.
But there needs to be a real conversation about who is responsible for sustainable rebuilding or else the call to build back green can become another excuse for not building back at all.
Global Green's vision â€“ which includes not just green homes but green schools, playgrounds and community centres â€“ surely has to be the future. But it also presents a real dilemma. For it is a vision that sits uneasily in the context of impoverished communities who have been made to pay many times over for the consequences of the exploitation of the earth's natural resources, and which may well pay again for the privilege of becoming a national example of sustainable living. In this sense New Orleans can be seen as a microcosm of the global story about climate change, in which developing nations continue to carry the burden of western affluence.