Delta Urbanism and New Orleans: After
September 2005: Public commentary in the form of graffiti, in tones ranging from irony to anger, from mourning to defiance, started appearing even as the Katrina catastrophe unfurled. [Image credit: Richard Campanella]
Three-quarters of New Orleanians, plus nearly all residents of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and some of Jefferson Parish, remained scattered nationwide in the months after the deluge, in what became known as the New Orleans Diaspora.  For the lucky 100,000 or so who returned to unflooded homes, life in the postdiluvian city during that memorable autumn of 2005 proved extraordinary. Citizens realized the history they were living and making, and moved about with a sense of purpose. Citizens worried about their neighbors and established new bonds with former strangers. They learned new lessons about their city’s history, geography, and what exactly happened during the storm — including the scandalous realization of how their flood-protection infrastructure failed them. What appeared to be a case of an overwhelmed system proved in fact to be an under-engineered system, with insufficiently long sheet pilings beneath the floodwalls, excessive organic matter and inconsistent soil texture in levee soils, cursory inspections, and delayed improvements — all in the face of sinking soils, eroding coasts, rising seas and seemingly more powerful storms.
Scientists and policy makers nationwide began to question the wisdom of rebuilding a city so damaged on a deltaic plain so deteriorated. “New Orleans is one of America’s great historic cities, and our emotional response . . . is to rebuild it grander and greater than before,” wrote one geologist in a Boston Globe editorial, which later earned him an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes. “However,” he continued, “this may not be the most rational or scientifically sound response and could lead to even greater human catastrophe and financial loss in the future.” His advice: “Time to move to higher ground.” 
Such talk motivated outraged New Orleanians to engage passionately in defending their city and debating plans for the future. Everyone seemed to become a policy wonk, a disaster expert, an engineer, a geographer, and above all, an urban planner. While full-scale urban abandonment and relocation ranked as unthinkable, many stakeholders embraced the notion of conceding certain low-lying neighborhoods to nature in the interest of creating a more sustainable urban core. “Shrinking the footprint,” as the concept came to be called, quickly became the single most controversial urban planning option on the table. Should the city’s urban footprint, particularly its 20th-century sprawl into low-lying areas adjacent to surge-prone water bodies, be shrunk to keep people out of harm’s way? Or should the entire footprint be restored, on the understanding that everyone had a right to return to their homes and that federal levee failure, not nature, ultimately caused — or more accurately, failed to prevent — the deluge?
2009: Restored house, raised house, razed house, ruined house: Seventh Ward streetscape four years after Hurricane Katrina. [Image credit: Richard Campanella]
That question, and others concerning flood protection, soil contamination, health, education, justice, economic recovery, and coastal restoration, energized public discourse in the autumn of 2005. To address these issues, Mayor C. Ray Nagin formed on September 30 the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, inside what the New York Times described as “the heavily fortified Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, a building surrounded [by] beefy private security guards armed with weapons.”  Committees and subcommittees tackled a range of topics, but it was the footprint question that inspired the most passionate debate. Are they going to close down my neighborhood? Public meetings with capacity crowds and long lines of testifiers indicated how heavily that question weighed on everyone’s mind. The BNOB Commission brought in members of the Urban Land Institute to study the matter, hold a public hearing and issue recommendations. “In a city that has seen a resurgence of civic activism” since Katrina, wrote the Times-Picayune, "more than 200 people attended the [ULI] meeting to voice their opinions about what shape New Orleans should take in the future. The resounding refrain: Learn from our history. Many residents told the 37-member Urban Land Institute panel to use the original footprint of the city — along the Mississippi river and its high ridges — as a guide for land use." 
Those 200 people, however, mostly resided on those same high ridges they recommended for prioritization. Residents of low-lying areas, which mostly flooded, numbered few at the meeting, but nonetheless they managed to engage through their council representatives. Their stance, shared by many in higher areas, was firm: Everyone has a right to return; the entire city will come back; the urban footprint will remain precisely as before the storm.
When the ULI finally issued its recommendations to the BNOB Commission — via a long PowerPoint presentation that was at once wordy and carefully worded — it gently advocated footprint shrinkage through the allocation of recovery resources first to the highest and least-damaged areas, and only later to the depopulated flooded region. The news hit the front page of the Times-Picayune in the form of an intentionally confusing map of three purple-shaded “investment zones,” in which Investment Zone A, despite its optimistic label, was recommended for, at best, delayed rebuilding, and possibly for conversion to green space. 
2006: Citizens contributing to the Unified New Orleans Plan. [Image credit: Richard Campanella, 2006]
The word-smithing and map-smithing fooled no one. “Don’t Write Us Off, Residents Warn; Urban Land Institute Report Takes a Beating,” scowled the Times-Picayune headlines after the recommendations had sunk in. The article continued, "Elected officials and residents . . . responded with skepticism and, at times, outright hostility to a controversial proposal to eliminate their neighborhoods from post-Katrina rebuilding efforts.” Even Mayor Nagin, the newspaper noted, said he was reserving judgment on whether to abandon some of the lowest-lying ground, though he reiterated his intention to ultimately 'rebuild all of New Orleans.'" 
