David Waggonner

Back in January, I gave David Waggonner, an architect out of New Orleans a call. David is highly involved with water management and climate-proofing the city. He works closely with Han Meyer, the professor at TU Delft I met a few weeks ago. I went back to our conversation and typed up the useful and insightful things he said:

SDB: So my plan is really to investigate everything using a visual approach, so trying to draw objects, or people, or different settings that would require me to learn about the different things that are going on surrounding this issue. I’m a visual art minor at Bowdoin, I really want to take advantage of my passion for drawing by using a pen, pencil, or paintbrush to take a look at this issue which really excites me academically.

David Waggonner: I like your proposal to make this visible. Photographs make a record but that’s all most people do. It’s a good idea. There are a lot of people who want to do this now. They just want to go and figure out what it looks like. The only difference is you want to describe it graphically, but you need some insight into what you’re seeing. You also need a practical approach.

SDB: So what’s the future of these cities, what is the future of New Orleans? Is good building, innovation, and design going to do it or does there have to be something else? Is New Orleans still going to be around in 150 years?

DW: That’s a legitimate question. It’s all…it’s all unknown. Nobody knows the rate of deterioration. New Orleans has a levy system…well I don’t know if you know about the stuff we do but…we’re trying to deal with subsidence and water management in the Dutch way. If we manage it with a slowly rising sea then we could sit here for quite a long time, but if the sea level rises 4 or 5 feet…You know Florida is gone.

Is there anything we can do to stem that…? I don’t know. We have to try. I know there are a lot of positive things we can do in terms of climate temperature and we should be doing that. So all you can do is understand is there’s a problem and do everything you can to change that…to offset that.

The Dutch have huge investments; they’re below sea level. They really have a better coastal structure, they have the dunes, and they don’t have storms coming at them that push water over.

But in your life you may see…you know, we don’t even know…what the dislocations might be.

You need to understand that this is going to be your lifetime’s work. You know, a lot of these cities are quite worth saving. Amsterdam is a world treasure. So is New Orleans, maybe not at that level, but it’s a treasure. It’s a wonderful place to live.

Klaus Jacob, a geologist at Columbia is saying that the sea is coming to take back where we are now living. Adaptation strategies are required to lengthen the investments that we have made but we can’t get any change in the political structures like the core of engineers that allow us to do anything about it. It’s tough when your hands are tied. You need to be able to use the possibilities that are there. That’s the difficulty of working in the US rather than the Netherlands…they have some brilliant projects there. For example, the room for the river projects…you need to study those. The Dutch are moving people to allow the river to discharge differently, to let it flood. Those are the strategies that are needed.

It’s not like you can build a gate and hold a whole ocean off of the continents, you know. You can’t really wall off all of New York. That’s not going to work. You can’t wall off Florida. It’s going to be a challenge…so you do everything you can.

I was in Washington on Monday for a presentation at the Dutch Embassy, there was a congressman from Virginia who said that the Climate denial stuff still goes on in Washington. The one part of the government that is not in anyway questioning this, no kind of denial and adapting as quickly as possible, is the Department of Defense. First, their job is national security, which this is absolutely affecting. Secondly, they have many, many assets at sea level and so they are very worried about whatever happens at the naval bases. What the hell are they going to do if the sea rises four feet? They can’t be caught unprepared. Everyday the quantity of petroleum they consume is huge…so they’re trying to reduce that all the time. They are fully engaged in climate adaptation, the American military, even though the government does seem very quick about it at all.

So I don’t know what the future holds.

I know that its not responsible to do less than everything you can.

You can be trying to fight a fire, and you know that you can’t fight the fire but you still have to fight the fire to protect what you can.

It’s not the future its now.

It’s your generation’s work. If you have children it’ll be their work. But it’s my generation’s work as well. We’re trying to do something about it before it’s too late. Design and drawing play a role in this. Because if we cant visualize it then we can’t do anything about it. You know we have to be able to see, right.

You have to make these things visible. There can’t just be policies that people write on paper. You do have to have rules, you do have to have regulations and you do have to have policies. But you can’t motivate people with ‘thou shall and thou shall not.’ You have to let them touch it, think it, let them connect sensibly with it. You want your proposal to, at the end of the day to be useful to other people. You want them to be able to see what you see.

