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New Orleans: What’s the Plan?
David Hsu, 7 Sep 06

katrina-new-orleans.jpg Or, to describe the situation more accurately, why isn't there a plan yet for New Orleans? Though we've posted about the great work done over the past year, and on the uneven overall state of recovery, urban planning has not proceeded -- it cannot proceed -- because there are so many unresolved questions about the future of New Orleans. Who gets to plan the new city? Who is being planned for? Can government, or the free market, build something as complex as a city? Meaning, if we rebuild it, will people come back? Or, is the city continuing a historic and inexorable decline?

This post has many more questions than answers, and none of them are intended to be merely rhetorical. As large, vague and unwieldy as these questions are, they're also worth looking at in greater detail, not only because this was an unprecedented catastrophe to befall a modern American city -- only Chicago and San Francisco seem to compare -- but because the situation in New Orleans also raises some hard questions for the practice of urban planning. The rebuilding of New Orleans -- hopefully, for the better -- will be the biggest story of this (my) generation of urban planners, and how we solve (or fail to solve) them now tells us something about the future of urban planning efforts both in New Orleans and elsewhere.

Footprints or Communities?: One of the chief planning questions for the city of New Orleans is the area of the future city, the so-called footprint on a map. How big will the city be? This question has surfaced repeatedly both in terms of physical planning and political reality, as reported in this Times-Picayune article:

[One] vision of the mayor's rebuilding commission [was] to shrink the developed area, the so-called footprint, of a city that now has 235,000 people but was originally developed to cater to a peak population of more than 630,000 in 1960. That idea failed essentially because Mayor Ray Nagin, then in a re-election battle, refused to support shrinking the city, a notion tantamount to political kryptonite in many neighborhoods that feared being bulldozed. Nagin's decision, or lack of one, sparked outrage among urban planners at a national level....
Echoing a point often made by the Urban Land Institute, a prominent planning association that crafted an early rebuilding blueprint, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, said the city has failed a leadership test by refusing to shrink its developed area to match the realities of its shrunken population and flood control issues.... "I'm still looking for political leadership that is going to come clean with citizens and acknowledge that for the foreseeable future, it's going to be a smaller city," [American Planning Association Executive Director] Paul Farmer said.

Although most of the public and media seem to agree that Mayor Nagin has done little since winning a comeback re-election, calls for "leadership" fail to address the social realities that have resulted in the physical shape of the city. Namely, Katrina seemed particularly cruel and unjust, because the storm and subsequent flooding revealed that the low-lying land in New Orleans was extremely vulnerable to flooding; the cheapest land was inhabited largely by the poor; and therefore African-Americans were most vulnerable during the storm because they were most likely to be poor and segregated. The storm made one's race, class, and risk of dying brutally equivalent, and shockingly visible.

So, when planners talk about a smaller footprint, are they really talking about whether not to rebuild the African-American neighborhoods?. If those neighborhoods are not rebuilt, then are they really talking about moving people who are largely dispossessed, poor, and African-American? Does a smaller footprint and a smaller city mean that those people will go elsewhere? Is that in New Orleans, or out of New Orleans? Will those neighborhoods be preserved as communities -- wherever they end up -- or will they be dispersed? And, how will this be discussed? Will it be discussed at all? Which brings me to....

Is it a Just Planning Process?: Can the planning process in New Orleans ever be considered just, if it reflects the previous racial, social, and class divisions of the city? As I've been researching more about the city, I also asked a few friends, who are architects and planners working in and around New Orleans, what things that they felt were missing from the media coverage of the rebuilding effort.

A good friend from New Orleans thought that what I -- and others -- are missing is the culture of government in New Orleans, where people expect the government to do nothing, or if it does anything at all, to do it with no great haste and unprecedented corruption. Another colleague said that what is missing from press accounts is the level of racial distrust, the belief among poor African-American residents of New Orleans that nothing will be done fairly for them. She told me that without going there, one could not witness the legacy of distrust and suspicion among the residents, and how it quite literally colored their perception of the planning process. Finally, another colleague told me that the multiple planning processes are being run in haste, with not enough information being distributed to people, who have nowhere to meet, gather, organize, or communicate.

So, how can this miasma of distrust result in a just planning process.... or, is it just (another) planning process that masks existing power structures?

Is it Rebuilding or Redevelopment? The mayor of New Orleans has steadily maintained that all of the neighborhoods of New Orleans will be rebuilt because of a widespread economic boom and the power of the "free market". Most demographers, planners, developers, and business people, however, believe that the economic prospects for New Orleans are dimmer. Even before the storm, New Orleans already ranked third in poverty concentration, with a declining job and tax base.

Now that unprecedented sums of money are being pumped into New Orleans -- with much of the money going to individual homeowners and businesses -- can anyone predict what will happen to New Orleans? Will increasing amounts of economic activity lead to revitalization of the city, or will rebuilding the physical infrastructure do the trick?

