Four years after Katrina breached the New Orleans levees, the area still has not addressed water management notes Derek Hoeferlin, senior lecturer at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Art at Washington University in St. Louis. Hoeferlin, who has worked extensively on post-Katrina restoration efforts, including working with Dutch engineers on successful coexistence with a sub-water-level landscape, writes that "the city must develop a more nuanced balance between the built environment and what the delta really wants to be: a soggy, sediment-rich landscape."
Hoeferlin contributed "New Orleans Needs a Water Plan" to the St. Louis Dispatch at the end of August decrying the lack of reality-based planning. Instead of working with the water, he points out, Army engineers have tried to overpower it with levees. Keeping the water out is exacerbating subsidence, making things worse not better, he says. A better solution is to work with nature.
"Room for water, at multiple scales—from backyards to public rights-of-ways—must be laced into New Orleans' existing fabric and future construction techniques," he writes.
Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin also touches on the so-often futile human attempts to create permanence when nature will impose its own forces to overcome those attempts. "Wild nature versus human order" is how Kamin summarized the "Perils of Pauline saga of the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory." He was describing the wildfires that marched close by the historic observatory in Los Angeles, which was ultimately saved by a turn in the weather and the fast, hard work of fire fighters.
Looking to the other side of the country—to Manhattan—we see an accomplishment that does indeed seem to have achieved, holistically at least, true permanence. Yes, on the eighth observance of September 11, 2001, the fragile nature of even the most impressive of architectural and engineering marvels is painfully apparent. But if New Orleans is still fighting back after its devastation, could New York City ever be in peril? It doesn't seem possible.
There are a couple of relatively recent resources, searchable on-line, that might help the imagination along that path, though. The first, the Mannahatta Project, was inspired by one person's curiosity over what Henry Hudson saw when he first laid eyes on Manhattan 400 years ago (on September 12, 1609, this month's National Geographic magazine reminds us). Ecologist Eric Sanderson discovered a color print of a detailed British military map of Manhattan drawn circa 1782 during their occupation of the city, National Geographic reports. Matching key landmarks that still exist, such as Trinity Church, allowed him to get a good pin-bar-like alignment and a sense of what the minimally altered topography of the island was in the 18th century. Through extensive research of flora and fauna, and the indigenous population, he meticulously recreated what Hudson might have encountered 173 years before the British map. That interactive information is available on-line. (Take a look, but be prepared to blow as much time as you did the first time you browsed Google Earth.)
The other eye-opener is the History Channel series, Life After People, which is based on the premise that people suddenly disappeared from the planet. It then deconstructs the human-made environment over time. Projecting forward through the same span of nearly four centuries that it took to build Manhattan to where it is today, they surmise, Time Square would once again be the confluence of two streams, made marshy by beaver dams.
But to bring this all back to some kind of point, designing for permanence is a relative concept. And striving for absolute permanence is relatively futile. Designing for a permanent progression of sustainable development over time is much more conceivable, although success in that regard is predicated in designing for inevitable degradation, if not outright destruction, by the forces of nature. In this sense, one is not so much designing with nature as designing as nature: biophilically.
With the end in mind at the outset, and with a great deal of imagination and consideration, the goal of leaving no less behind than you had at the start just might be attainable. If you have a few minutes, watch William McDonough explain the concept he developed with Michael Braungart, which they eloquently termed "Cradle to Cradle."