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August 8, 2006
Critic’s Notebook
In New Orleans, Each Resident Is Master of Plan to Rebuild

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 3 — Rebuilding a city, it seems, is too important a task to be left to professional planners. At least that’s the message behind a decision to place one of the most daunting urban reconstruction projects in American history in the hands of local residents.

Ever since a botched attempt to develop a comprehensive plan for New Orleans fell apart last winter, city and state officials have been straining to avoid the sticky racial and social questions that are central to any effort to rebuild and recover after Hurricane Katrina.

Their solution, hammered out in July, was to turn the planning process over to a local charity, the Greater New Orleans Foundation. On Aug. 1 the foundation opened a series of public meetings in which groups representing more than 70 neighborhoods would begin selecting the planners to help determine everything from where to place houses to the width of sidewalks.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin has referred to the process as “democracy in action.” And, superficially, it sounds like one of the most stirring grass-roots planning movements imaginable, one that would help preserve the rich heterogeneity that gives the city its vibrant urban character.

Yet this freewheeling approach has shifted attention from the critical and more daunting challenge of reimagining the city’s infrastructure, from levees to freeways to its ecological footprint. It is the failure of that infrastructure, after all, that exposed the inequities that have been eating away at New Orleans for decades.

How and whether these problems are resolved will tell us whether our country is capable of assuring the future of American cities.

Armed with a $3.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation has chosen 15 planning teams who will develop designs for the various neighborhoods. The groups of neighborhood residents, many of them still displaced, met directly with the teams for five hours last Tuesday to get a sense of which ones they may want to work with. (Not surprisingly, the more affluent neighborhoods have been the best organized.)

Eventually the proposals will be woven into a single citywide master plan. What is stunning is the lack of comprehensive guidelines. Basic zoning requirements remain exactly the same as before the storm. In the areas of the city that experienced the worst flooding, the required elevation above sea level for each building follows guidelines set in the mid-1980’s. Proposals to shrink the city’s footprint to bring it into line with ecological realities — global warming, the rising sea level, the need to restore wetlands — were dropped months ago because it implied the elimination of some poor neighborhoods, a politically fraught issue. In the face of all of this, the city’s planning department has been reduced from 24 people to 9 since the storm.

Many residents who have returned have simply taken matters into their own hands. In the Holy Cross area, one of the few sections of the Ninth Ward that was not washed away by the storm, a handful of residents are fashioning street signs by hand because the city has yet to replace any. Across the city, in Lakeview, a group of homeowners have been seeking corporate sponsors and even selling T-shirts to raise money to rebuild a fire station, since they discovered that they cannot take out fire insurance without one.

Steven Bingler, the architect in charge of the planning process, sees this as a genuinely democratic phenomenon. “The planner’s responsibility is not to make the decision,” he said, but “to empower people to make decisions for themselves and their own communities.”

In practice, this could mean that some neighborhoods come back to life as mere hamlets, Mr. Bingler said, in which they may receive a narrower range of services, dispensing with, say, 24-hour fire protection or cable television service. This idiosyncratic approach allows the government to circumvent the racial issues that torpedoed earlier planning proposals, in particular a legitimate suspicion among low-income black residents that any large-scale planning effort would be used to marginalize them.

Encouraging individuals to rebuild on their own terms, house by house, brick by brick, is certainly preferable to embracing the formulaic developer-driven subdivisions that were eating away at the city’s character even before Katrina struck. The process could also prove educational for thousands of people. One of the most refreshing moments recently was seeing community activists interviewing potential planners, who typically meet with government officials behind closed doors. Such a give-and-take could yield a well-informed population, elevating the public debate about architecture and planning issues.

The first problem with this fantasy is the quality of the education. Although the 15 planning teams include committed designers, from local architects like Wayne Troyer and Robert Tannen to Andrés Duany of Miami and Frederic Schwartz of New York, the majority are known for the kind of cookie-cutter visions that have been sapping the vitality of American cities for decades.

More to the point, the teams do not represent a cross-section of current architectural and planning debates. They create the illusion of choice where there is none, denying residents an opportunity to engage the full range of ideas that could spark a new vision for the future of New Orleans.

Worst of all, by planning ad hoc, the city is forfeiting a chance to consider how infrastructure could be used to bind communities — rich and poor, black and white — into a collective whole. It allows residents to retreat back into their old ways and ignore uncomfortable social truths.

Part of this mentality is related to the anti-big-government campaigns that gained momentum in the Reagan era, leaving ever more infrastructure, from parks to phone systems to schools, in the hands of private corporations. But the aversion to broad planning is also based on a neo-liberal belief that it is impossible to build any large-scale urban project without destroying the fine-grained fabric of city neighborhoods.

Both views assume that the humble neighborhood block and the scale of public infrastructure are in direct opposition to each other.

But urban-planning strategies need not be viewed as acts of wanton brutality. The architects Reed Kroloff and Ray Manning, for example, have suggested that tax breaks and equity swaps could be used to encourage homeowners to resettle in denser urban neighborhoods like Tremé, on relatively high ground. Once blighted and crime-ridden, such areas had already begun attracting new residents before the storm because of the quality of their housing stock.

Mr. Kroloff, the dean of the Tulane University School of Architecture, has also raised the intriguing possibility of dismantling a portion of the freeway that now separates part of Tremé from the French Quarter, stitching the two neighborhoods back together and partly righting a wrong from the 1950’s, when the highway’s construction wiped away one of the city’s thriving black commercial strips.

By incorporating a more surgical approach to rebuilding, planners could not only challenge the dangerous cliché that a healthy community and large-scale intervention are at odds, but also help rebuild the fragile trust that was shattered when the levees collapsed.

Of course such progress is only possible in a world where government does not abdicate its responsibility to provide all of its citizens with a measure of protection. The Federal Emergency Management Agency packed up and left long ago. The federal government has yet to significantly raise the level of levee protection. Nor has it committed the money needed to rebuild the coastal wetlands and barrier islands that could absorb the impact of another storm.

As it stands now, the planning process is a cause for both hope and rage. It awakens us to the reality of what Americans are capable of and what our government is not.