Making Space in New Orleans: What living with water teaches about community science

By Raj Pandya, Director, TEX

In the early part of the 20th century, progress in New Orleans looked like transforming marshes into city blocks using engineered drainage.  Neighborhoods that had been plagued by diseases associated with standing water became livable, which was especially good for the poorest residents—usually African American—who lived in the lowest areas of the city. Progress reinforced the wisdom of removing water from the city. This mindset eventually grew into a vast network of underground canals, big enough to drive a bus through, and 124 massive pump stations that pumped water out of the city. The pumps are engineering marvels—a single one is capable of filling an Olympic Pool in under an hour.  

It isn’t perfect, though. The pumps are almost 100 years old and run on 25HZ AC, which requires a special transformer station. Decades of pumping have accelerated the city’s subsidence and destabilized the foundations of the city. Aging infrastructure, combined with rising sea levels and changes in precipitation, ends up resulting in more vulnerability, not less. Vulnerability is especially bad in low-lying areas. As Julia Kumari Drapkin, who put together the tour that kicked off the Fall Meeting week in New Orleans, pointed out, money buys height.

But New Orleans is resilient. It is full of committed, creative people who are reimagining the city as one that lives with water. Instead of removing it as quickly as possible, what about living with water, so water can seep into the ground and help stabilize the city? Less has to be pumped back to the river or lake; the subsidence slows; there is less of the uneven settlement that wreaks havoc on roads, buildings and water pipes; and low-lying neighborhoods are safer and more secure.

On our tour, we heard from a city resident, Destiney, who worked with Julia’s iSeeChange program and used rain gauges, time-lapse cameras, and street art to understand that the rain that fell in her neighborhood exceeded the rain downtown, see how that rainfall translated into flooding and show the extent and impact of that flooding on the corner in front of her house. Julia introduced Scott, a hydrologist working with the National Weather Service, who helped Destiney make sense of the rain data and used the data to improve his own flooding forecasts.

Colleen and Jared, city planners working with New Orleans Resilience Office, showed us a vacant lot that had been transformed to low vegetated hills and valleys that could hold thousands of gallons of water after a storm. It was such a compelling feature that the owners of a new house next door had a picture window installed to overlook the feature. There are literally hundreds of these, all over the city, all marked with signs and an orange bench. Colleen and Jared talked about how working with an ecologist helped them design these features to discourage the growth of invasive, high-maintenance species.

Our last stop was at the newest pumps, only a few weeks away from coming online, that sit on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. Their designer, Dan, described how they work as he showed us around. Most of the time, the pumps are off and water flows by gravity out of the city and into Lake Pontchartrain. In a hurricane, gates go up to prevent the lake form surging back into the city, and the pumps turn on to move water out of the city, over the gates and into the lake. It’s a massive feat of over engineering with diesel backup for onsite power generation and a residence for flood operators that should stay safe in the event of a 100-year flood (a flood that has a one in 100 chance of occurring in any given year).  

On the ride back from the pumps, Mark, an award-winning journalist for the Times Picayune, described the challenges inherent in designing systems in the midst of climate change, because the flooding that used to have a one in 100 chance of happening in any given year might actually be twice or even three times as likely now—and the design specs didn’t reflect that.      

For me, the highlight of the tour was when we visited the site of a convent that had been damaged in Hurricane Katrina, then struck by lightning and burned to the ground a few years later. The sisters donated the site, and Ramiro and Maria, architects on the project, talked about working with soil scientists to measure drainage rates and the decision not to build new structures but to create a park and natural area that would hold and slowly drain the water. Architects who decide against building are practicing an enlightened kind of art with real humility. A jazz metaphor is fitting, from Thelonious Monk: It’s not the notes, but the space between them.

Josh, an ecologist and another scientist on the tour, walked us through a grove of trees on the site. In that quiet space, under a dappled quiet sunlight, Josh spoke softly about the sacred feel of the space. It was striking to see a scientist, who, when offered the opportunity to speak to a group of journalists and other communicators, decided not to just talk about his science, but about a play he had seen, and the generosity of the sisters, and the sacredness of the site.  

Lessons for community science

This trip was the perfect start for a week of activities at AGU focusing on community science because it illustrates something essential about community science: the importance of making space.

In the same way the city is making space for water, and architects are making space for nature, the scientists on the trip made space for others. They spoke the least. As a result, everyone else on the tour talked about science: the architects talked about soils, the city planners about hydrology and ecology, residents talked about rain and the journalist talked about climate change. Success in community science isn’t when you are talking about science, it’s when everyone else is talking about it.

By making space for water, New Orleans is transforming itself from a city that fights water to a city that embraces water, and that transformation is advancing resilience, safety and equity. Understanding and emulating natural systems, with the help of Earth science, has been a key part of that transformation.  Success in community science is not only about new knowledge, its about how that knowledge makes space for new thinking.

Finally, community science makes space to learn. Both of our scientists talked about what they learned—Scott from Destiny’s rain gauge and Josh from the space and a play that had been premiered there. Given the opportunity, they talked less about what they offered, and more about what they got. Community science is also about making space to grow, yourself.

Maybe this isn’t a new idea. Making space is, after all, just a metaphor for offering science with humility, welcoming other kinds of expertise and experience and being open to generating transformative ideas. (It might also include space to fail, come to think of it, but that is a subject for a future blog—and probably a really long one given my skill at failure.)

I hope you find this idea useful in thinking about your own approach to community science. Let me know, please.

mgoodwin editor

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