This is a knowledge transfer business.


SDB: If you don’t mind: what do you think about being an Architect. I did the Harvard  GSD career discovery program two summers ago and I worked for a urban planning firm in Chicago last summer and it’s something I’m thinking about. Do you have any advice for me? Or any thoughts?

Architecture is a really good way to think. You get to work with people you like. People in the office are your friends…in the right office. In the bigger offices it’s all systemized with behaviors and hierarchies. Architects by nature tend to be problem solvers, but they also tend to want broader definitions of those problems. I’m enthusiastic about the profession and what it can contribute and how it must contribute I’m less certain that we have an economic basis…you’ve heard that before. I feel blessed to have found my way into Architecture.

Architecture is probably as good an education as a person can get. It teaches you to think broadly, it teaches you to be critical, it teaches that you have to put forward your ideas—and if they’re not any good people are going to have other ones. One problem might have 10 different solutions…those are good things to learn.

Teaches you how to problem solve. There’s future thinking that architects are trained to do, this bettering of places, this almost blind idealism that we have to have to make this project to make it better.

Starchitecture is a hindrance. Hero…doesn’t matter. Need collaboration. Not about 1 architect it’s about many making good buildings together, not signature projects. How many signatures do you need in a city?

These are all interesting questions and ideas and layers of understanding. I would commend the life to you as long as you don’t feel the urge to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

At the time we spoke, I was in the middle of the application process. We take a lot of about my itinerary. Here are some things he said about certain cites:

In Amsterdam and Rotterdam there are lots of people, especially in Rotterdam, which is really the center of all this thinking in the delta cities, the low-lying cities. This is the group that knows the most and is most active in organizing these climate-proofing efforts.

If you go to Hamburg, not far from Rotterdam, you can cover more with less running around and jumping around. They have a whole section of the city that they allow to flood. A very interesting adaptation strategy.

Singapore, of course is an island state with real resources and is doing a lot to try to adapt to climate change. The guy I know is the head of the water institute, the national institute of water.

Jakarta has a huge problem. The issues you they have to talk about are subsidence. When areas are subsiding you have a huge climate change problem on your hands very quickly. On top of that there’s a whole waste issue. That may or not be your area of interest, but it’s certainly a climate question.

Kolkata and Jakarta: you’ll be able to see how poverty comes into play. These cities are a whole different case from Rotterdam and Hamburg. When the toilets are on top of the waterways no wonder nobody wants to be near the water. It’s the garbage. So different from Europe, where there’s one ethnic group and specialized people tackling these problems. When you start to look at overcrowding and poverty on top of it the climate problem, everything becomes so much more complicated.
I would say Rotterdam is the one essential place. Amsterdam is a good contrast. You’ll find out that Rotterdam is a de-watered polder situation where Amsterdam they brought in sand to build it up. Two different approaches to ways you stabilize a city in bad land.

Amsterdam and Rotterdam are the tutorial. But in many ways you’re getting over the best part first.

SDB: Maybe there’s some argument for going there and then coming back at the end.

DW: That would be smart. Then you can consolidate and say that’s why it looks like this. That’s why there are these political implications.

Recently I’ve been having trouble finding some more people to meet and interview, listening to this today left me a little more reassured and self-confident in the work I’ve done so far and happy about the people I’ve been able to meet. He was talking about connections he has in different cities around the world…

DW: It took me years to develop these networks, and of course it does take years to develop networks. These people wont spend weeks with you, but they may let you in to talk to them for a few hours.


3 thoughts on “David Waggonner”

  1. Yikes, what a great portrait. (Haven’t read all the words yet–but good idea to transcribe the conversation.) Well done!!

  2. PS: Have you thought about asking either Hans (or Han?) Meyer or Pier Vellinga to help on the Delta Alliance front? Or are they not in on that?

  3. PPS: Are you sending this blog to the woman who interviewed you for the Watson (can’t remember her name). She would love to see all the GREAT WORK you’re doing, I’m sure.

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