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Urban Development in New Orleans


“At the start of the 20th century, residency in the area was limited to the natural levee formed along the bank of the Mississippi River” (Colten, 2005, p.317). Then, suddenly, everything changed. The Real Estate Industry in New Orleans had gained the capacity to drain the back-swamp after A. Baldwin Wood invented a heavy duty pump (Lewis, 2003, p. 65-66). “Swamp ‘soils’, however, were not soil at all, but a thin gruel of water and organic material that shrank and settled when the water was removed, and then settled some more. Thus, although the backswamp surface had originally stood at about sea level, pumping caused it to drop considerably below sea level.” (Lewis, 2003, p.66).

This means the the majority of New Orleans’s suburban sprawl, and “most of the recently developed land, is built on muck that is sinking at various rates” (Lewis, 2003, p.77).

Even after drainage, conventional buildings could not be built in the backswamp. “Houses, sidewalks, and streets had a disconcerting habit of sinking – unless sand or other permeable material was brought in to form a foundation pad. For bigger structures, piling had to be driven, often to considerable depths” (Lewis, 2003, p.67). “Subsidence is a nagging and expensive problem everywhere. New houses are commonly built on concrete pads, laid on sand, and undergirded by thirty-foot piles sunk into the mush on four-foot centers and held firm by a process delicately known as ‘skin friction.’ Such heroic tactics add considerably to the cost of building and they prod developers into selling property as quickly as possible, even though it might be wiser to let it settle for a few years. As a result, a new owner often has the enriching prospect of watching yard, driveways and sidewalks sink, while his or her house stands firm, supported by skin friction (when water mains and sewers are sheared away, it gets even more exciting)” (Lewis, 2003, p.81-82).

East Bank Jefferson Parish 1951 and 2008

East Bank Jefferson Parish 1951 and 2008

The Rate of Development

“Since the end of wartime (WWII) building controls in the late 1940’s [through 1975], the metropolitan area has simply exploded into the swamps. Between 1950 and 1975, the built up area of metropolitan New Orleans doubled in size. Because the new additions have been so sudden – and because they are different in population and appearance from the old city – New Orleans has become two cities in the last twenty-five years or so. Within is the compact, old prewar city; around it in all directions is the new exploded tissue of suburbia. Such developments are raising serious questions about the wisdom, much less the safety, of the new New Orleans” (Lewis, 2003, p.76-77; p.81-82).

“With the passage of time, buyers scooped up fragments of property at bargain basement prices and, in the absence of effective zoning, built a rag-tag-and-bobtail assemblage of cheap houses, apartments, and strip commercial buildings, a far cry from the original grandiose scheme. For all that, many middle class blacks in New Orleans’s inner city ghettos saw these ad-hoc developments (such as the 9th Ward) as an opportunity to escape the city’s crime and poverty and establish themselves in new quarters” (Lewis, 2003, p.81).

Flooding and Neighborhoods Below Sea Level

“Typically flooding in New Orleans gradually fills up streets, spills over into yards, and eventually rises into houses. Most homes in the older sections were built with flooding in mind, constructed either on piles a couple of feet above the ground or with utility spaces at ground level and the living areas 5 to 6 feet above the ground  (Colton, 2005, p. 146).

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