The fairest thing to say, I think, is that we simply don't know what the future holds for New Orleans, because in many ways, we don't really know how to stimulate economic growth at the local level. The mechanics of economic development, whether through trade, technological change, social capital, or endogenous growth, is not well understood in theory or practice, particularly at the local level. We know that economic growth certainly won't occur if there isn't any housing, infrastructure, or insurance. However, the opposite is not necessarily true: we don't know if building any or all of these things are going to result in urban revitalization or economic growth.

So, if we rebuild the city as it was before, will it flourish? Will people return? Or, if we're redeveloping the city, what is our goal?

Why Has the Environmental Dimension Been So Quickly Forgotten? My last post mentioned that several environmental organizations released a report titled "One Year After Katrina: Louisiana Still a Sitting Duck" detailing the failure of the government and planners to address the continued erosion of New Orleans' wetlands that could have, and might still, protect the city from storm surges. However, the Times-Picayune mentioned that:

"Timed to coincide with the media attention on New Orleans as the region marks one year since Katrina made landfall, a news conference on Monday to release [the report] underscored how marginal the issue remains. Panelists from the environmental groups outnumbered reporters, and no national news outlets attended the event at the Jax Brewery in the French Quarter." (Times-Picayune)

It's not as if the phenomenon and consequences of storm surges are not well-understood: even before Katrina, a Scientific American article in 2001 detailed the effects of a hurricane on New Orleans, and many scientists had pointed out the dangers before the storm.

So, what is the role of positivist science in planning for the future, when the alarms are ignored? And, why have people forgotten so quickly the environmental causes of the original destruction?

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Great article in the New Yorker a few weeks back describing in great detail and breadth why nothing is happening in New Orleans. And taking a hard look at the race issue.

"The Lost Year" by Dan Baum

Posted by: Dean Pajevic on 7 Sep 06

In addition to race there is the situation you have when something has been so severly devestated that the shock and chaos of what is left makes it hard for anything to come together.

Posted by: pam on 7 Sep 06

The traditional answer to why disempowered people don't emphasize environmental protection is that they have too many problems of their own to think beyond their own immediate needs. It may be that the ongoing debacle in New Orleans makes it difficult for people to step back and look at yet another enormous problem.

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 7 Sep 06

To add to Pam's comments, coming together in the aftermath was rendered even more difficult by panicky authorities dispersing, by force, any attempt to do so. (I don't think it was sinister, just people who thought they were meant to be in control attempting to exert it over 'looters'. It probably made them feel safer, even if it was at the expense of everyone else!)

I'm referring to an article by Steve Gilliard, which received a fair amount of attention at the time.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 7 Sep 06

I am an outsider to New Orleans (only visited it once for a conference about 8 years ago) so this comment may not be appreciated by natives of that once decadent (now devastated) city. I think that New Orleans should apply to host the next available Summer Olympic Games (are they in 2016, or 2018?). Doing so would provide an excuse/pretext for condemning the lowest lying areas and rebuilding them (at a safe elevation) with parks and world class athletic facilities. This would in my view signal to the business community that the city will be rebuilt in a responsible way. (i.e. so we don't see N.O. slide helplessly underwater again in another 10 or 20 years) It would provide an achievable goal for the city residents as they rebuild and an incentive for businesses to tough out the difficult next couple years as the city rebuilds.
Yes, as a result some people will not be able to rebuild thier homes in the lowest lying areas. While allowing New Orleanians to rebuild below sea-level may make perfect sense to N.O. residents, it makes no sense to me.

Posted by: disdaniel on 7 Sep 06

Peak oil is coming and it’s big brother, peak natural gas, is right behind it.
These are an ugly pair that will slow and maybe even prevent massive construction efforts, unless they are undertaken soon. In any case, such construction will be far more expensive. Then peak oil’s nasty cousin, Global Warming, seems to be revving up the Hurricanes New Orleans is so vulnerable to.

Newsflash: New Orleans is already under sea level! Given peak oil and Global Warming, I am amazed that there is any discussion of restoring New Orleans at all. It’s an opportunity to site these citizens in a more appropriately designed eco-city. "New" New Orleans could then be better prepared for peak oil and gas. Heaven knows they have already suffered enough.

Posted by: David Lankshear on 8 Sep 06

For the view of New Orleanians themselves, click on the video of Sally Ann Roberts given at the one year anniversary interfaith service at St. Louis Cathdral.
You don't get it. That is your loss. We will rebuild because our culture is of great value. The world understands that. Too bad the US does not.

