Rebuilding the City of New Orleans: Working Across Sectors to Achieve a Common Goal

author: John E. Fernandez, Department of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: March 25, 2013,   recorded: January 2008,   views: 2463
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It took John Fernandez more than a year just to begin to understand the political players and competing interests in New Orleans, and so it is no surprise to him that coming up with a common goal for rebuilding the city, much less a “resource efficient one,” proves elusive.

Nevertheless, Fernandez and other MIT researchers aspire to make post-Katrina New Orleans a successful case study of a city “becoming green,” perhaps serving as a model for other urban centers, particularly those facing climate change challenges.

Fernandez became deeply involved in New Orleans’ struggle when he was invited to examine the city’s public housing units, most of which had been condemned without inspection. He discovered that the vast majority were either habitable or recoverable. The “decided lack of a civic voice” forced the city’s poorest to abandon their homes, often for FEMA trailers. Now, New Orleans Office of Recovery Management seems to be moving in a more progressive direction, according to Fernandez, looking to rebuild the city in a way that balances the needs of different stake-holders and applies real science to urban design.

Fernandez and his colleagues have developed a software tool to help city policy-makers make informed decisions about approaches to rebuilding. The researchers use material flow analysis, measuring inputs and outputs of material and energy, durability of housing stock, cost data on building types, energy use rates, waste generation rates. They also apply data on population and employment, housing needs and growth priorities. With this tool, New Orleans urban planners can model an entire green city, or target specific neighborhoods. Modeling like this can provide incentives for designers, engineers and home builders to focus on innovations in such areas as water recovery, onsite energy production and home resilience. Fernandez describes a house that rises when water lifts it during dramatic flooding.

Ultimately, Fernandez hopes to “increase urban resource efficiency” in New Orleans and beyond. His tools attempt to make this possible by first precisely verifying how different kinds of buildings reduce carbon emissions, energy use, and construction materials, among other things. While making new, green buildings will have a critical impact on our use of energy, Fernandez notes that the biggest opportunity lies in improving energy use in existing buildings. City governments, as well as academics, must rise to the challenge “in addressing barriers to a green, urban future.”

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