. . . . What ensued, starting in late January 2006, was one of the most remarkable episodes of civic engagement in recent American history. Scores of grassroots neighborhood associations and civic groups formed organically, sans professional expertise and usually with zero funding. Websites went online, email was circulated, impromptu venues were arranged, and signs popped up on once-flooded lawns: “Broadmoor Lives!” “I Am Coming Home!” “I Will Rebuild!” “I Am New Orleans!” One association in the heavily flooded Lake Bullard neighborhood, lacking a decent venue but not an ounce of determination, asked attendees to “bring their own chairs” to the group’s next meeting.  Despite their tenuous life circumstances and other responsibilities, New Orleanians by the thousands joined forces with their neighbors and volunteered to take stock of their communities; to document local history, assets, resources and problems; and to plan solutions for the future.
So many grassroots neighborhood planning groups formed that umbrella associations arose to coordinate them. One, the Neighborhood Partnership Network, listed at least 70 active neighborhood organizations within Orleans Parish alone, while others in poorer areas strove to coalesce.  . . . But ironically, the very recommendations that motivated grassroots associations to form . . . ended up torpedoing the very commission that issued them. Mayor Nagin, embroiled in a nationally watched reelection campaign, rejected the politically volatile advice of his own BNOB Commission. Fatally undermined despite its worthwhile contributions beyond the footprint issue, the commission disbanded unceremoniously. Footprint shrinkage became a radioactive topic among the mayoral candidates; anyone who supported the concept risked losing the votes of tens of thousands of flood victims. Engaged citizens and their representatives had, for better or worse, yelled the footprint debate off the table.
Mayor Nagin cinched reelection in the mayoral campaign, but how the city would look and function remained an open question. Additional planning efforts — by the City Council-sponsored, Miami-based Lambert/Danzey consultants and by the foundation-supported Unified New Orleans Plan — provoked more civic engagement from meeting-weary New Orleanians during late 2006. The UNOP’s “Citywide Strategic Recovery and Rebuilding Plan,” plus numerous district plans, hit the streets in draft form in early 2007, about the same time that Mayor Nagin appointed renowned disaster-recovery expert Dr. Edward Blakely as chief of the city’s Office of Recovery Management. In March 2007, “Recovery Czar” Blakely unveiled yet another plan — indicating 17 “rebuild,” “re-develop,” and “re-new” nodes throughout the city, thus marking spots for intensive infrastructure investment. Blakely’s plan "aimed to encourage commercial investment — and with it stabilize neighborhoods — rather than defining areas that are off-limits to rebuilding. . . ." 
Once again, citizens convened to discuss and debate this latest proposal and how it may or may not relate to the earlier plans. . . . Some wags described the parallel, overlapping and sometimes competing planning efforts as “plandemonium.” Citizens grew cynical, not because of lack of commitment, but because too many soft promises and uncoordinated efforts chased too few of the hard resources and inspired leaders needed for genuine problem solving.
The Lakefront Improvement Project (1926–1934) created 2,000 acres landfill with the goal of buffering the rapidly developing lakeside from storm surges. Today the area features attractive neighborhoods, recreational space, the University of New Orleans (foreground), an airport (upper left), and the mouths Bayou St. John and three outfall canals. [Image credit: Peter Hermens / David Waggonner-Dutch Dialogues, 2009]
Despite the heroic civic engagement demonstrated by thoughtful and intelligent New Orleanians during a busy and stressful era, the postdiluvian plandemonium faces daunting odds of ever bearing fruit. History indicates that in the wake of urban disasters, the most ambitious and revolutionary rebuilding plans suffer the greatest likelihood of failure. Victims of trauma seek normalcy and a return to pretraumatic conditions; the last thing they want is more change. Attempts to instigate radical change after a disaster are viewed by victims as, at best, a misallocation of resources that ought to be going to them — or, at worst, as opportunistic scheming by sinister forces at their expense. Footprint renegotiation represented the most radical plan of all, and despite its compelling logic it suffered resounding defeat.
The defeat stemmed from the fact that Katrina’s flood did not in any way wipe the slate clean. The historical urban layers in the flooded zones — including land title, property value, commercial investments, social networks and personal attachments — were in fact inscribed deeply and survived easily. In the absence of generous and immediate compensation for the loss of prior investments, most flooded homeowners — who understandably worried about tomorrow, not the distant and theoretical future — naturally gravitated to the default option of simply rebuilding in place. Local politicians, unable to guarantee an alternative and fearful of retribution at the polls if they proposed one, heard the “keep the footprint” consensus loud and clear and acted accordingly. Anti-shrinkage advocates cinched their victory by pointedly reminding critics that federal levee failure, not Hurricane Katrina itself, caused — or again, failed to prevent — the flooding. What they ignored was the inconvenient geological truths beyond, and beneath, those breached levees.
In most cases, momentum from the past is good for landscapes and cityscapes. It creates value, generates wealth, and makes places distinctive and interesting. Witness New Orleans’s colorful street names, pedestrian-scale neighborhoods and vast inventory of historical structures. But occasionally that momentum leads a community down a troubled path, in this case toward geological and environmental unsustainability.
The footprint controversy represented a genuine dilemma, with sound arguments and unpleasant consequences on either side. Dilemmas demand decisions — difficult choices — or else they persist and usually worsen. New Orleans’s great footprint debate concluded when officials and society at large decided not to make the difficult choice of urban shrinkage. By 2009, four years after the flood, a population of at most 350,000 occupied a cityscape designed for well over 600,000.
The aftermath of this catastrophe, as often happens, may become the prelude to the next.
Design Observer © 2006-2011 Observer Omnimedia LLC