An article in the Times-Picayune reminds us yet again of change on a waterfront. While I was in New Orleans in early November, the newspaper reported that the New Orleans City Council had approved a zoning change to allow the creation of a new park along the Mississippi River, in a downtown district that has been home to warehouses and railroad yards. Planners envision better facilities for tourists, more public access to the waterfront, open space-all the amenities we associate with former urban industrial areas redeveloped as public spaces.

One interesting aspect of this project, which is adjacent to one of America’s ultimate public spaces, the French Quarter, is that advocates are insisting on a “good neighbor agreement” to protect the interests of local residents and property owners.  Concerns include traffic, noise and-while the Times-Picayune’s article about the new park didn’t focus on it-the sort of public raunchiness anyone who’s been there associates with the French Quarter and its music-and-drinking scene. Just how a “good neighbor agreement” would prevent all the fun and games from spreading more widely than they have already isn’t clear, but at least city officials say they’re taking the problem seriously. One wonders if they’re as concerned about gentrification (always an issue with redevelopment in places where low income people live) and high water.

Anything in New Orleans takes place, of course, against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina and the destruction it wrought four years ago. A lot of the city was submerged; much of the population was displaced and still hasn’t returned; the French Quarter wasn’t damaged only because it’s one of the higher places in town. Today, four years after the fact, evidence of the disaster is still visible in most other parts of town. As the city rebuilds, the fingers of blame continue to point in various directions.

New Orleans exists because in the 1700s, the space it occupies between the winding Mississippi River to the south and Lake Ponchartrain to the north was the highest place to build a port-one that could serve the vast country to the north (the Mississippi valley, the great territory that would become the Louisiana Purchase) and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Like New York, Baltimore or Duluth, it’s one of those “corners” that arose to facilitate maritime commerce-first the fur and timber trades, then all the shipping associated with the U.S. heartland. Just about everything we make, import or export in the middle of this country passes through the port of New Orleans-five hundred million tons of cargo annually, in fact.

Ports are changing, however. The barges, tankers and container ships still run up and down the Mississippi, some of them stopping in New Orleans to load or unload, others heading up river to more distant ports, some embarking for the open sea. Six class-one railroads serve the port, as well as the Interstate highway system. But today’s cargoes are largely containerized, requiring different kinds of shoreside facilities. A lot of crude oil comes through New Orleans to be refined and then piped or barged to other parts of the country. Old-fashioned docks and warehouses downtown, like those in ports everywhere including Maine, sit on land that’s often better suited to other purposes. Hence the new public spaces planned for downtown New Orleans and other places.

But wait, there’s more-replacing the old downtown waterfront with parks (more are planned) won’t address the city’s oldest and most vexing problem, which is of course the river and its propensity to flood the place. New Orleans was underwater in 1927 and 1965, and not all flood-control efforts since have proved positive. Much of Katrina’s damage, in fact, has been blamed on the failure of flood-protection walls and pumps, on an ill-conceived canal connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Intracoastal Waterway, and on the failure to prevent the destruction of cypress swamps and wetlands that once absorbed floods. Moving port facilities away from the historic waterfront (most are already gone), and redeveloping the old port into public space, in other words, still may not answer The Big Easy’s biggest question. And don’t forget: sea levels are rising. In the future, even the legitimate concerns of a new park’s neighbors may not matter much.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.