Banking on Success: New Orleans' water plan

November 05, 2015 , By MPC Director Josh Ellis and MPC Research Assistant Becky Clow

Flickr user vxla (CC)

Banking on Success offers insights into other cities' plans to reimagine their rivers and waterfronts. As Great Rivers Chicago works with residents and researches long-term priorities for the Chicago, Calumet and Des Plaines rivers in the city, these case studies offer examples of challenges, successes, and lessons for Chicago.

Water is an important and sometimes challenging component of everyday life in New Orleans, La., which has a population of 384,320. New Orleans is a water city located between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. It’s also surrounded by wetlands and the Gulf of Mexico. The majority of the city sits below sea level and floods often occur due to dated water technology and natural forces. This strained city-wide relationship with water led a regional economic development organization, Greater New Orleans Inc., and a local architectural firm, Waggonner & Ball, to create an impressive comprehensive water plan in 2013 titled Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan.

Nuts and Bolts of the Plan

In 2010 the State of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development Disaster Recovery Unit funded Greater New Orleans, Inc. to develop a sustainable water management plan for New Orleans. From this funding Greater New Orleans, Inc. recruited Waggonner & Ball to develop the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. Traditional water management was failing. Subsidence, removing water from the system, was causing the city to sink and land to shift, and ultimately causing infrastructure to break, hence the adoption of a new mandated sustainable water plan. Water disasters such as Hurricane Katrina combined with regular flooding also reinforced the need for a new water management plan. Waggonner & Ball led the plan committee, composed of local water experts as well as international water experts from the Netherlands, a similarly flood-prone area.

New Orleans is an “island” built on unstable marsh soils surrounded by rivers, lakes and wetlands. The surrounding waters and the below-sea-level elevation often result in natural floods. Traditionally, the City managed water issues with pipes and pumps to remove unwanted excess water from the paved landscape. The removal of water from the unstable marsh soils has resulted in a sinking city. This occurs when the pore spaces in soil naturally filled with water are emptied and slowly collapse reducing the overall soil volume. This process is known as subsidence. Socially, the presence of any water within the city has been seen as a failure of water management because water is often only present during, and therefore negatively associated with, floods. Most of the water systems in New Orleans have been hidden from view by walls and levees, limiting recreation and positive interactions with water systems.

To help alleviate these issues, the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan focuses on integrating accessible naturalized water features into the city to provide both water management and recreational opportunities. The plan aims to create an “integrated living water system” from the ground up by assessing the natural systems, existing infrastructure and the interconnected urban fabric. To help create this “living water system,” the plan committee collaborated with colleges from the Netherlands to create a plan which uses similar water management methods as in the Netherlands. Geographically, the plan focuses on three hydrological basins delineated by district: St. Bernard, Jefferson and Orleans Parishes. The plan concentrates on the even distribution of water across the entire urban and natural ecosystem so that each area is less likely to get overwhelmed by one major storm event and/or flood.           

The plan outlines six major themes, employing a multi-layered, ground-up approach. The plan outlines three problems: flooding, subsidence and wasted water assets, and provides three recommended solutions: slowing stormwater, storing stormwater and using water. Within this integrated water management plan there are cost-effective water management strategies proposed for the region and each major goal and theme listed below.

Live with Water

  • make space for water
  • make water visible on the urban landscape
  • create public spaces around water

Slow and Store Stormwater

  • hold water where it falls
  • slow the flow of water across the landscape
  • store large volumes of rainfall for infiltration and other uses

Circulate and Recharge Surface Water and Groundwater

  • incorporate surface water flows and higher water levels into water management
  • improve water quality
  • improve regional ecological health

Work with Nature

  • integrate natural processes with mechanical systems
  • enhance ecological function, beauty and resilience of regional water infrastructure and landscapes

Design for Adaptation

  • design systems for dynamic conditions
  • support diverse uses, economic development and environmental restoration of water resources

Work Together

  • collaborate across neighborhoods, cultures and political boundaries
  • develop solutions for all scales

Planning Process

This plan builds off of Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan and the existing regional levee system. The state-wide plan and levee system focus on protection from tropical storms by addressing the connectivity of the water network, providing a larger scale starting point for the city plan. In addition, the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan builds on the lessons learned from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina to create a more natural integrated water management plan.

Throughout the planning process many stakeholders, public comments and opinions were observed before and after the creation of the final plan. A diverse array of stakeholders including business and property owners, neighborhood groups, nonprofits, and economic development organizations provided comments at multiple outreach meetings. Technical and design workshops were also held on specific topics such as financing, geomorphology and subsidence to collect expert opinions and ideas from relevant stakeholders. Four community meetings were held in each basin close to the completion of the plan to discuss the findings and the plan recommendations with members of each community. The plan also discusses the importance of continual outreach and communication moving forward to improve the public opinion on water and ensure the successful implementation.

After reviewing the comments and suggestions made by stakeholders and the public, Waggonner & Ball created a set of detailed reports outlining the vision and implementation of the water plan. The set of reports contained a vision report, an urban design report, an implementation report with an action plan, and multiple technical reports about specific topics and projects. The technical reports include system design and analysis reports, demonstration projects, design districts, urban opportunity reports and resources and urban analysis reports. Each report is geared toward a certain group of professionals involved in the implementation of the plan. The final reports were published in 2013.

Generally, the social and political feedback on the water plan ranged from acceptance of the need to drastically change water management, and skepticism at the large size and scope of the plan. Local politicians, including the mayor of New Orleans, favor of the plan because of their knowledge that previous and current water management has not been working and something has to be done about it. Larger bureaucratic departments such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are skeptical of the plan because of the large scale and cost. Socially, the plan requires a city-wide cultural shift from seeing water as a nuisance as it has for most of the city’s history to embracing water as a valuable resource.

The public is also concerned about the large cost of implementing the plan and the potential effect it will have on taxes. To alleviate this concern, the plan outlines various potential funding sources outside the normal tax base. Despite these concerns, the public generally believes that the implementation of a new water plan is needed due to previous issues such as regular flooding and subsidence.

After the Plan

The implementation of plan calls for the creation of a regional water management authority to implement the plan. The regional water management authority will coordinate water initiatives at both system and district levels, conduct research and represent the region’s interests in national and international contexts. The regional water management authority will also secure funding through diverse governmental and non-governmental means. The implementation of the plan will be long-term and spread over multiple generations. The regional water management authority will be vital in coordinating the implementation of the plan throughout the term.

Progress has already been made. A variety of pilot projects have been implemented around the city to test ideas for larger projects. Political moves have also taken place since the release of the plan to make implementation more feasible. One of these moves included the passing of zoning ordinances for land use along the river and lakefront to make them more accessible. Since the release of the plan the city of New Orleans hired its first stormwater manager and resilience officer to work exclusively on water issues and projects. The implementation phase of the water plan will span many years, and this is just the start, as progress will continue with many more projects soon to come.

Lessons for Chicago


  • contained prominent examples of projects and visions from other cities
  • thoroughly explained the unique scientific and environmental water situation in New Orleans
  • acknowledged the cultural importance of water in the city


  • comprised multiple lengthy reports
  • presented little explanation of the planning and outreach process within the lengthy plan

Implementation Strategy

  • presented potential costs, savings and economic, environmental and cultural effects of vision plan
  • presented demonstration projects that cover diverse locations and a variety of projects


  • Long-term plan implementation

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