New Orleans: Historical Memory and Urban Design

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New Orleans: Historical Memory and Urban Design

Lecture by Anna Brand and Bryan Wagner for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People.

Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Sharmaine Toh wrote the following reflection on the September 4th lecture given by Anna Brand, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, and Bryan Wagner, Associate Professor of English.

Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. Levees and floodwalls meant to protect New Orleans subsequently failed, rendering most of the city underwater and stranded. Hurricane Katrina is the costliest natural disaster in U.S. History, with $135 billion in damages and almost 1000 lives lost (Plyer, 2016).

During her lecture, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Anna Livia Brand shared about planning praxis and the White Spatial Imaginary, vis-a-vis, racist practices within the housing industry in post-Katrina New Orleans. This resulted in racial segregation in post-Katrina New Orleans. During the redevelopment of New Orleans after Katrina, a general phenomenon in racial geography ensued – the displacement of Black neighbourhoods, thereby enabling white supremacy and privilege. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had the rare opportunity to fix centuries of housing policies that produced extreme racial inequality in the city (Siobhán, 2018). However, it failed to do so.

New Orleans’ opportunity to rebuild with racial and social inclusion was forgone. Instead, neighbourhoods like New Orleans East and Gentilly on lower ground with predominantly black residents before Katrina, saw the number of Black residents increase significantly after the hurricane. The proportion of Black residents living in New Orleans East increased after rents rose drastically in the rest of the city and forced them out. Areas like Bywater, Treme, St. Roch and St. Claude, which were predominantly black before Katrina and on high ground, are now mostly white (Williams, 2016). Areas with a higher proportion of Black residents typically have less access to good neighbourhood schools, affordable housing, public transportation and other opportunities (Williams, 2016). This lack of access to opportunities further exacerbates the racial and social division in New Orleans. Both the government and the private sector are the reason for these trends. Financially at-risk neighbourhoods, majority of which were Black dominated, found it harder to attain loans. Federally-funded home grants were given based on home values, putting Black residents at a disadvantage, hence limiting their ability to rebuild after Katrina (Siobhán, 2018).

Associate Professor of English Bryan Wagner then asked a question during his lecture, “Will New Orleans be able to stand up to another Katrina?” In my opinion, given current trends, the city might be able to better withstand another powerful hurricane physically, but socio-economic favouritism might erode its spirit and history in the face of future natural disasters.

Sara Ahmed, a British-Australian scholar whose area of study includes critical race theory and postcolonialism, once said, “whiteness could be described as an ongoing and unfinished history.” Unfortunately, racial segregation is not unique to New Orleans, but it also continues locally and globally. Perhaps Katrina only revealed an accelerated version of what was always going to happen to New Orleans with its centuries-old discriminatory housing policies. Even well-intentioned federally-funded home grants meant to help residents ended up putting Black residents at a disadvantage. This brings up the question of what other policies from the government can hurt certain groups of people at the expense of helping the majority as well.

Hurricanes are only going to become stronger in the future (Holthaus, 2017). It is ultimately up to governments, communities and neighbourhoods to make a conscious effort to build an inclusive society in the face of higher frequencies of climate change disasters.


Holthaus, E. (2017, September 11). Harvey and Irma aren't natural disasters. They're climate change disasters. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from

Plyer, A. (2016, August 26). Facts for Features: Katrina Impact. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from

Siobhán, M. (2018, April 24). Report reveals New Orleans missed opportunities to solve segregation. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from

Williams, J. (2016, September 03). How it happened, how to fix it: Plan set to combat New Orleans segregation, gentrification. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from