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Do-It-Yourself New Orleans

April 25, 2011

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, a series of ambitious redevelopment plans have emerged and fizzled. These days, the government is taking a more laissez-faire approach.

By Stephanie Grace

Even before Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters were pumped out of New Orleans, the nation’s top urban planners started weighing in on the devastated historic city’s future.

New Orleans’ charismatic vernacular architecture
Photo © Kevin R. Roberts

Retaining the essence of New Orleans’ charismatic vernacular architecture, as seen above, has been a component of many post-Katrina redevelopment initiatives in the city.

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Their motives were generous, but not exclusively so. The August 2005 catastrophe offered the planning community an unprecedented opportunity: Here was a chance to redesign a city from the ground up, in accordance with the most current thinking on livability, walkability, and sustainability. Post-Katrina New Orleans, the theory went, would be a laboratory for testing out big ideas.

Then came the green dots.

The green-dot map, as locals still call it, was a draft plan developed by Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, under guidance from the Urban Land Institute. One of its central tenets was that New Orleans should be rebuilt for a reduced population, with homes and services grouped together, and some areas converted into flood-retaining parks and ponds. Green dots indicated zones that might not get rebuilt (most were low-lying districts prone to severe flooding).

When the map appeared on the front page of the Times-Picayune in January 2006, it incited a furious backlash from people who saw their homes covered by those dreaded dots—written off, they felt, by insensitive out-of-towners and city officials who hadn’t sought their opinions.

Nagin, who was up for re-election that spring, changed tack and decreed that no area would be off-limits from reconstruction, that development would follow the people, not the other way around, and that private property rights would rule. He called himself a “free-market guy,” a philosophy that fit the new public mood, and also a convenient excuse for avoiding painful choices. The green-dot plan was never adopted.

There would be other plans over the years, some written specifically to unlock federal funding, some idealistic visions that the market couldn’t support. Nagin was narrowly re-elected in 2006, and his most specific second-term attempt to guide recovery was a $1.1 billion blueprint identifying 17 key redevelopment zones. Unveiled to tremendous fanfare in 2007 by outspoken recovery director Ed Blakely (who, in 2009, would resign), the plan suffered from a lack of funding and follow-through and quickly dissipated.

Then there was the citizen-driven Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), also from 2007, which outlined various principles—that all neighborhoods have a right to exist and be protected from flooding, for instance, and that citizens should decide their communities’ fate. UNOP carries no official weight, but it has informed much of what has happened in recent years, including the clustering of schools, community centers, and health clinics, and even the insertion of bike lanes along rebuilt roads.

There’s no question that Nagin’s free-market approach has left out many residents. Some have found themselves isolated amid blight, without the choices or information that a more formal plan might have provided. Yet many neighborhoods have thrived in the do-it-yourself environment.

Certain areas have gotten a major boost from outsiders. One such example is a development by Project Home Again, a nonprofit organization established by Barnes & Noble founder and chairman Leonard Riggio. The group didn’t wait for the city’s input. Instead, it started acquiring land in the Gentilly area in 2007 and enlisted local architect John Schackai and his firm, Sustainable Architecture, to design energy-efficient homes in a traditional bungalow style for displaced, moderate-income residents. Riggio’s goal, says executive director Carey Shea, is to “create a community.” It appears he is succeeding: His organization has completed about 70 homes and aims to finish 30 more by this summer.

By the time Nagin’s successor, Mitch Landrieu, took office in 2010, the redevelopment landscape had been set, so the new mayor’s policies have focused more on problem solving than ground-up planning. Nearly six years after Katrina, the results of decentralized decision making can be seen all over the still-recovering city, in empowered neighborhood associations, in independently run charter schools, even on those bike paths.

Steven Bingler, president of the planning and architecture firm Concordia and coordinator of UNOP, argues that the Nagin administration’s laissez-faire approach to redevelopment actually worked out for the best. It allowed more organic planning to flourish, he says, and it “spawned a democratic revolution in New Orleans.”

Stephanie Grace, a political columnist at the Times-Picayune, has written extensively about rebuilding efforts in New Orleans.

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