Originally published in Michigan Avenue Magazine
As a young boy, Louisiana native David Waggonner’s philosophy about solving problems and creating resiliency in communities was being shaped as he watched his dad, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1960s and 1970s, deliberate with his colleagues in Congress.
Joe Waggonner, a conservative Democrat, sat on two important congressional committees—the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, which focused on the science behind getting American astronauts into space for the first time; and another—the prestigious House Ways & Means Committee—which is in charge of funding decisions for federal projects.
“Those experiences gave me the belief you can do anything if you put your mind to it,” asserts David Waggonner, a well-respected, New Orleans-based architect now in his sixties and a founding partner at Waggonner & Ball, an architectural firm regarded for its expertise in adaptive reuse and historic preservation. “Using science is big in the resiliency projects I’m working on now, but you also have to have a mechanism to pay for it.”
When young David Waggonner wasn’t in Washington, D.C., surrounded by newsmakers and learning how the wheels of government and power worked, he was back in Bossier Parish in northwest Louisiana, soaking up the values of living close to the land. He spent hours playing in the woods, laying in the grass and splashing around in the water with his friends. He described living amid nature, not separate from it.
Fast forward to 2006. Waggonner is now applying those lessons learned as he plays a pivotal role in the ongoing big fix of New Orleans—the Big Easy—in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the broken levee system soon after the storm to keep water out of the city once again. But some locals—including Waggonner—are working on other aspects of rebuilding the city and region to make it stronger to withstand even more calamitous hurricanes and storms that are expected to occur in the years to come.
In Waggonner’s view, a critical factor to solving future problems was overlooked from the start after Katrina. “Understanding the root of the question about water was completely ignored,” asserts Waggonner, who became a staunch champion of reshaping the conversation about repair and was frustrated by some of the early Band-Aid solutions.
Dutch Dialogues enters the American Lexicon of Disaster
Soon after Katrina, the Dutch Dialogues came to play a critical role in jumpstarting an entirely new conversation and approach: looking at collaboration over water management as the best solution. Waggonner, as well as other key players in the region, maintains that beginning that dialogue process in 2006 ushered in a new way of problem-solving for resiliency in communities that would catch fire across the nation.
Indeed, the Dutch Dialogues initiative in New Orleans got rave reviews among professionals and government officials addressing water disaster issues. Leaders in other storm-hit and flood-vulnerable cities and regions have called on Waggonner and others engaged in the Dutch Dialogues methodology to help them replicate the same process in their locales. In addition, a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.,—called Designing for Disaster—includes a component about the Dutch Dialogues.
When the devastation of New Orleans and the surrounding region from Hurricane Katrina was seen around the world, there was an outpouring of sympathy and aid from near and far. The Dutch, in particular, had more to offer than most other countries.
People living in the Netherlands are surrounded by water in a delta region and have suffered the harsh repercussions of flooding for centuries. They’ve experienced tremendous loss of life, destruction of land and community infrastructure, and massive disruption of economic activity. As a result, the Dutch have learned how to address the constant threat of flooding, death, and economic disaster from water, says Dale Morris, senior economist at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C., and coordinator for Dutch Water Management and Climate Adaptation in the United States.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Dutch began to change the way they looked at water management, notes Morris. “They just couldn’t keep building higher barriers,” says Morris, an American who served in the Netherlands while in the U.S. Air Force and learned the language and culture while he was there. “They figured out how they can live more naturally with the water.”
Through the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Dutch government in early 2006 invited an American delegation, led by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, to visit the Netherlands. There, they would meet with local experts and government officials to learn firsthand how the Dutch developed sophisticated, well-integrated systems that have made them more resilient in responding to the constant threat of potential water-related disasters.
Senator Landrieu assembled a group of state and local officials, and water and planning experts who could benefit the most from those meetings abroad. Waggonner was part of that delegation. “The Dutch are geniuses in urban design and water design,” says Waggonner. “We needed to learn from them how to talk to each other and agree on how to solve our water problem.”
In addition, the Dutch are known for how well they pool money to address water problems because everyone benefits from it. “We don’t know how to do that here,” he notes. By all accounts, the delegation trip was a big hit. “When David came back his eyes were wide open,” recalls Mac Ball, an architect and Waggonner’s longtime partner at the firm. “He said these Dutch guys have to come over and analyze our problem and start a series of dialogues to help us tease out solutions.”
After the trip to the Netherlands, Waggonner was intent on further engaging Dutch experts. He worked closely with Dale Morris at the Dutch Embassy to develop a patented process that was ultimately named “Dutch Dialogues.” They also had lots of input from the American Planning Association, a nonprofit that provides leadership in community development.
“Simply put, the model [of the Dutch Dialogues] brings multiple disciplines together to solve vast resiliency and risk mitigation issues,” explains Morris. “As opposed to working in silos, the dialogues allow people to work across disciplines to work on problems as the climate changes. Those challenges could be about drought, flood, or water supply issues.”
Two separate Dutch Dialogues workshops took place in 2008 over several days that engaged Dutch engineers, urban designers, landscape architects, city planners, and soils/hydrology experts and their Louisiana counterparts. In the first workshop, the parties exchanged information to show each other how they addressed water issues in their separate regions. The second workshop moved the conversation further with recommendations about how to improve the way they deal with water with ideas that haven’t been tried before in Louisiana.