New Orleans Planning Update: The Unified New Orleans Plan

Disaster recovery expert Robert B. Olshansky reports on the latest planning effort in New Orleans.
Robert Olshansky

For planners, New Orleans continues to be an amazing story. To the casual observer, it has taken a painfully long time to produce and adopt a plan. In reality, much of this time has been necessary, in order to identify issues, engage citizens, sort through extraordinarily complicated political issues, and finally develop a plan that encompasses scores of destroyed neighborhoods and an entire city's broken infrastructure.

Over the past year, New Orleans has gone through several planning efforts, each informing the public in its own way. The Bring New Orleans Back Commission plan, prepared by Wallace Roberts & Todd, presented big ideas, not all of them welcome. A neighborhood planning process, led by planning consultant Paul Lambert, helped residents begin to think of desired futures. The current planning process -- the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) -- builds on these efforts, fills in the gaps, identifies citywide needs and funding sources, addresses flood risk issues, and integrates all the neighborhood planning efforts. In January, the city will deliver this plan to the state, in order to facilitate recovery funding. Rather than being too slow, UNOP is proceeding far faster than human beings were meant to do planning.

UNOP is audacious in both its scope and its absurdly short 4-month time frame. It is being invented as it proceeds, at a pace that is unforgiving of errors (metaphors: Ralph Thayer says it is like "building an airplane while flying it." Steven Bingler says it is like "drinking from a fire hose while using it to put out fires"). Dozens of planners and architects have organized themselves into a structure of thirteen district planning teams, coordinated through a citywide team led by Villavaso & Associates, Henry Consulting, and disaster recovery planner Laurie Johnson. All are proceeding simultaneously, sharing their wisdom as quickly as they can. And, so far, the process seems to be on track. This is news. What excites planners, however, doesn't seem to grab the national news media.

On Saturday, December 2nd, there was a landmark event: UNOP's Community Congress II involved over 2,500 participants in five cities, electronically linked via the magic of America Speaks, a non-profit that uses audio and video technology to connect public hearings in different areas. To a planner, the New Orleans Convention Center was a stunning and historic sight. Imagine one thousand people, at over one hundred tables, generally representing the demographics and neighborhoods of pre-Katrina New Orleans, all actively engaged in planning conversations with fellow residents. Imagine them electronically linked to halls in four other cities, all doing the same thing. They discussed, voted, and created their own ideas. They did this from 9 am to 4 pm, on a Saturday. All they got was a free lunch (some also got a free bus ride or child care). Most participants stayed until the end. This all transpired in a town that supposedly suffers from planning fatigue. I dare you to try this at home.

Community Congress II also had political significance. At the core of the Unified New Orleans Plan is the idea that citizen voices are important, and that the city needs to have a broad and intelligent conversation regarding its choices. People have heard enough political grandstanding, and they are eager to converse. With the success of the Congress, local politicians now have no choice but to support this process. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, for example, led off the Congress ambiguously, but ended the day with a show of support.

But it was not just about process. The substantive elephants in the room are permanent risk reduction and population shrinkage. Over the past month, the consultant teams working throughout the city have tried very hard to broach these delicate subjects, with some (though not always) success. At the Congress, several questions addressed these issues, such as concentrating infrastructure funds in areas of greatest need. Regarding shrinkage of neighborhoods, residents generally felt that homeowners should make their own rebuilding decisions, but most also supported providing financial incentives for people to rebuild near one another. Regarding flooding, citizens gave high support to reducing flood risk, via both financial incentives and standards. To an outsider, these general questions hardly seem a breakthrough. But, in fact, they are. The subjects of risk and shrinkage are now back on the table, and people are willing to engage in these challenging issues thoughtfully and creatively. The next month will tell how far this discussion can go.

Meanwhile, homeowners are working through the Road Home decision process, in which the state will fill the gap between insurance and property value up to $150,000. Owners can decide to use the funds to repair, rebuild, or relocate. More likely, owners will remain undecided for a while, waiting to see what actions the city and their neighbors take. Billions of dollars in insurance settlements are sitting in New Orleans banks, as owners ponder their next move. Thus, although progress is being made, significant uncertainty remains. The same is true of rental housing programs.

Finally, this week saw the welcome news that (a) the Mayor's office will finally be a central player in the recovery planning process, and (b) the recovery implementation office will be run by one of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning's own, Ed Blakely. Ed has a challenging job ahead to organize a disjointed city bureaucracy, collaborate with a City Council that has only recently begun to work with the Mayor, expedite the flow of funds, and repair as much as possible as quickly as possible for an impatient and weary populace. Ed wrote the book on economic development planning, but never has one of our colleagues faced a bigger economic development challenge.

As with my previous reports, it is clear that New Orleans is strongly moving in positive directions, which is quite exciting to see. But, as before, many uncertainties still remain. In this still-turbulent environment, it continues to be difficult to predict what will occur even one week ahead. The long-term success of the planning process rests largely on its ability, over the next month, to make progress on the issue of risk reduction. And the new recovery office is yet to be born, so we can't be sure how it will play out (we are rooting for Ed). Finally, thousands of individuals have yet to decide how to invest billions of dollars. So, as has been true for some time, the mantra of planners in New Orleans continues to be, "We should have a much clearer idea over the next couple of months or so."