Posted by: doctorj on 8 Sep 06

Thank you!
My homepage | Please visit

Posted by: Justin on 8 Sep 06

Unless you've had your house burn down, or been through a disaster in your home, chances are you are going to underestimate or overlook the emotional aspects of this problem. Standing outside, you look at the devastation and wonder why anyone would want to rebuild there. What if your house burned down? A house you'd lived in since childhood, a place with a lot of emotional value to you. Do you just walk away or do you vow to rebuild?

So, people don't want to walk away from their homes and start over, even if, from an economic perspective, it makes sense to do so. That said, rebuilding in NO is hard. So a year later a lot of people are looking at the place they vowed they would rebuild and they see they might be the only one on the block. In a city whose murder rate has quadrupled (it's twice the count last year, but with half the population and around 1/4 of the homicide squad remaining). In a city with its medical and educational infrastructure gutted. Move back to NO East with an 8 year old child? Are you nuts? Let's say you didn't live in a devastated area, maybe you're an upwardly mobile professional person who left. Do you move back to NO and try to restart a medical career or a legal practice? Better to stay where you are, wherever that is. Wait awhile, maybe it will get better.

So people with skin in the game are getting pulled in many directions--their hearts want what they had before and their heads can see it is not available today, nor tomorrow even. They ain't stupid. So they go slow.

It's not like there's someone in charge, anyway. It's not like there's a general in charge of the "rebuilder's army" that's going to make the hard decisions about what stays and what doesn't and rebuild not just the houses but all of the stuff that goes with making a city possible like hospitals and schools and institutions. That's simply not viable here. We have this democracy thing and the guys who make really hard choices either have the people behind them or they get kicked out and the ugly choices get rescinded.

And short of someone making the hard ugly choice of banning construction in some areas, there's no way to prevent people from rebuilding there. Maybe not this year or next but eventually, they will return. It's just going to take a lot longer than people seemed to think it would.

Posted by: dsgeorge on 8 Sep 06

We should all be praying for all the areas it by any hurricane. I was down in Mississippi and helped a single parent rebuild their home. I wish the mayor would have contacted every church in America and asked each church to help just one family rebuild.

Posted by: Cate on 8 Sep 06

dsgeorge makes a great point about the emotional aspects of rebuilding. When a familiar landscape has been swept away, the immediate impulse on the part of many is to rebuild exactly what was there before to restore a sense of security. I am reminded of the World Trade Center, which before 9/11 was a white elephant which nobody really much liked, but which immediately afterwards became heavily sentimentalized. Giuliani's first response to the disaster was that the towers should be rebuilt exactly as they were. Fortunately the conversation moved on, but the emotional charge surrounding discussions of the site have made it hard to raise some fundamental questions: does the city really needs those millions of square feet of office space in Lower Manhattan, or should much of the site been devoted to needed housing? What is the need for, and who will tenant, the 1776-foot "Freedom Tower?"

Another issue is property ownership. After the 1666 London fire, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, proposals were made to change the layout of streets in the burned areas to improve circulation and create better public spaces; in both instances, the complicated question of how to compensate the owners whose property would become part of the public realm scuttled the schemes.

Creating a more compact New Orleans, which would cluster development on the natural levees and return low-lying areas to wetland, open space, or other non-residential use, has a lot of benefits: It provides greater physical safety for residents, creates a city friendlier walking, biking, and public transit, and lowers the burden of building and maintaining infrastructure for a smaller population. A physically smaller city, however, creates winners and losers among property owners; owners of land in the infill areas would see a big windfall, while owners of land in the low-lying areas would see their property become worthless. It's no wonder that physically shrinking the city has become a political third rail; many folks lacked flood insurance, so the physical property is all they have.

One solution would be to follow the model of Beirut. The old city was made up of many small parcels and buildings, many of which were destroyed in the long Lebanese Civil War. The city administration created a development corporation to rebuild central Beirut in a comprehensive way, and property owners were granted shares in the corporation based on the value of their property. The planners were then able to develop the city to optimize the interests of all shareholders, rather than benefit some property owners at the expense of others.

A New Orleans version might create a number of neighborhood-scale development corporations across the desired footprint area of the city. Property owners with damaged, useless, or underutilized parcels in the infill areas, as well as property owners in the low-lying areas, would be given shares in one or more of these community development corporations, proportional to the previously assessed value of their property. Shareholders could sell their shares if they wanted to move on or rebuild elsewhere. The neighborhood development corporations would partner with the city government to conduct a public planning process that seeks to create vital, livable, equitable, and sustainable neighborhoods regardless of who used to own what. Federal funds for rebuilding and rehousing residents could finance the construction of housing and commercial space, and residents and businesses could become owners in fee, or in condominium ownership, or even in a form of limited-equity ownership where the development corporations continue to hold an interest. The neighborhood development corporations might play a continuing role in economic development, infrastructure maintenance, or public services.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 17 Sep 06



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