New Orleans: Good Location, Bad Location
By Henk Aay

When it comes to the location of cities, urban geographers like to make a distinction between site and (geographic) situation. Situation refers to the external locational attributes of an urban center, such as its relative location or regional position with reference to other nonlocal places. Site is the location of a place described by its local physical and ecological setting and spatial organization.

The Mississippi River is the gateway to the continental interiorNew Orleans’ geographic situation has been extraordinarily important historically, indispensable for America’s economic development. At the mouth of the Mississippi River system, it has been the commercial and strategic gateway to the continental interior. Political leaders of a growing nation recognized quite early that if New Orleans did not become part of the national territory, the economic development of the interior lands would be severely handicapped. Its control of the mouth of the Mississippi was akin to that of Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. While Quebec City has lost that strategic economic position to the St. Lawrence Seaway for ocean-going vessels and competitive centers farther inland, New Orleans has lost none of its situational advantage.

While New Orleans serves as a market center for Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta, that role is quite small compared with its much larger role of linking the resources and products of the large continental interior with the ocean, and thereby with the rest of the world. A significant portion of export-oriented agricultural goods, resources and industrial products of the continental interior enters the global market by way of the Port of New Orleans, where river barges meet ocean-going vessels.

In the other direction, products from around the world destined for the midcontinent come, via New Orleans, into the Mississippi shipping system. The Port of New Orleans is huge, second only to New York in volume and amount of cargo handled, and New Orleans is far more dependent on its port than the much more economically diverse New York City. Tourism and the port function are the two mainstays of the New Orleans economy. From the point of view of the geographic situation, New Orleans has a terrific location.

The site of New Orleans suffers from a miserable urban location. To take advantage of the geographic situation there had to be a city somewhere at the mouth of the Mississippi. The river has an extensive delta, which, like other deltas (think of the Nile and the Ganges), offers only hardship sites. By contrast, ports such as London and Baltimore — on estuary mouths of rivers — in general enjoy superb sites. Deltas are flood-prone, low-lying wetlands with great ecological assets but only adverse circumstances for building houses, to say nothing of port facilities and skyscrapers.

site of New Orleans - click to enlarge imageThe French chose the specific site quite consciously. They knew that higher, better-drained, flood-free ground would be much better, but the first such site upstream (today’s Baton Rouge) was too far upstream for ocean-going vessels. They chose the site of New Orleans because it was the most convenient to reach from the Gulf of Mexico without going through the delta (Mississippi Sound to Lake Borgne to Lake Pontchartrain into Bayou St. John; see map above).

They sited the nucleus of present-day New Orleans on a natural levee (higher ground formed by the river itself) on the river’s north bank. Cypress wetlands were all around. Once the city expanded beyond the natural levees, the wetlands had to be dewatered to fashion buildable land. This caused the already low-lying land to subside still further to below sea level. A network of artificial levees was constructed to protect new urban developments from Mississippi and hurricane-driven coastal flooding. Such levees prevented the urban delta lands from receiving new sediments, which, in turn, produced even more subsidence. An already insalubrious site became even more at risk from flooding.

The superior geographic situation of New Orleans has brought enduring prosperity to the city and ensured that a miserable site would be utilized and altered for economic purposes. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have again illuminated the disadvantages of the site and the paradox between the situation and the site of the city. The situation of the city is so powerful, however, that the site will be rebuilt and repaired, likely in a more resilient form.

Henk Aay

Henk Aay, professor of geography and environmental studies, specializes in society-environmental relations, urban geography and the history and philosophy of geography. Together with Sander Griffioen (Free University of Amsterdam), he edited Geography and Worldview: A Christian Reconnaissance (University Press of America, 1998). As a geographer, he is keenly interested in the Netherlands and has spent a number of research leaves and Interims in that country. Most recently, he has been working on a funded joint research project examining Christian philosophical underpinnings for the field of geography.