BUSINESS HISTORY REVIEW
An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature. By Craig E. Colten.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. xv + 245 pp. Index, notes, maps,
photographs. Cloth, $39.95. ISBN: 0-807-12977-1.
Reviewed by Ann L. Buttenwieser
I first read An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature on a trip to
New Orleans in May 2005. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the city gleamed between
the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain. I found the book to be an interesting
history, as it approached the development of the city from an environmental perspective.
Hurricane Katrina encouraged me to reread the book in an attempt to understand
better the tragic physical and social devastation visited on New Orleans in September
2005. When read to shed light on this event, An Unnatural Metropolis is very timely.
Craig E. Colten, a professor of geography at Louisiana State University, presents a
historical account of local, state, and, later, federal efforts to create flood control and
sewage systems in New Orleans. Unfortunately, as he shows, this infrastructure was built
in reaction to natural crises, and funding was always problematic.
But this is more than a history of levees and sewers. It is a thorough examination
of such issues as garbage disposal, fresh-water supply, burial practices, and industrial
pollution. Using historic documents and more recent articles and materials, Colten
succeeds in showing that man’s manipulation of the environment of New Orleans over
time has been as important in shaping its landscape as economics and the other factors
that are usually investigated in urban histories.
This book follows a recent spate of historical geographies. Ron Hagelman’s New
Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape (1976; 2nd ed., 2003) is the classic study
of this complicated city. Richard Campanella’s Time and Place in New Orleans: Past
Geographies in the Present Day (2002), Pierce F. Laws’s New Orleans: Th