Robert B. Olshansky is a Professor and Interim Department Head of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.



The Unified Plan Is Great--Now What??

I too was was at the Unified New Orlean Planning Congress held earlier this month at the Convention Center in the Crescent City. Steve Villavasso a local planner has done a wonderful job organizing the UNIFIED NEW ORLEANS PLAN that indeed has several districts each with its own design firm. It was a moving experience to see so many local residents begin to shape their own destiny.

Villavaso a local planner with a keen mind and solid intellect has indeed headed the Unified Plan which has broken the City into several planning districts--each with its own
design consultants. Some have been lucky to get Andres Duany, others EDSA etc..

I have been a MAVERICK ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CONSULTANT working in one district that feels it has been planned to death. In fact, they seem to put little stock in the plans being developed for their district by a very good firm. These firms have great GIS and graphics capability and present lovely scenarios of what to expect. But people want action now!

I adopted a maverick approach because I run a maverick economic development firm--a boutique firm that is not beholden to any single method of getting something done.

In two weeks we were able to begin implementation(none of which appeared in the Unified Plan) and we did it because we had a bias for action, are lean and offer a creative imperative. The motto was implementation, implementation, implementation. My firm Ecomomic Development Visions (, the mavericks of the economic development world, found that creativity and intellect got things off the dime quickly.

We got the local leaders around the table, got some committments to raise money and we were ready to start. This particular district will eventually benefit from the Unified Plan and the plan presented by their designated expert consultants. However, there was not time to wait for that process to play out. Indeed the new development czar, a long time economic development expert may begin implementation right away. I would urge hime to eschew the bureaucratic "top down" approach and allow each area of New Orleans to shape its own destiny.

I saw it work. I also saw, as I always do when my firm is involved in a project, a bias for action, a desire to break some economic development and planning rules and a desire to make SOMETHING HAPPEN NOW. In the finals analysis we chart a new course...which is exactly what New Orleans needs.

Charles D'Aprix(Chuck D'Aprix)
Economic Development Visions

Risk and Shrinkage on the table

I can promise that risk and shrinkage have never been "off the table" in New Orleans - if they haven't been visible on the formal planning tables, they've been quite present around our kitchen and cafe tables all along.

Witness every poll, survey and questionnaire the UNOP has conducted - comprehensive flood protections have topped every list every time. Not just better levees, not just the level of protection we were alleged to have had before Katrina, but comprehensive systems ranging from safer home design to truly functional pumping stations and flood gates, wetlands protection and restoration, and the closure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. We're also quite aware that our greatest vulnerability is to exactly what befell us in 2005 - an unnatural disaster.

A close second to risk - if you can call it a second, since they operate in tandem in most peoples' minds here - is shrinkage. Since the BNOB raised first raised the fuzzy specter of neighborhood "viability," the wet neighborhoods (and dry-landers interested in the fate of the city as a whole) have not been able to forget shrinkage for a minute. Debate has never ceased, no matter what planning process has been ascendant at the time. Neighborhood association members are acutely interested in the issue in general, as well as the disposition of properties sold to the Road Home in their districts. I'm not sure the sort of shrinkage discussion presented by UNOP at the AmericaSpeaks event harnesses or expands on that debate - I think, in fact that it sets it back.

Throwing up a few slides of a generic, highly abstracted neighborhood with colored squares in various arrangements to represent housing and businesses contributes nothing to the debate. Homes and businesses simply can't be moved around like so many puzzle pieces, as these types of scenarios would seem to have it. I know you know this already as a disaster recovery expert, but without a frank admission of the strategies and costs entailed by forcing or encouraging "clustering," there is just nothing to discuss. What citizens engage on their own is the question of whether their neighborhoods are the ones at risk of being "greenspaced," who will determine that, and how. Where are these clusters for people and businesses to relocate to? Where is the money to restore or build the structures in the clusters, when the Road Home has issued less than 100 grants out of a pool of more than 90,000 applicants, and the average award has been far less than the actual cost to rebuild? Will the Uniform Relocation Act be triggered by forced buy-outs? What is a "comparable replacement dwelling" in the fluctuating post-Katrina real estate market, under new, more costly rebuilding standards? How much would it truly benefit the city to "cluster" when these costs and efforts are factored in? What should happen to any greenspaced land 10 or 20 years from now, if the Army Corps of Engineers measures up this time, and the risk of redeveloping looks more and more worth taking? Will neighborhood groups have any say in what happens to that property? Those would have been a few of the difficult, but substantive issues to present to the public and solicit their responses to.

Although I met some friendly, earnest, thoughtful people around my table at the Community Congress, I shudder to think that the $2.4 million it took to pull off just one such event, to discuss a mere 6 issues presented in incredibly vague, slippery terms is the best we could do with that money. It is still quite unclear how much of the participant-generated content will actually be acted upon, i.e. how much real political significance any of it will really have. There's still tremendous strength to be tapped here, but interest is waning in jumping through any more hoops merely for the sake of what feels like another public participation show.

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